In Depth

Israel: third time lucky for Benjamin Netanyahu?

The prime minister outperformed predictions in Monday’s election, but has again failed to win a majority in the Knesset

Israelis are facing a frustratingly familiar political reality after elections on Monday failed to provide a clear majority government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc gained 58 seats in the 120-seat Knesset - Israel’s parliament - three short of a majority, and representing a surge in support for the incumbent leader.

This was Israel’s third election in under a year after two inconclusive votes in April and September 2019 brought crippling political gridlock - but while Monday saw no outright victor, it was a good night for Netanyahu.

His Likud party leapfrogged their main rival, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, to become the largest party in the Knesset, gaining 4 seats to reach 35, while other Netanyahu-supporting parties boosted that number to three short of the 61 seats needed for a working majority.

Can Netanyahu pull a majority together?

Negotiations to reach the 61 are underway, but they are likely to be tough. The prime minister, known as Bibi, is facing indictments for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and as a result many potential Knesset partners have vowed to never associate with him. He has denied any wrongdoing and said he is the victim of a politically orchestrated “witch hunt”.

But, says Israeli publication Haaretz, “there’s a big question over whether President Reuven Rivlin can legally ask Bibi to form the next government, given that he’s already been indicted”.

Avigdor Lieberman’s secular-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party might be a potential partner, but it considers the right-wing bloc led by Likud to be too far under the influence of ultra-Orthodox religious groups.

On Monday night, Lieberman reiterated his long-held position that he would “not join any government led by Netanyahu”.

A second strategy for Netanyahu could be to find three individual members of Knesset (MKs) to cross the floor, but this may be impossible given the indictments and Israel’s polarised political landscape.

“The likeliest candidates to be wooed by Mr. Netanyahu all insisted they were holding fast to their promises to see him into retirement and could not be bought off, no matter the inducement,” reports The New York Times.

Moshe Ya’alon, a former Likud MK who is now a Blue and White member, addressed Netanyahu.

“Bibi, after an election full of lies that hit a new low, in which you failed to win the 61 mandates that could have enabled you to be above the law, you are still trying to steal votes from defectors,” Ya’alon said. “There are many in Likud who have asked us for help getting rid of you. You will not find such overtures about Gantz in Blue and White.”

Given these factors, it remains to be seen how the country can avoid having to call yet another election.

Bribery charges fail to impact election

The charges against Netanyahu, which were brought in November, were a central subject in the campaign that preceded Monday’s vote. This raises the question of how the prime minister could have fared better in an election where he faced an impending trial, compared to the two last year, where he did not.

It seems many Israeli voters prioritised ending the political stalemate, and voted for the politician they thought had the best chance of bringing a majority coalition together.

“The indictment did not seem to be on voters’ minds,” say The Jerusalem Post, “and if it was, then they didn’t care enough about it to abandon Netanyahu.”

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Election fails to end wrangling over Netanyahu’s indictment

Despite the show of support from the electorate, there is a slim majority in the Knesset that opposes Netanyahu, and Gantz has already begun talks to corral support for a bill that will prevent an indicted prime minister from forming a government - talks Netanyahu has derided as anti-democratic attempts to steal the election.

“This is an effort to divide the nation when we are facing serious challenges like the corona crisis,” Netanyahu said at a meeting of MKs in his right-religious bloc. “There are also opportunities like US President Donald Trump’s plan that require us to be united and respect the will of the people.”

Netanyahu’s trial will begin on 17 March, but if he can form a form a majority government, he may be able to pass legislation that grants him immunity from prosecution while in office - something his rivals are determined to prevent.

“We’ll have a majority in the new Knesset to pass a law preventing a prime minister from serving under indictment,” said Nitzan Horowitz, the leader of Meretz, a party to the left of Israeli politics. “It reflects the will of the public, and it’s the moral thing to do.”

A Palestinian surge

One undoubted winner from the election was the Israeli-Arab Joint List, a political alliance focused on Palestinian rights, which secured 15 seats - its highest-ever total - capitalising on the anti-Netanyahu sentiment caused by what The Guardian calls the prime minister’s “racist campaigning” to become the third-largest group in the Knesset.

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