‘King Bibi’ they chanted at Likud’s victory party last night but Benjamin Netanyahu has not clinched victory and the crown could yet be snatched from his head. Israel’s second election of 2019 — a poll in April ended similarly in deadlock — is poised to end the reign of the country’s longest-serving prime minister. Votes are still being counted but centrist opposition Kachol Lavan is narrowly leading Likud. And when religious and other right-wing parties are counted, Netanyahu appears unable to reach the magic 61 seats required for a majority in the Knesset.
In ordinary times (if such times exist in Israeli politics) Bibi would be over the line with the support of Avigdor Lieberman, his long-time frenemy and leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party. Beiteinu has served in previous Bibi coalitions but Lieberman pulled them out of the government last November, ostensibly over Netanyahu’s gun-shy approach to Hamas but really as a power-play.
Beiteinu, historically a Russian-interest party, is now home to Israel’s secular-right vote and eager to break the hold of Shas and UTJ, which represent the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population and secure their constituents generous government spending, even as most refuse to serve in the IDF. Lieberman says he wants a national unity government this time, calculating that it would lock out the Haredim and make way for legislation requiring them to enlist for military service.
Shorn of Lieberman’s seats, Netanyahu has no obvious way to a majority government — and Netanyahu needs a majority government. For all his pre-poll promises to apply sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and even to Israeli communities throughout Judea and Samaria, his number one priority is immunity. Prosecutors have been circling for years now, indictments on corruption allegations at the ready, and he wants a law to prevent his career ending in humiliation and Ma’asiyahu prison.
Benny Gantz, the ex-general head of Kachol Lavan, has been careful not to declare victory early, as he did in April only to see the exit polls fall through, as they often do in Israeli elections. Leaving his home this morning, Gantz said only:
‘I wish for the people of Israel a good unity government, that the system will calm down a little bit and we can start moving.’
Unity governments are not unknown in Israel and would be an obvious way to settle this election without having to go to a third poll. (Israel has no Brenda from Bristol but Batya from Binyamin no doubt shares her aversion to excessive democracy.) For a unity government to get off the ground, however, Gantz says Bibi has to go. But Bibi, who has led Israel for the past decade, won’t go without a fight.
In one scenario, a senior Likudnik could lay his hand on Bibi’s shoulder and tell him it’s all over, but given his success in driving out the party’s giants in favour of timid loyalists, it’s not clear who that could be. A faction of Likud MKs could, in theory, break away and join a Gantz-led coalition but there is little evidence of appetite for such a move. Former Labor prime minister Ehud Barak has this morning called on Gantz to set up a minority government with supply and confidence from the Arab parties, who stood as a bloc and have come third in seat tally. That wouldn’t be a very stable arrangement and the Arab Joint List is predominantly anti-Zionist, something that would be used against Gantz if he were forced to call another election.
The numbers are there for a coalition of Gantz, Lieberman, the Arab bloc and two small leftist parties. This would be a turn-up for the books, given Lieberman has made a career of antagonising the Arabs. (A past election slogan, accompanied by chiller music on every attack ad, proclaimed: ‘Only Lieberman understands Arabic’.) Still, nothing can be ruled out when it comes to the politically flexible Lieberman, which is why another scenario might see him tempted back into a Bibi government with a promise of rotating the premiership, as Labor’s Shimon Peres and Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir did in the 1980s. However, neither man would trust the other not to double-cross him, and with good reason.
The final seat count will be known shortly and president Reuven Rivlin will decide who gets the first crack at compiling a governing majority, but three observations are worth keeping in mind.
First, never underestimate Bibi Netanyahu. The man has painted his way out of more dead ends than the Roadrunner.
Second, while Tuesday wasn’t a great night for the right, it was another dismal showing for the left. Kachol Lavan claimed many left-of-centre votes but it is at best a third-way centrist party. The straight-forwardly left-wing parties (Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Union) appear to have managed 11 seats between them, one more than their respective iterations won in April’s vote. For a movement that ruled Israel uninterrupted for the first 30 years of statehood, it is a mortifying reminder of their current irrelevance.
Third, and this is the most delicious of all, the Arab bloc had a fantastic night and may yet help topple Netanyahu, who sought to suppress their vote while playing on fears of their electoral power to energise right-wing electors.
This appears to have spurred a backlash and energised Arabs instead. If, after everything thrown at him by the Left, Obama, old foes in Likud, new foes on his right, the media, the NGOs, the judges and the prosecutors, it turns out to be Israeli-Arabs who end Bibi’s reign, even the loyalest Likudnik will struggle to stifle a cackle.