March 31, 2020

Israel’s Next Coalition: Pick Your Poison

Photo by Kolderal/Getty Images

Heba Yazbek will be a member of the next Israeli Knesset. Likud member and Minister of Public Safety Gilad Erdan thinks this is an outrage. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz thinks this is a shame. Most Israelis don’t want her there, and four Supreme Court justices agree with them. Israel’s law doesn’t allow for supporters of terrorism to be Members of Knesset (MKs). Yazbek called a man who butchered a 4-year-old Israeli girl, by smashing her head, “shahid” — a martyr. She praised other killers of Israeli civilians. Justice Noam Sohlberg explained: “Common sense, basic morality, law and justice, all lead to the conclusion that those who cheer [terrorists] Samir Kuntar and Dalal Mughrabi, and murderers like them, should not have a place in the Knesset.”

Five justices disagreed with Sohlberg. They disagreed with Blue and White’s (B&W) Yair Lapid and Likud’s Amir Ohana. Five justices ruled to let Yazbek remain on the ballot. By making this decision, they demonstrated again to right-wing Israelis (a majority) that the court is in need of an overhaul. But in the more immediate term, they complicated Israel’s prospect of having a coalition after the next election. 

Here is the math (the graph at right sheds light on the argument). Arab Israelis are about 20% of the population. According to most polls, in the next election the main party that represents them, the Joint List, will have 13 to 15 seats out of 120. This leaves about 105 seats for the other parties. More than 60 of those will be filled by right-wing or religious parties whose voters will never accept a political partnership with a party that tolerates a member such as Yazbek. This leaves 40 seats — the seats of centrist Blue and White and leftist Labor-Meretz. 

No coalition can be formed with 40 members. B&W, the main party of the bloc, will need more partners. But who? Let’s say it turns rightward, and Yisrael Beiteinu and Yamina are peruaded to join (not an easy task). This will get them somewhat close to 60, but still short of the needed 61. What if they drop Yisrael Beiteinu and get the ultra-Orthodox and Yamina on board? Still not enough. They will need to persuade the ultra-religious to sit with the ultra-secular (and vice versa). 

Some members of Blue and White want their party to form a minority government based on a coalition with Labor-Meretz and Yisrael Beiteinu.

All this is complicated, so some members of B&W want their party to form a minority government based on a coalition with Labor-Meretz and Yisrael Beiteinu. That’s about 50 seats, give or take. But if the Arab party doesn’t vote against it, the government can still function (for a vote of no confidence the opposition needs a 61 majority — and it will not have it). 

This basic math is clear to most Israelis and is the basis for a vicious Likud campaign against B&W. The party doesn’t have a coalition without the Arabs. And even if B&W entertained such an option, the presence of Yazbek makes it less feasible. Three of four B&W leaders are former Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff. Can they base their rule on the vote of people who call them “war criminals”? Can they rely on the neutrality of a party that opposes President Donald Trump’s Mideast peace plan — a plan that a B&W government will be hard-pressed to accept?

On Feb. 11, a leader of the Joint List said that his party is unlikely to support a B&W coalition even from the outside. “Gantz is going to try to form a unity government and he will do everything possible to exhaust this option. I am not sure if he will even engage with us,” MK Ahmad Tibi said. 

There is no way to know what’s in Gantz’s heart. It’s possible that he doesn’t yet know either or that he still hopes the next election completely changes the political map. 

If not, he’s likely to have four unappealing options: a minority coalition supported by the Joint List — if that’s still possible; find a way to fully undermine the right-religious bloc and convince anti-Charedi Avigdor Lieberman or leftist Labor-Meretz to join a coalition with Charedis and rightists; form a unity government with Likud, with likely two caveats — first, accept the ultra-Orthodox as members of this coalition, and second, accept Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister until his trial begins; accept the miserable reality of a fourth election. 

Does anyone wish to be in Gantz’ shoes?

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