Israelis went to the polls on Tuesday in their second attempt this year to elect a functioning government. Unfortunately, exit polls indicate that Israel’s political landscape is no less muddy — and its future no more certain — than it was after the last election in April.
With 91 percent of the vote counted, the leading parties — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and the centrist Blue and White party of retired IDF General Benny Gantz — were in a dead heat, with Likud projected to take 31 seats in the Knesset and Blue and White slightly ahead with 32 seats. If the two parties end up with the same number of seats (as happened in April), the party with the lead in total votes (currently Blue and White, by a hair) will likely get the first chance to form a government.
The next step in Israel’s political process is for President Reuven Rivlin to consult with the parties that won enough votes to earn seats in the Knesset and nominate a party leader to try and form a government. With a total of 120 seats in the Knesset, either Likud or Blue and White would need to go into coalition with other parties to form a majority, and that’s where things get interesting, because exit polls indicated that neither the parties that would naturally form Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition nor those of Gantz’s center-left coalition can quite make it to 61.
Taken altogether, Likud, the religious right-wing parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the right-wing Yamina alliance led by former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, stood to take between 54-57 seats, whereas Blue and White could muster a coalition with roughly the same range of seats if it included the Joint List of Israeli Arab parties — with whom Gantz previously said he would not form a government — and the left-wing Democratic Union alliance and the center-left Labor and Gesher parties.
As expected, the wild card is Yisrael Beitenu, the secular-nationalist party headed by former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman, once Netanyahu’s ally and cabinet member and now his bitter rival, spoiled the prime minister’s chance of forming a governing coalition after April’s election. Likud called Tuesday’s mulligan election in May instead of giving Gantz a chance to try and form a coalition of his own — which he would only have been able to do with Lieberman’s support.
And so Lieberman finds himself yet again in the position of kingmaker, capable of giving either side a majority. Yisrael Beitenu is projected to win just eight or nine seats, but because both blocs need those seats to win, Lieberman is effectively the Justice John Roberts of Israel right now. However, whereas other small party leaders pledged during the campaign to join either a Netanyahu or a Gantz government, Lieberman said Yisrael Beitenu was only interested in joining a national-unity government with both Likud and Blue and White (which, ironically, would be the only situation in which Yisrael Beitenu would not be needed to form a majority).
Unity governments are rare in Israel, so that situation is unlikely and probably impossible as long as Netanyahu remains in charge of Likud. Gantz has said he would not form a unity government with Netanyahu, who himself is unlikely to want to share power with a rival. The only conceivable way a unity government might emerge is if Likud MKs decided to unseat Netanyahu, who is still awaiting indictment in three corruption cases, in favor of new leadership — something Lieberman has hinted at and which Netanyahu has long suspected was his nationalist rival’s ultimate goal.
Yisrael Beitenu has become such an important player in Israel’s ongoing political realignment because it represents a new ideological stream in Israeli politics. The party’s power base is made up of Soviet-born Jews who came to Israel in large numbers after the fall of communism (Lieberman himself was born in what is now Moldova and emigrated in 1978). Its platform is unapologetically nationalistic, pro-settlement and suspicious of Arab Israelis, making it a natural ally of the Israeli right. Yet it is also socially and economically liberal and secular, and opposed to the ultra-Orthodox factions’ attempts to impose Jewish law on non-Orthodox Jews, which has put it in tension with other parties in the right-wing coalition. It doesn’t fit neatly into either a left- or right-wing coalition, but as the Knesset math currently stands, neither side can form a government without it.
The golden rule in Israeli politics over the past decade or more has been “Netanyahu always wins, somehow.” This year, his luck may have finally run out. The prime minister was hoping for a resounding victory to reinstall him securely in office and shield him from those looming corruption charges, which he didn’t get. He has too few allies and too many enemies in the Knesset to form a government, unless perhaps he is able to make Lieberman an offer he can’t refuse. He has already made some wild promises in this campaign, such as to annex the Jordan Valley, in an effort to court the nationalist vote, and has darkly claimed that Arab Israelis had “stolen” the April election and would do the same this time around, preemptively delegitimizing the vote in case he didn’t win.
It’s not hard to see a desperate Netanyahu staking out some more wild positions to keep himself in power, perhaps endorsing Lieberman’s proposal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through land and population transfers, stripping citizenship from thousands of Israeli Arabs. Yet if Lieberman truly believes that a post-Netanyahu unity government is the only way out of Israel’s current crisis, he has the power to make it happen by saying “no” to whatever temptations the lame-duck prime minister may present to him.
Rivlin surely does not want to see a third election, especially one that is unlikely to produce a more decisive outcome than the first two, so the president may be amenable to a unity government if the two major parties can set aside their differences. If the price of national unity and political stability is Netanyahu’s ouster, the other Likud leaders would be crazy not to throw him under the bus — unless they are as deeply in thrall to him as the Republican Party has become to Donald Trump.
Speaking of the U.S., the other potential wild card in Israel is the forthcoming Trump peace plan, which Netanyahu has said would be released immediately after the elections. Netanyahu has used his relationship with President Trump as a selling point and talked himself up as the best person to negotiate over what Trump has described as “the deal of the century.” The political element of Trump’s plan (more accurately described as his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s plan) has been kept under wraps so far, but in recent days, unverified details have leaked out from Netanyahu’s right-wing rivals, claiming that the plan would divide Jerusalem and cut up the West Bank into isolated pockets of Israeli settlements surrounded by land under Palestinian sovereignty.
If these maps are accurate, the plan is an unbelievably bad deal for the Palestinians and a complete nonstarter, constituting political (and maybe also literal) suicide for any Palestinian leader to accept. This we knew it was going to be all along. The Palestinian Authority probably won’t even get a chance to reject it, however, as the Israeli right is so committed to the full annexation of the West Bank and the complete eradication of Palestinian national ambitions that even an absurdly Israel-tilted version of a two-state solution is not good enough.
Therefore, if Trump’s plan has any impact at all, it will not be in resolving a century of conflict but in forcing all relevant parties to finally confront the reality that Israel has no popular or political will to create a Palestinian state, regardless of whether its next government is led by Netanyahu, Gantz, or someone else entirely. If one thing is certain in Israel right now, it is that Avigdor Lieberman will decide who becomes the next prime minister. If two things are certain, the second is that the two-state solution is finally, undeniably, well and truly dead.