How did last week’s election turn out?

On September 17, 2019, in an unprecedented election held barely five months after a deadlocked contest at the polls in April, Israelis voted again, only to produce another impasse.

Neither of the two largest parties—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, or the Blue and White Party led by former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz—gained enough seats to form a governing coalition. The two largest competing blocs, together with their likely coalition partners, attained fifty-five and fifty-four seats, respectively. Neither was able to attract additional parties to cross the magic threshold of sixty-one seats in Israel’s 120-seat legislature, the Knesset—the number needed to form even a narrow majority.

Avigdor Lieberman and the party he leads, Yisrael Beitenu, captured eight seats but has so far refused to commit to either bloc, leaving Lieberman a potential kingmaker and Israel with few good options.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, focusing on U.S. foreign policy.
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How was this election different?

Israeli politics are notoriously tumultuous: the average duration of Israeli governments since independence is around twenty-two months. But even by historical standards, the past several months have been a rollercoaster ride. For only the second time in history, in April, the leading candidate—in this case, the sitting prime minister—could not form a government. Nor has Israel ever had two elections in such close proximity.

Looming over this election and the previous one was another complicating first. In February, Israel’s attorney general announced his intention to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, pending a formal hearing that will begin in early October. A final decision on the indictment, and then perhaps a trial, won’t be delivered until the year’s end. According to Israeli law, a prime minister (but not a cabinet official) can continue to serve under indictment until a conviction is rendered.

How did Palestinian voters influence the election results?

 Palestinians citizens of Israel or Israeli Arabs compose roughly 20.9 percent of the population, and they turned out in almost record-high numbers. Unlike in the April election, this time around, Palestinian candidates ran under a Joint List made up of four smaller parties, and they succeeded in gaining thirteen seats. This matches their previous record total in 2015 and makes them the Knesset’s third-largest party.

An Arab party has never formally joined an Israeli governing coalition before, and that’s not likely to happen this time either. Still, the Joint List can have influence. There is a precedent for Arab parties supporting a minority Israeli government from the outside, as occurred in 1992 under then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. The leader of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, has already expressed an interest in heading the opposition in the Knesset if and when a government is formed, something that has never happened before in Israel’s history.

Given the deadlock, what will likely happen next?

 Because Netanyahu’s prospective coalition had one more member (fifty-five seats to fifty-four), Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has tasked him first with forming a government. He has twenty-eight days to do so, and another fourteen days should Rivlin grant an extension. Barring a defection of one of the smaller parties to his solid fifty-five-seat coalition (a scenario in which Lieberman rejoins Likud in a coalition can’t be ruled out), it’s hard to see how Netanyahu can succeed. But no one should count out the country’s longest-governing prime minister in history quite yet.

Assuming he fails, Rivlin can ask Gantz to try, revisit the idea of a unity government between the two (in which Gantz and Netanyahu would serve consecutively as prime minister), or ask a third individual (who must be a member of the Knesset) to try. Given Gantz’s public commitment not to sit with Netanyahu if he’s indicted and their deep differences over who would hold the position first, it’s hard to see how a unity government can be easily formed.

A prolonged impasse would leave open the possibility that a third member of Knesset could be tasked with putting together a coalition—something that seems highly unlikely now. More likely, if neither of the frontrunners can form a government, there would be a third election, an outcome that the Israeli president and most voters want to avoid. That would lead to an Israeli brand of constitutional crisis, even though the country lacks a formal written constitution. And that election may turn on who party elites and the public believe has been most responsible for the ongoing deadlock and also on whether or not Netanyahu is formally indicted, goes to trail, or cuts a plea agreement.

Under the circumstances, even with all its limitations, a national unity government would be the least bad outcome, unless Likud pushes out Netanyahu for fear that he is jeopardizing their chances of gaining or sharing power. It would be Israel’s seventh such government: the longest one lasted four years, while the shortest one held on for only a year plus. National unity governments work best in the face of national emergencies, or to focus on a specific challenge such as the one Israel faced in 1984 with hyperinflation. The downsides are obvious. How can any government create real consensus when it’s composed of parties whose views diverge, at times fundamentally? Yet it is intriguing to note that on many issues, particularly in the national security domain, Likud and the Blue and White’s positions are not all that dissimilar.

The September do-over election—unless it leads to yet another ballot—could prove to be an important inflection point in Israeli politics. Netanyahu has now dominated the country’s political stage for more than a decade. He’s been an effective prime minister in certain respects, but also a deeply polarizing figure. He has foreclosed even the possibility of any openings with Palestinians and has threatened the rule of law, minority rights, and good governance.

If a unity government is formed without Netanyahu, Israel will be able to at least prevent worse things from happening and perhaps expand its options. If that happens, there would be no annexation of the Jordan Valley or major settlement blocs. There would be no efforts to undermine Israel’s political system by manipulating the Knesset to pass immunity laws, or erode the Supreme Court’s ability to check an ambitious prime minister’s attempts to place himself above the law.

There are no quick fixes or transformations around the corner. Sadly, from the look of things, Israel is in for a tumultuous ride with little time and space to catch its breath and elect a government capable of tackling some of the key challenges that will shape its future.