Consequences of the Israeli Election for Israel and Palestine

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), Defence Minister Ehud Barak (C) and Chief of Staff Lieutenant Benny Gantz (L) attend an air show at the graduation ceremony of Israeli pilots at the Hatzerim air force base in the Negev desert, near the southern Israeli city of Beersheva, on December 27, 2012. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ

Avram Reisman 

[Featured Image: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), Defence Minister Ehud Barak (C) and Chief of Staff Lieutenant Benny Gantz (L) attend an air show at the graduation ceremony of Israeli pilots at the Hatzerim air force base in the Negev desert, near the southern Israeli city of Beersheva, on December 27, 2012. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ]

On September 17th, Israelis went to the polls for the second time this year, deciding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to form a government after the elections in April was a dealbreaker. Despite Benny Gantz’ centrist Blue and White party receiving a plurality of seats, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister and leader of the Likud party, has received the mandate to form a new government. 

Given that neither bloc has enough seats to form a government on its own, it’s not clear what the 35th Israeli government will look like. If Netanyahu fails, Gantz will get an opportunity, but if he fails, then a third election will be necessary. Here are three plausible possibilities for how this all might shake out.

Since receiving the mandate from President Reuvlin Rivin, Netanyahu has been trying to form a “grand coalition”: a unity government of Gantz’ Blue and White, Netanyahu’s Likud, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Home parties. In effect, this would be a secular center-right government. Lieberman refused to join Netanyahu’s government last April over disagreements with the religious parties’ parties position over conscription of the Ultra-Orthodox into the IDF. 

The “grand coalition” scenario faces major obstacles. Indeed, the political talks between the parties have already stalled. However, these obstacles may not be insurmountable. Gantz campaigned on being a change from the Likud-run governments, specifically discussing issues of economic inequality and corruption. The latter issue poses a major obstacle as Netanyahu and his wife have been immersed in corruption cases either against them or involving them over the past year. Netayahu had been hoping to avoid prosecution by passing an “immunity” law which was the impetus for the first round of elections (called early) in April. Any government with Likud as a partner would require a deal which would shield Netanyahu from prosecution or soften his punishment. After having run as an anti-corruption candidate, it would be difficult to imagine Gantz stomaching the concession and even harder to imagine a Netanyahu-run Likud joining a government without one. If Netanyahu fails, Gantz will get a chance to try his hand at the unity government, but this too will likely fail unless Likud abandons Netanyahu. 

A second possibility is that Gantz could form a left-wing bloc by including the Joint Arab List parties in a coalition with the religious centrist parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. These parties are mostly concerned with maintaining the privileges and power of the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities including control over education in religious schools and an exemption from conscription into the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). From a strictly ideological perspective, this may make the most sense. The left-wing Arab parties support the economic proposals of Blue and White and may be willing to join such a coalition.

However, if Gantz were to align with the Joint List, it would break a longstanding tradition among Israeli political parties to not form coalitions with Arab parties. Doing so would play into the efforts of Netanyahu and his right-wing allies to link Gantz and his Party to the specter of an Arab takeover. In addition, the Joint Arab List, fresh off a major victory, may seek major policy compromises from Gantz and his partners. Such demands may dissolve a government before it forms and put Gantz in a much weaker position to negotiate with the other potential government partners. In sum, fear of backlash will probably discourage Gantz from reaching out to the Joint Arab List at all.

If Netanyahu and Gantz both fail to form a government, then Israel will face the last plausible scenario: a third election. Just a few months ago, the idea of an election not resulting in an Israeli government was unprecedented. Yet now, it is a real possibility that this will occur for the second time in Israeli history and the second time in the past year. 

One can only speculate on the consequences of any of these scenarios for Israeli democracy and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.                                                     

When it comes to the election’s impact on Israeli democracy, the bag is decidedly mixed. The right-wing’s willingness to flout the rule of law was punished at the ballot box, but Netanyahu may yet escape prosecution depending on how negotiations for a unity government turn out. And while Netanyahu’s racist “camera” law that would have violated the privacy of the ballot box is gone, the fact that Gantz will likely not enter into a coalition with the Arab parties despite rhetoric about Israeli Arabs being equal citizens is not a good sign for inclusivity.

Is there reason for renewed hope for Israeli-Palestinian peace? No. Even in the unlikely case where a government includes the Joint Arab List with policies that benefit Israeli Arabs, such a coalition would not include concessions over Israeli positions in permanent status negotiations or over the management of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

On the other hand, a unity government would be even more unlikely to include any change to the Palestinian status quo and may not even limit the unilateral annexation actions that the Likud party and the Israel Home party support. Indeed, while Gantz has expressed support for negotiations over unilateral action, he has also implied that he will do what “the people” want by requiring that major diplomatic agreements receive a positive referendum vote or the support of a supermajority of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament).

The best result for Israeli Arabs and Palestinians may be another election. This last election saw a major increase in Israeli Arab voter turnout and Knesset seats for the Joint Arab List. Exhausting as another election may be, the Joint Arab List now has proof that electoral action can lead to more political power for Arabs in Israel and a third election will not require Israeli Arabs taking the bitter pills of compromise that come with joining a governing coalition. A third election could mean even stronger voter turnout, forcing Gantz to include the Joint List in his governing coalition.

The preference for negotiation over unilateralism is a step in the right direction. Observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories should not be overly optimistic. Yet, this election puts a stop to Netanyahu’s unilateral annexation plans and leaves a glimmer of hope for the possibility of a two-state or a confederation solution. 

It will take more than one election to reinvigorate Israeli democracy and put the country on the path towards peace. And it will take more than elections for either of those goals to be accomplished. But, in the context of creeping authoritarianism around the world, Netanyahu’s defeat should be seen as a small victory for democracy.

Avram Reisman is a former editor for Democracy & Society. He received his M.A. in Democracy and Governance from Georgetown University in 2019.