Benjamin Sobel, an intern in APCO’s Tel Aviv office, also contributed to this analysis.
Following two failed attempts to form a government, Israelis went to the polls again on March 2, 2020, for an unprecedented third time in less than a year. The election cycle played out in the backdrop of legal procedures against incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was indicted in November 2019 on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. Ahead of the elections, he withdrew a bid for parliamentary immunity from prosecution amid a lack of support from fellow parliamentarians. The election campaign leading up to March crystallized as a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership and his ability to lead the country while under indictment, potentially at the expense of policy issues such as security, the cost of living, healthcare, education, transportation and secular-religious affairs.
Despite increasing cynicism about the year-long political gridlock and a particularly negative campaign, voter turnout reached 71%—up from 69.8% in September and the highest since 1999. It is clear that the general public was driven to see an end to Israel’s political gridlock.
The initial results of this election differed from those in September in several ways. Most significantly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party rebounded from its subpar performance in September to once again become the largest party. With the most votes for a single party—about 29%—Likud is projected to secure 36 seats in the 120-member Knesset—four seats more than the 32 and 35 seats it won in September and April 2019, respectively. Together, with its allies from the religious-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, the Likud right-wing bloc is expected to finish with a total of 58 seats, three seats short of the 61 needed to form a majority government.
The centrist Blue and White party, led by Benny Gantz, performed below expectations. As the largest party after the September election, with 33 seats, Blue and White is projected to retain that number and become the second-largest party in the new Knesset. Potential allies among the left-wing camp also underperformed, with the trifecta of Labor-Gesher-Meretz slated to win only seven seats—down from the 10 seats they collectively held in September.
Historic gains were made by the Join List, an alliance of four parties representing the Arab- Israeli minority. The party is predicted to secure 15 seats—up from 13 seats in September—and will once again serve as the third-largest party in the Knesset. Finally, the secular-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party—once a former coalition partner of Netanyahu but now a sharp critic of his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties—is projected to win seven seats, a drop from its eight-seat showing in September.
- Netanyahu rebounds, but is it too little and too late?: The strong performance of Netanyahu’s Likud can be attributed to an energized voter base that came out in larger numbers, drawn to the Israeli premier’s image as the indispensable statesman who keeps Israel strong on the world stage and prosperous at home. Voters of this persuasion either saw Israel’s perceived diplomatic and economic achievements under Netanyahu as outweighing the corruption charges against him or saw the charges as politically-motivated and sectarian in nature.
By withdrawing his request to the Knesset for immunity in late January, Netanyahu also attempted to remove his upcoming criminal trial from the public consciousness, pivoting to showcase his statesmanship and strong relationships with foreign leaders. During the elections season, Netanyahu sharpened this image through diplomatic endeavors such as President Trump’s “Deal of the Century” peace plan—which largely aligned with the Israeli prime minister’s worldview—and hosting the largest-ever gathering of global leaders in Jerusalem for a Holocaust remembrance forum. Netanyahu further capitalized on the political windfalls of the Trump proposal, campaigning on the annexation of Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley.
Yet the election gains may not be enough to ensure outright victory. Netanyahu will become the first prime minister to govern while on trial, once the proceedings begin on March 17. Without an absolute parliamentary majority, Netanyahu must bring outsiders into his coalition—an effort that will likely be hindered by his status as a criminal defendant. Practically, Netanyahu’s efficacy as a head of state could be called into question with the repeated distraction of needing to appear in court. In sum, the continuation of the “Netanyahu Era” remains an open question.
- Blue and White Fails to Gain Momentum from September Gains: In seeking to foil Netanyahu, Blue and White’s campaign promoted Benny Gantz as a competent and scandal-free challenger. In the process, they downplayed the party’s other leaders and their qualifications—two of them, like Gantz, experienced former commanders of the Israel Defense Forces, and another, a veteran Knesset member and cabinet minister. Despite becoming the face of the party, Gantz spent much of the campaign on the back foot, responding to personal attacks and failing to launch a successful counter-offensive. While Netanyahu took center stage at international gatherings with world leaders and issued firm proclamations of his intended policy, Gantz appeared aloof and issued only generalized statements, seen by many as indecisive and lacking conviction.
Moreover, the Blue and White campaign largely focused on the necessity of removing Netanyahu— likening him to an aspiring dictator and referencing similarities between the Israeli prime minister and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—a message that did not resonate with the electorate. At the same time, the party largely sidestepped discourse on its core platform and its vision of Israel’s future. Many analysts predict that with their reversal of fortune, Blue and White may struggle to maintain the internal cohesion of its three factions and the diverse individual personalities. In the near-term, some of them are likely to be approached by Likud with enticements—senior ministerial roles—to jump camps and help form a Likud-led coalition.
