The Israeli legislative or Knesset election last week has turned out to be a rerun of the 9 April one, but with a significant twist.
After all the 4.4 million votes were counted, the Centre-left bloc led by Benjamin “Benny” Gantz of the Blue and White party had a slight majority of 57 seats against the 55 seats held by the Likud party-led Right-religious bloc. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
With just eight seats in the 120-member parliament, Avigdor Liberman-led Yisrael Beiteinu party has now emerged as the kingmaker in Israel. The party is secular and nationalist, and Liberman used to be Netanyahu’s defence minister. His hard-line position on drafting the Haredi precipitated the early dissolution of the Knesset last December and the failure of government formation after the April election.
The Haredi are ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel who are exempted from the country’s compulsory military service so that they can study the Torah full time.
The uncertainties of a coalition formation in Israel largely remain unchanged, but certain things are obvious. None of the major political parties wants a third election within a year.
The fatigue of the larger public is reflected in the sliding electoral participation. Until the 1990s, the voter turnout in Israel was over 75 per cent, but has been sliding since then.
Although marginally higher than the last vote, the September election saw the participation of 69.4 per cent voters. The popular sentiments will force the politicians to swallow their rhetoric and come up with a workable coalition in the coming weeks.
Coexistence with strange bedfellows will be inevitable if Israel were to avoid another costly and yet another inconclusive poll.
End of Netanyahu’s career
More significantly, the election would mark the end of the political career of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has dominated the Israeli landscape since the Madrid peace conference of October 1991 when he was the official spokesperson. Besides getting seven seats fewer than in April, under his leadership, Likud secured 300,000 votes lesser than Blue and White party led by former general Benny Gantz.
Netanyahu’s long-running battle with the law is also catching up and the formal indictment process would begin on 2 October, as President Reuven Rivlin is unable to entrust the mandate to either of larger parties.
Failure to form a government will get Netanyahu closer to a possible conviction and imprisonment in corruption cases.
The desperation of the Likud leader was exhibited through a host of actions and statements during the run-up to the 22nd Knesset election.
In a controversial move, he courted the extreme right Jewish Home party, led by followers of the Kahane Hai party, which was proscribed by the Knesset in the 1980s. Defying the prevailing opinion both within and outside the country, Netanyahu pledged to annex significant parts of the West Bank. Whipping up hatred, he even warned the electorates of a possible ‘fraud’ by the Arab voters, who make up about a fifth of the Israeli population. Above all, Netanyahu went overboard and harped on his close personal friendship with President Donald Trump.
In the end, none of them worked or worked against the Likud.
President Trump who in the past unequivocally endorsed Netanyahu has been cautious and careful this time. In an unexpected move, he declared: “Our relations are with Israel, so we’ll see what happens.” In recent months, seasoned critics have argued that in his eagerness to befriend Trump, Netanyahu has breached the bipartisan consensus in the US and reduced the bilateral relations to proximity between the two personalities. Trump’s cautious reaction to the Israeli election could be the first step in fixing this aberration.
Netanyahu’s negative campaign seemed to have galvanised the Arab sector and resulted in Arab parties forming a united list, and with 13 seats they are the third-largest party in the Knesset.
Since 1948 the Arabs are not considered kosher enough to be a part of the ruling coalition and this is unlikely to change this time, but their outside support will be crucial for any Centre-Left government in Israel and its peace policies.
Likud without Netanyahu?
Some form of a unity government becomes inevitable if Israel were to avoid prolonged crisis and worse, another round of election before the yearend. This would mean key political parties moving away from their earlier rhetoric and political boycotts and finding common grounds.
Less-than-expected electoral performance, impending indictment and prolonged political stay will work against Netanyahu’s continuation as prime minister. Many favour a cohabitation between the Blue and White and Likud. With 64 seats this would offer political stability and entice smaller parties to join a unity government.
However, there is a catch and would demand a price: Likud replacing Netanyahu. Despite the attractions, dumping the leader is not a viable option for the party. Since the pre-state years, Likud and its predecessors only had four leaders, namely, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu. While there are many aspirants for leadership, none have the national, let alone international presence, influence or domination as the prime minister. Fears of internal squabbles and even break up is inhibiting many from openly challenging Netanyahu, who is also the longest-serving leader of Israel. Hence, Likud without Netanyahu will be easier said than done.
Politics is an art of the possible. Imaginative comprises are essential if Israel were to avoid another and possibly inclusive, election.
The author teaches contemporary Middle East in Jawaharlal Nehru University and is the honorary director of Middle East Institute, New Delhi. Views are personal.
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