THE BLUE and white balloons that had been prepared for Likud’s victory celebrations remained in the netting on the ceiling. Israel’s ruling party had emerged from the parliamentary election on March 23rd still the largest party in the 120-member Knesset (Israel’s parliament), but its leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, has only a slim chance of controlling a majority within it. Israel’s longest-serving prime minister promised to try to form “a strong and stable coalition”, but his voice lacked its usual confident tone.
No fewer than 13 parties won seats in the new Knesset, up from eight in an election just a year ago. There are at least as many permutations for concocting a new government. Under a system of proportional representation that sets a threshold of 3.25% of the total vote for inclusion in the Knesset, no party has ever won an absolute majority. So governments are always formed by several. This was the fourth stalemated election in two years.
Building a coalition has been getting trickier. The main reason is the prime minister himself. He is facing criminal charges of bribery and fraud. Still, he is backed by three religious and far-right parties, as well as Likud, giving him a total of 52 seats (see chart). Seven parties, with 57 seats, have promised their voters they would not serve under Mr Netanyahu. Two, with 11 seats between them, are not committed to any candidate and have not ruled out joining a Netanyahu government. The obvious solution is for one or other group to win over the holdouts. But both of the coalitions that might then emerge would be fraught with contradictions.
One of the non-committed parties is the Ra’am party, which is conservative and Islamist. An Arab-Israeli party has never been a member of a ruling coalition, and for many Israelis the idea remains taboo. Mr Netanyahu ruled out relying on Ra’am just before the election because “they are an anti-Zionist party.” But Ra’am’s leader, Mansour Abbas, has played down his party’s Palestinian nationalism and wants to bring solid benefits to his voters.
Since the result became clear, the prime minister’s media mouthpieces have been busy explaining why including an Arab party in a Likud-led government would be a proud achievement for the Jewish state. Mr Netanyahu may feel he can break his promise, but his potential partners at the right end of the political spectrum would be much less amenable. Religious Zionism, a party that includes Jewish supremacists and is an integral part of a Netanyahu coalition, has refused to join a government backed by Ra’am, which in turn refuses to join a coalition with Religious Zionism. Mr Netanyahu’s long-standing critics are relishing the irony of a politician who has previously used anti-Arab dog whistles to rally his base potentially relying on Arab voters for his survival.
But the opposition’s predicament is just as bad, even though for the third election in a row it won more seats in the Knesset than the Netanyahu bloc did. It too includes right-wing parties that have so far refused to rely on the votes of Arab parties. To get a majority it needs at least eight parties, including at least one Arab party. To make matters worse, there is no agreement on who the prime minister would be.
The obvious choice is Yair Lapid, a television anchor turned politician who leads the centrist Yesh Atid party, the second-largest in the Knesset. But two right-wing parties, one in the anti-Netanyahu bloc and one on the fence, vowed not to serve under the “leftist” Mr Lapid. So they too would have to break promises to their voters. To confuse matters more, two other party leaders want to be prime minister.
The defence minister, Benny Gantz, another centrist and a former commander of the armed forces, was Mr Netanyahu’s main rival a year ago, but his Blue and White party this time came only fourth. He lost much of his credibility by joining the previous short-lived Netanyahu government, which collapsed after just seven months, leading to the most recent election. Under a law it passed, Mr Gantz is still scheduled to become prime minister in November, if no other government is formed by then. Forming a government can take many months. Mr Gantz may yet try to foil other rivals to win the post.
The third candidate to replace Mr Netanyahu is Naftali Bennett (pictured). The former high-tech entrepreneur’s first job in politics was as Mr Netanyahu’s chief of staff. His party, Yamina, won just seven seats. It would be the most right-wing bit of a coalition that would have to include left-wing and Arab parties. He says his price for joining such a coalition would be to lead it.
Whatever ruling coalition is formed will involve breaking election promises—and will be unwieldy and therefore fragile. One opposition ploy might be to set short-term objectives. For instance, it could take control of parliamentary business when the new Knesset is inaugurated on April 6th by appointing a new speaker. It might then be able to pass legislation preventing any politician facing criminal charges (ie, Mr Netanyahu) from becoming prime minister. Next, it could form a short-term government with limited aims, chief among them to pass a budget: the most recent was passed three years ago.
The prime minister is not giving up, of course. With his trial set to resume on April 5th, he still aims to gain a majority which he hopes will pass a law granting him immunity from prosecution. He is urging Mr Bennett to join, offering to merge his party and Likud, with the prospect of one day leading it. Mr Netanyahu is seeking defectors from other parties, too. But his chances of success are fading. Last time round he persuaded Mr Gantz to break his promise not to join a government led by Mr Netanyahu by appealing to his sense of national duty when the pandemic was threatening to engulf the world. But that emergency is over and if Mr Netanyahu were to promise once again to cede power down the line, few would trust him to keep his word.■
This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Too many kingmakers”
This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.