- Arab Participation Continues to Strengthen: Turnout among the Arab minority, which accounts for about 21% of Israel’s population, was at 65%, above the 60% turnout in September 2019 and 49% in April 2019. This record number indicates that the Arab-Israeli minority was increasingly willing to engage with the political system and demand representation within it, as many in the community are at odds with the country’s national identity, among other issues.
The turnout was likely bolstered by widespread agitation over President Trump’s peace plan, which included a clause suggesting that several Arab towns in northern Israel could be transferred by consent to the Palestinian Authority—a move the residents overwhelmingly reject. The trend suggests that Arab Israelis are deepening their engagement with the national political system and maximining their electoral potential. In turn, the community’s concerns over employment, infrastructure, education and other day-to-day issues will increasingly appear higher on the national agenda.
- The Israeli left continues its decline: Israel’s left-wing camp continued its decline, a significant hit for the bloc that completely dominated the political system in Israel’s first three decades. The uniting of the left-wing parties—Labor, itself having merged with the centrist Gesher in the September elections, and Meretz—on a joint list highlighted their sense of vulnerability over not crossing the 3.25% electoral threshold. As past champions of the peace process with the Palestinians, the left’s decline illustrates the onward minimization of the Palestinian issue as a factor in Israeli politics and voters’ considerations.
Next steps and coalition scenarios
A total of eight parties are slated to enter the Knesset, a decline from the nine parties that secured seats in the September 2019 elections. Each party will submit its recommendations for a prime minister to President Reuven Rivlin, who will assign the Member of Knesset (MK) that he discerns has the best chance of assembling Israel’s next government—traditionally the head of the party with the most seats, though in practice this has not always been the case. From the time that President Rivlin assigns the mandate, the designated prime minister will have 28 days to attempt to form a coalition, with the possibility of a 14-day extension—something that likely could be sought, as the Passover holiday occurs between April 8-15. In parallel to the coalition talks, the 120 members of the Twenty-Third Knesset will be officially sworn in on March 16.
Given the apparent lack of a clear 61-seat majority for either of the two main blocs, it appears that the post-election negotiations process will be lengthy and complex. The fatigue from three successive and inconclusive elections, along with the concerns over Israel’s diplomatic and business reputation from the political deadlock, suggest that President Rivlin and the parties will make efforts to ensure that Israel does not head to a fourth round of elections within a year and a half. In addition, the imminent start of Netanyahu’s criminal trial will have an impact on the trajectory of coalition talks and a potential agreement. The prime minister will first need to appear in court on March 17, an event he will unlikely be able to postpone even during coalition negotiations.
To this end, a successful coalition arrangement would almost certainly require parties—or in some scenarios, specific individuals—to make painful compromises. In some instances, such decisions could entail a rejection of the positions on which they campaigned and adhered to in the previous two elections. Below, is a closer look at the various possible coalition agreements.
1. A right-wing, Netanyahu-led government, with several “defectors” from the left-wing camp: With an apparent 58 seats and a commitment of cohesion within its ranks, the religious-right wing bloc is currently closest to reaching the 61-seat majority. Given the entrenched positions of the parties and the sharp disapproval of Netanyahu from the left-wing bloc, Netanyahu’s Likud would likely face insurmountable difficulty in encouraging a whole party outside the right-wing bloc to join the coalition. Rather, his camp would more likely seek to woo a few MKs individually into the coalition, with the promise of an influential ministerial portfolio or other benefits.
The Likud has already indicated its preference for this strategy in securing a majority. However, it should be noted that the party’s preparations for appealing to left-wing MKs began when exit polls showed the right-wing bloc winning 60 seats and needing only one “defector.” To the contrary, the most updated results show the Likud-led bloc winning only 58 seats, now needing to obtain three such “defectors”—a dynamic that considerably weakens Likud’s leverage. Nevertheless, the following three MKs from the left are the most likely targets of this strategy:
- MK Orly Levy-Abekasis: The leader of the centrist and social policy-oriented Gesher party, Levy-Abekasis merged her faction with the more left-wing Labor party ahead of the September 2019 elections. Previously, Levy-Abekasis served as an MK of Avigdor Liberman’s secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, and afterward as an independent in the previous government. Within a day of the elections, some MKs in the prime minister’s party have already been whispering to the media about her suitability to serve as a minister in a Netanyahu-led government.
