August 20, 2019

A Week Before Chaos

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Photo by Gali Tibbon/Reuters

Hopefully, by the time you read this, the construction of the next Israeli government will have become clearer. But it’s quite possible that the process still will be murky. When the Journal went to press on May 21, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his party, Likud, were struggling in their quest to form a coalition, and time was running out. By May 28, if Netanyahu fails to form a coalition, President Reuven Rivlin will have to give the task to someone else, or a countdown to a new election will begin.

Yes, a new election. There is much talk about that possibility because some obstacles to forming a new ruling coalition seem insurmountable. Example: The leader of the Israel Beiteinu party demands that a military draft law be passed without change. The leaders of the Charedi United Torah Judaism party wouldn’t agree to pass it unless changes are made. Can there be a compromise? Not really. Because the question at hand is binary — either the law passes as written or it’s altered — a compromise means that one faction must accept defeat. Of course, it can be compensated in other ways; it can win other, parallel battles that might sweeten the bitter pill. But it’s a pill that someone must swallow. And as of May 21, both patients were keeping mum. 

How did we arrive at this point of uncertainty and possible chaos? On election night, the right wing was victorious and seemed ready to seal a deal. But with time, it became clear that the victory was simultaneously too decisive and not decisive enough. It was too decisive in the sense that all the parties involved got cocky, basked in their glorious victory and, possibly, lost touch with reality. It was not decisive in the sense that the majority of the right is clear when we count the votes, but not as clear when we count the seats in the Knesset (see the graph on the right). That’s because many right-wingers voted for parties that ended up below the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent. 

With time, it became clear that the victory was simultaneously too decisive and not decisive enough.

Netanyahu can blame only himself for this complicating factor. In the last days of the campaign, he was warned time and again that by trying to get more votes for Likud, he could end up hurting his future coalition. That’s exactly what happened. Likud got stronger, the New Right party failed to get into the Knesset by just a few hundred votes and four seats were lost. 

These four seats are sorely missed. They would have made the difference between a prime minister who has no room to maneuver — every member of every potential party counts — and a prime minister with some leverage. With the New Right out of the picture, Netanyahu must include everybody to surpass 60 votes. So he must find a way to satisfy Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman and the Shas party’s Aryeh Deri. 

Theoretically, Lieberman remains on the sidelines while letting the prime minister form a 60-member coalition. This means less political chaos, but for Netanyahu — who is under indictment for corruption charges — it also means a hoard of other defeats. Example: The prime minister wants to pass legislation that would save him from prosecution as long as he is in office. Some Israelis believe that such legislation would be the end of democracy as we know it; others believe it’s necessary for Israel’s political stability. One way or the other, a 60-member coalition doesn’t have the votes to pass the law that could save Netanyahu from his legal trouble. At least two members of Likud already said they oppose the law, breaking with the majority within the party but clarifying a murky situation: A smaller coalition is not what Netanyahu could possibly want.

Here comes the part where I’d like to tell you what’s going to happen next, except that, first, it’s too early; second, I write my Journal column several days before it’s read; and third, all bets are off. Maybe, a last-minute Kawhi Leonard-like slam dunk (or jump shot) would present itself. It could come in the form of compromise (Lieberman or Charedis caving in) or a surprise move (unexpected members of other parties joining in).

Maybe a small coalition will have to live with what’s possible rather than what’s desirable for the prime minister. Maybe someone else will get a chance to form a coalition; on May 28, the president has the authority to task someone else with the job. Maybe another election. Amazingly, a week before the deadline, this doesn’t seem impossible (visit Rosner’s Domain online for updates).

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at