The one thing we know for sure about last week’s Knesset elections is that, at least as of press time, no one knows the final configuration of Israel’s next governing coalition. But that doesn’t stop anyone from prognosticating about it in reaction to an Israeli electorate that has created a virtual reprise of last April’s political deadlock that prompted the second round of voting.
The three leading vote getters were the centrist Blue and White party, led by former IDF Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz, with 33 seats, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud party with 31 seats, and the Arab Alliance’s Joint List, representing the political parties of Israel’s Arab citizens, which surged to 13 seats. And then there is Avigdor Lieberman’s rightward leaning Yisrael Beiteinu – the secular, largely Russian party, which won eight seats, and whose refusal to join a governing coalition that included haredi parties forced last week’s re-vote.
Initial predictions crowned Lieberman as the likely “kingmaker” in the coalition building sweepstakes, since neither Netanyahu nor Gantz appeared able to form a governing coalition without Yisrael Beiteinu’s support. And so Lieberman’s demand for a national unity government — composed of Likud, Blue and White and Yisrael Beiteinu, and excluding the religious parties — presented a potentially attractive solution. But what role would Netanyahu play in such a power-sharing arrangement?
Netanyahu’s future is both cloudy and controversial, with some members of the intended unity coalition refusing to join a Netanyahu-led government, others insisting that they would only join if Netanyahu leads and still others favoring some form of shared leadership. Then came the Joint List’s endorsement of Gantz over Netanyahu for the prime minister position — giving Gantz the first chance to form a new government — even though the Arab Alliance has made clear that it will not join a Gantz-led coalition.
So what’s next? We probably won’t know for several weeks, as the government formation and coalition-building process plays out under the supervision of Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin. But two things seem clear: No one wants another deadlock, which could lead to yet a third round of voting, and the decision regarding Netanyahu’s role in the next governing coalition will be outcome determinative.
While there could be some surprises that could change the focus from Netanyahu to the more traditional sausage-making exercise of coalition building, that doesn’t seem likely. But, if some quick resolution to Netanyahu’s corruption charges is reached, or if the haredi parties accept Lieberman’s conditional offer for them to join a Netanyahu-led coalition by agreeing to Lieberman’s list of policy demands, the whole unity government effort would likely dissolve. That said, no one puts much hope in either thing happening.
Instead, the creativity of Israel’s political wizards will continue to be tested as they search for a solution that serves the best interests of the State of Israel. We await that result. JT