The deadline for mergers/coalitions and party lists has passed, so we now know the lineup for Israel’s September 17 do-over election. There will likely be nine groupings in the next Knesset – fewer than usual!
The so-called mergers are really like-minded parties coming together in coalition so as to better their chances of obtaining the minimum votes required to enter the Knesset. For Knesset status, a party must receive at least 3.25% of the popular vote, which guarantees four Knesset seats. Votes for parties that fail to meet the threshold are “wasted” in that they yield no parliamentary representation.
This past April, in the first election round, one of the right-wing parties just missed the threshold. Had this party received a few more votes or linked up with another right-wing party, Netanyahu would have been able to create a government with support from 61-plus Knesset members. Also last April, the left-wing Meretz party just squeezed over the threshold and was at risk this time around.
So these new groupings really matter, and both the right and the left have acted accordingly.
Meretz has now joined up with former prime minister Ehud Barak under the banner of the Democratic Union, protecting both from falling below the 3.25% threshold. Interestingly, Labour chose not to join forces with either of these leftist parties. This is another indication that Labour has been in shambles for some time and is not clear on what it stands for, or against. Finally, we have the four Israeli Arab parties. In April they ran as two separate lists, but this time all four will run together and they expect that this will produce a higher Arab voter turnout.
Although the elections are still six weeks away, it is informative to look at current polling data because these numbers are quite likely to hold up. The 120-member Knesset would basically look like this:
Blue and White 30
United Right 12
The Joint (Arab) List 11
Yisrael Beitenu (Avigdor Lieberman) 10
United Torah Judaism 8
Democratic Union 8
The likely coalition groupings would be: Likud and the three other right-wing/religious parties with 57 seats, the centre/centre left with 43, the Arab list with 11 and Lieberman with 10. Under these circumstances, any potential leader would have a problem attaining a Knesset majority of 61 seats. Here are four possible scenarios:
- 1. Since Lieberman has clearly said he would not be part of a coalition with the ultra-orthodox (United Torah Judaism and Shas), Benjamin Netanyahu is in a bind. He will be short of the magical 61 seats. He could try to entice enough Blue and White new Knesset members to jump ship and ally with Likud. At least seven would have to do so for this to be allowed under current rules. And there are indeed enough right wingers on the Blue and White list to make this possible. But Bibi would have to make them a very attractive offer and/or they would have to be convinced that only Bibi is able to form a government and that consequently desertion is the only practical course. This possibility is a long shot, but stranger things have happened.
- 2. Blue and White faces even greater challenges. A coalition of Blue and White with the Democratic Union and Labour would add up to only about 43 seats. And bringing in the Arab Joint List is highly unlikely. Blue and White has clearly stated its unwillingness to accept the Arab parties in a governing coalition. With the Joint List now including the ultra-nationalist Balad party, Blue and White is even less likely to reverse gears. Plus, the Arab seats would still not allow the Centre/Left to reach a 61-seat majority. As for the possibility that right-winger Lieberman could be persuaded to join such an initiative – total fantasy!
- 3. A national unity government led jointly by both Likud and Blue and White is not impossible. This seems to be Lieberman’s wish and the math works. Nevertheless, enormous hurdles stand in the way. Bibi might well be agreeable, but Blue and White insists it would not team up with Likud as long as Netanyahu is head of the party. Likud would have to be willing to throw Bibi under the bus. Or, alternatively, Blue and White would have to change its demand on Netanyahu’s exit, which is more likely. Lieberman might join such a coalition, although probably not if it includes the ultra-orthodox. Lieberman has regularly been referred to as the “kingmaker.” Not sure, however, who will be king and if Lieberman will be part of the kingdom.
- 4. It may be that none of the above scenarios can be actualized and that no one can assemble a 61-seat majority. A third round of elections is almost certainly out of the question. In this case, the party that could assemble the largest coalition would have to be permitted to govern on a vote-by-vote basis. That party would be Likud. Bibi would still be king. But soon afterwards, he will be indicted on serious criminal charges. And then?
*Simon Rosenblum is a frequent commentator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was a founding member of CFPN and a former national chair. The views expressed in this article are his own do not necessarily reflect CFPN positions.