A Note on the Israeli Elections

September 17, 2019 4:57 p.m.

The first exit polls from today’s Israel elections came out almost two hours ago. They show Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party coming two seats behind Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party. They also show the right-wing bloc in a difficult position to form a government. But there is an ocean of tears of Bibi-haters who put their faith in Israeli exit polls. We have seen repeated examples of narrow Likud defeats which overnight turned into narrow victories. This is definitely looking like a tough situation for Netanyahu. But I’ve been Charlie Brown and seen this football teed up far too many times to put much stock in these numbers. If you’re obsessed, keep watching the results. If you just want to know how it all turns out, see where things stand tomorrow morning.

There are a few other key points to keep in mind about the range of possibilities for the next Israeli government. The most obvious one is simply that Netanyahu figures out a way to cobble together another razor-thin rightwing government.

But remember the key factor in modern Israeli politics. The right wing can put together anywhere from just under 60 up to 70 seats out of 120 in the Knesset. There is no governing majority for the left. Beyond the right there’s everyone else. Which is a mix of center-left parties, centrist parties and then some configuration of non-Zionist or anti-Zionsit majority Arab parties. Among the Zionist parties, right and left, it has long been verboten to bring those parties into the government. There have been exceptions. During Yitzhak Rabin’s second government he relied on Arab parties to sustain his government in a ‘confidence and supply’ type arrangement.

What all of this means though is that once you take 8 to 12 non-Zionist, Arab party seats out of the equation there’s simply no way to build a center-left coalition.

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Gantz himself is certainly not of the left. It’s not really clear what his politics are. He’s essentially run as an anti-Netanyahu candidate, drawing down support from the center-left parties whose voters think he might have some chance to topple Netanyahu. The fairest assumption about his politics is that he is what used to be considered a moderate Likud (think someone like current President Rivlin) or hawkish Labor ex-general. We don’t really know. Or at least I don’t. Certainly no Gantz government would be by any definition a peace government. The hope would be it reins in the hyper-nationalist excesses of the Netanyahu years.

The possibilities are either something like what Rabin tried or much more likely a unity government with Benny Gantz at its head with Likud in the coalition. The real kingmaker is Avigdor Lieberman, an erstwhile ally of Netanyahu who crippled his ability to form a government last time around and has now been vindicated. He will most likely decide who the next Prime Minister is.

If he’s in the government, though, it means that most or all of the religious parties would likely be shut out and left wing parties, including all the Arab parties, would certainly not sit in such a government. Why? Because Lieberman is a crude anti-Arab nationalist. He was the worst of the worst fifteen years ago, before Israeli politics got significantly more awful and he seemed slightly less worse by comparison.

One more thing to put in the mix. Given the platform they’ve run on, it would be very hard for Blue and White to sit in a government with Netanyahu. Perhaps as a backbencher but definitely as PM and I wouldn’t think as a holding a major portfolio either. They would form a coalition with Likud though. So what could come to the fore pretty quickly is whether Likud ditches Netanyahu to remain in government.

Anyway, that’s where we are.

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