JERUSALEM – The third round of elections in Israel did not solve the political impasse, and forming a new government, let alone a stable government, remains a very difficult mission. Netanyahu and the Likud Party gained power and had an impressive achievement, but fell short of winning. The Blue and White Party and the bloc of anti-Netanyahu Zionist parties suffered a loss of five seats in the Knesset, but are still strong enough to deny Netanyahu the ability to form a government. It seems the only clear victor was the United Arab Joint List, which gained two more seats (now up to 15).
Some new lessons can be learned from the elections results and from the behavior of the main players after the results were known.
Within the Jewish Zionist population, a clear majority (58 out of 105 members of Knesset, or 55 percent) support Netanyahu as future Prime Minister in spite of the three indictments against him. It seems that they identify with the right-wing ideology; consider Netanyahu a much better fit to lead than Gantz; are committed emotionally to the parties that constitute his bloc; and question the severity of the accusations against him.
Many more (Israel Beytenu voters and at least some of Blue and White voters) are uncomfortable with or oppose a government that will be based on any sort of support from the anti-Zionist Joint List. This does not seem to deter the leadership of Blue and White from seriously exploring this option and preferring it over the alternatives.
The hatred of Blue and White leadership and many of its voters, as well as the hatred of Israel, Beytenu leadership towards Netanyahu personally and toward some of its supporters, is so deep that they are willing to ignore their commitment not to cooperate in any way with the Joint List and form a government based on its support. Such government will most probably last only for a short time, and its only task will be to pass a law that will prevent Netanyahu from being a candidate for the premiership in future elections.
The Joint List has gained considerable strength thanks to the rise in the voting percentage of Arab Israelis. This solidifies their status as the group without which Benny Gantz cannot form a government, and hence raises their ability to condition their support on accepting their demands – some of which may be very problematic from the point of view of the majority of the Jewish and Zionist citizens.
At the end of the day, right-leaning ideology has a vast majority in the Knesset (68 members at the least), but the no ideology “just not Bibi” message is more relevant to many of the elected members. Showing unique candor, MK Ofer Shelah from Blue and White said after the elections that now it is time for Blue and White to adopt an alternative content and substance to that of Netanyahu, because “Just not Bibi” is not enough to bring Netanyahu down.
Even after this election, it remains hard to assess which of the following options may materialize: a fourth round of elections in spite of everybody’s reluctance to end up with it; a Gantz government with the Joint List support that may lead to further escalation in the relations between the pro-Netanyahu and the anti-Netanyahu blocs; and the most remote option of a rotation-based unity government. More and more voices are calling upon the leaders to understand that the public’s desire for the politicians to overcome their mutual disdain and form a unity government. But it seems that both, and especially Gantz, remain deaf to these voices.
Gantz’s appeal to the Joint List is not just a lesson in how unreliable his promises before the elections were, but a re-examination of the nature of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. On the one hand, from a democratic point of view, it is perfectly acceptable to count the Joint List votes in forming a government (and definitely the Arab citizens should be equal in every civil form), but on the other hand, Israel was established not in order to be a beacon of democracy (which it is) but in order to afford the Jewish people the opportunity to have a nation of its own in its ancestral homeland where it can feel safe and prosper. This cannot be guaranteed without a Jewish majority and without a government that is based on a Jewish-Zionist majority. The Jewish and the democratic identities are both crucial, but the Jewishness is superior when they collide, because this was the purpose for which the state was established. We have to wait and see if Gantz, Lapid and Yaalon also think this way.
The broad set of challenges Israel faces are not waiting: there’s the coronavirus; Palestinian and Iranian security threats; the de-legitimization campaign; and economic problems.
Israel needs a functioning government, and it seems that the only way to have one is by forming a unity government.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is an Israeli intelligence and security expert. Formerly, Kuperwasser served as the head of the research division in the Israel Defence Force Military Intelligence division and Director General of the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs.