Election leaves Netanyahu with easy path to coalition

With 97 percent of the vote officially counted in yesterday’s Israeli election – despite his Likud party only tying with the Blue and White party as the largest faction in the Knesset – Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been left with the easiest path to form the next government.

As of this writing, the right-wing bloc is sitting at 65 seats:

Likud 35
Shas 8
UTJ 8
Union of Right-Wing Parties 5
Yisrael Beitenu 5
Kulanu 4
Total 65

 

While the left-wing bloc, with Arab support from the outside, sits at 55 seats:

Blue and White 35
Labor 6
Meretz 4
Hadash/Ta’al 6
Ra’am/Balad 4
Total 55

 

Conspicuously failing to cross the 3.25% electoral threshold (pending final results) were Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s New Right party and Moshe Feiglin’s right-wing libertarian Zehut party.

Other surprises included Labor’s historically low result (attributed to Gantz’s persuasive argument to Labor backers that his only chance to be asked by President Reuven Rivlin to form a coalition would be for Blue and White to finish substantially larger than Likud), and the remarkably strong performance of ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Shas. In the case of UTJ and Shas, the low voter turnout overall amplified the votes of these factions, which draw from a reliable pool of voters who act almost in unison on political advice from their rabbis.

It should be noted that, in theory, the non-Zionist UTJ is not ideologically bound to the right and could support a left-oriented government (Shas has already committed to supporting Netanyahu). However, in practice, a seemingly unbridgeable ideological divide prevents this, given the open hostility between the Haredi community and Blue and White party co-leader and staunch secularist Yair Lapid (who would be given an opportunity to serve as prime minister in a Gantz government according to their prearranged rotation agreement). UTJ would also have trouble sitting together with Meretz.

Consolation for Blue and White, and the left

For the Blue and White party, there is some consolation, and I’ve highlighted them in bold here for emphasis. In certain cities across Israel, like Tel Aviv, Gantz’s party performed extremely well. On the other hand, in Likud strongholds like Beersheva and Kiryat Shmona, the party had major trouble finding support.

Furthermore, in sheer numbers, the next Knesset will have fewer members from parties to the right of Likud. While the size of Netanyahu’s potential coalition has not changed much, the composition of the next coalition will be filled with more ultra-Orthodox members and fewer hard-right ideologues.

It is worth mentioning that no member of the extremist Jewish Power (“Otzma Yehudit”) party will enter the Knesset. Its only such member in a realistic spot before the election, Itamar Ben-Gvir, was seventh on the Right-Wing Union party list that only received five mandates.

Moreover, Benny Gantz’s achievement of tying Netanyahu marks a major improvement over the performance of the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog, who received 24 seats and was six seats behind the Likud when they went head-to-head in 2015).

Further, the promising result demonstrates that there is a growing appetite among Israelis outside of the Likud camp to work together to unseat the Likud in the next election.

With indictments expected later this year in Netanyahu’s corruption cases, the possibility exists that this will destabilise the next government and could even lead to premature elections.

The left’s Arab problem

One standout in this election was the low Arab turnout. As of this writing, Ra’am/Balad is hanging on to its four seats by a thread, and it’s not inconceivable that after the remaining votes are counted it will fall under the threshold. Even if it keeps those seats, together with the parties it teamed up with in the Joint List, Hadash/Ta’al, the Arab parties will be down three seats from 2015. If Ra’am/Balad falls under the threshold, the Arab bloc will be down seven seats. This is alarming news for the Israeli centre-left, which has no realistic chance of taking back the Prime Minister’s Office without more support from Arab parties.

A big asterisk

As of this writing – with thousands of votes left to count including from traditionally hawkish IDF soldiers – the three parties sitting on four seats: Balad, Meretz and Kulanu, cannot be considered to be out of danger from falling under the electoral threshold and being excluded from the next Knesset. Meanwhile, for the same reasons, the New Right party is still considered to have an outside chance of clawing back in. As a result, assuming the composition of a future coalition in anything other than broad outlines would be premature and should wait until after the last votes are counted.