After several months of uncertainty surrounding Israeli elections, Israeli citizens continue to face the reality that it has yet to be decided which party will control the new government. The April 9, 2019 election resulted in Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the right-wing party, Likud, tying with Benny Gantz, the head of the left centrist party, Blue and White. Neither Netanyahu or Gantz could be considered Prime Minister without securing a coalition—the necessary majority of 61 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.
The right bloc joined Netanyahu while the left bloc joined Gantz, but neither were able to exceed the 61 threshold without the help of Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Yisrael Beiteinu. Yisrael Beiteinu is a secular conservative party that refuses to be in a coalition with the Arab Party, Joint List, who would have been in Gantz’s coalition, and, as secularists, refuses to be with the Ultra-Orthodox party who would have joined Netanyahu’ s coalition.
With neither Gantz nor Netanyahu achieving the majority needed, a second election was forced on the people on September 17. This election did not deliver clarity for the people, but it did result in some unexpected outcomes. Gantz, with 33 seats, unexpectedly won more seats than Netanyahu, with 32. Another unexpected outcome was that Joint List was the third most voted for party, with 13 seats. Many attribute this to Netanyahu’s derogatory words against the Israeli Arabs prior to this election. Netanyahu’s supposed intentions to annex the West Bank, along with his accusations of Arab voter fraud, supposedly rallied Arabs together, determined to prevent his reelection.
Although Gantz won more seats, Netanyahu had a greater chance of achieving a minimum coalition of 61 seats. Gantz was relying on the support of Joint List to give him 57 seats in Knesset. However, three of their members strongly oppose Gantz and refused to be part of his coalition, reducing his support to 54 seats, while Netanyahu’s support from the right bloc secured him 55 seats. But, just like the April election, neither party could establish a coalition without the support of Lieberman’s eight seats.
Therefore, President Rivlin had to choose which of the two candidates he thought would be able to establish a coalition and give that person 28 days to do so, with an option to extend the deadline by two weeks. On September 25, Rivlin gave Netanyahu a mandate to create the next government. If Netanyahu is unable to create a coalition within that time, Gantz will be tasked with the same mission. If both fail, a third election will be necessary.
Seemingly, the only way to prevent a third election would be to create a unity government. Lieberman and Rivlin are pressuring both sides to join together and form this government that would consist of Likud, Blue and White and Yisrael Beiteinu, without the other members of Knesset. Together they would exceed the 61 seat threshold and since they all have compatible ideologies, this seems like a viable solution. However, many variables remain.
Throughout this whole election process, Netanyahu has faced criminal charges for fraud, bribery and breach of trust, with his hearing scheduled for October. As Prime Minister, Netanyahu would not have to resign. However, if he were to join a unity government, he would be rotating his position with Gantz, which would raise complications, such that a minister facing indictment, namely Netanyahu, must resign while a prime minister is not required to. However, Rivlin is willing to attempt to adjust the rules for this government to work.
Not only are the technicalities of Netanyahu’s possible indictment obstructing the formation of a unity government, but Gantz and his party refuse to sit in a government with someone facing criminal charges. Additionally, they believe that Netanyahu is only saying he wants a unity government so that Blue and White seem like the reason one is not established, rather than Netanyahu’s refusal.
After Netanyahu announced, “Now I say to you, MK (members of Knesset) Benny Gantz: Benny, we must establish a broad unity government today. The people expect us, both of us, to show responsibility and work to cooperate,” a Blue and White official called this political exercise and Lieberman dubbed it “shticks and tricks.” He argued that “on one hand, he is trying to numb the system as he calls for unity and on the other hand continues his attempts to persuade MKs from other parties to join him and the bloc he established yesterday in order to reach a majority of 61 seats.”
The two parties also diverge when it comes to secularizing the country. While Netanyahu is against secularization, Gantz hopes to allow for civil marriages, and not force rabbinical ones, and to open supermarkets and public transportation on Shabbat. After negotiating, Netanyahu was willing to compromise on this point. However, their greatest point of conflict between the two parties is deciding who would serve as Prime Minister first.
As an attempt to resolve these conflicts between Likud and Blue and White, Rivlin offered a proposal. As of now, the law states that a Prime Minister who becomes incapacitated can be replaced by a minister for up to 100 days. To address Gantz’ concern of joining a government led by Netanyahu, Rivlin proposed including indictment as a reason for incapacitation, establishing an official position of a deputy prime minister, and extending the period for which the deputy prime minister can substitute to much longer than 100 days. According to this option, Netanyahu would start as Prime Minister, and in the case where he would be indicted, Gantz would take his place.
The two potential Prime Ministers are expected to meet some time after Rosh HaShanah to further discuss their plans. Lieberman again, expressed support for a unity government and said, “For the upcoming new year, I urge you, show responsibility, put your ego and personal interests aside, and establish a government that will begin to address the problems and challenges we face.”