- MK Omer Yankelevitch: Blue and White’s representative to the ultra-Orthodox community, Yankelevitch was reported to have expressed doubts in Gantz’s leadership abilities in conversations with his former adviser. At this time, however, Yankelevitch has denied new rumors that she intends to defect.
- MK Amir Peretz: The leader of the Labor Party, Peretz reportedly aspires to be selected as Israel’s next president when Reuven Rivlin’s term ends in 2021. Likud could offer him a senior ministerial post in the government, along with a pledge to support his presidential candidacy next year.
2. A Likud-Blue and White “national unity” government: This arrangement would require each side to budge from its entrenched positions—Blue and White to overcome its campaign pledge of unseating Netanyahu and refusing to serve in a government with him on trial; Likud, in its insistence of conditioning joining a government on supporting legislation to grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution and curbing the Supreme Court’s power to overturn Knesset legislation. Such a government would likely require the two sides to agree to a rotating premiership, while Blue and White would demand significant concessions on ministerial portfolios, such as Finance, Foreign Affairs, and Economy and Industry.
While currently deemed a less likely scenario, a unity government could gain legitimacy from both camps if endorsed by President Rivlin, similar to the president’s pragmatic proposals for bridging the two sides’ differences in the post-September elections unity government talks. The arrangement could include a deal for Netanyahu to ultimately exit the political scene, and in exchange have criminal charges against him dropped. As opposed to the first option of a bare-majority, 61-seat government, a “national unity” coalition of the two largest parties would provide more stability and prove less susceptible to pressure from narrow interests.
3. A “national unity” government, without Netanyahu: With the elections producing a majority outside of the Netanyahu-led bloc, Blue and White is reportedly aiming to push legislation that would prohibit an indicted prime minister from serving in that capacity, as Israeli law currently prohibits a prime minister from serving only if convicted and all avenues of appeal have been exhausted. With the 120 MKs beginning their duties on March 16, it is possible that the left-wing bloc could submit such a law, even as coalition negotiations are ongoing.
Practically, however, it is not clear that the more than 61 MKs who oppose Netanyahu would all unite to advance such legislation. This is especially true of Yisrael Beitenu, whose criticism of the prime minister has generally avoided focus on his legal challenges, and which refrained from supporting a similar bill after the September 2019 elections. There are also legal questions as to whether, if approved, such a law could enter into force without a permanent government in place. Some legal analysts have reasoned that a draft law of this sort cannot be accepted for submission, let alone advanced, during the current phase of a transitional, interim government.
The Likud-led bloc has already attacked this reported effort as an attempt to subvert the will of the electorate, including in a TV address by Netanyahu that characterized it as “undermining the foundations of democracy.” In this context, it seems that such efforts could initially harden the Likud position against promoting a “national unity” government, in which they would perceive of Blue and White as more committed to “victory over Netanyahu” than pragmatic compromise.
Nonetheless, the opening of Netanyahu’s trial could lead to a shift of attitudes within the Likud-led bloc. The trajectory of developments surrounding the trial could generate calls on the right for the Israeli premier to step aside, seeing his legal proceedings as too great of a political liability. If Netanyahu were to exit the political scene with either the blessing of his party or through internal process to remove him, a coalition between the two largest parties would become more attainable.
4. A Gantz-led minority government: In this scenario, Gantz would likely govern with a minority coalition of Yisrael Beitenu and the Labor-Meretz-Gesher list, giving him roughly 47 seats, and secure outside support from the 15-strong Joint List, ensuring 62 seats that can be counted on to support his government. However, this would require bridging a formidable ideological divide between Yisrael Beitenu’s Liberman— who in the past had engaged in anti-Arab rhetoric— and the Arab-led Joint List. Efforts at such a government were unsuccessful in the post-election negotiations during the fall of 2019.
5. A fourth election: If the first prime minister-designate fails to assemble a coalition, President Rivlin may task a second candidate—likely the leader of the other large party—to try. This candidate would have 28 days, without any extensions. Should this second prime minister-designate prove unsuccessful, a 21-day window would be opened in which one of the 120 MKs would have the opportunity to try to secure the support of a majority of fellow parliamentarians. Should this too fail, new elections would automatically be triggered within 90 days. Given the timetables of the recent failed coalition government talks and repeat elections, Israel could face its fourth election in this deadlock by July or August 2020.