Israel’s do over of its national election is in about 5 weeks

We know now who the parties will be that will contest the do-over election that’s set for mid-September. In April, Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party won 35 of the 120 Knesset seats, and tied the newly formed centrist party, Blue and White, co-led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid. But because the right wing parties tallied 65 seats total in the last election, Likud was given the opportunity to try to form a government. To do that, you need a coalition of parties with a minimum of 61 seats, and you have 42 days to get it done, or else the (largely ceremonial) President of Israel can choose another party to try to form a government.

If you remember, Bibi was able to get a coalition of 60 seats, but one of the right-wing parties, Yisrael Beiteinu, headed by Avigdor Lieberman, refused to join the Netanyahu led government. They won 5 seats. The stated reason Lieberman gave for holding out was his ideological determination to insist on several laws that would discontinue military service exemptions for ultra-orthodox yeshiva students. Lieberman’s party is an avowedly secular, xenophobic, Jewish nationalist, pro-settler party. Few people thought he would actually hold out for the full 42 day coalition-building period – everyone thought he was taking a severe bargaining position. But he did.

Before the Israeli President could pivot and offer Blue and White a chance to have 42 days to form a government, Likud called the Knesset into session and called for a vote to form and then immediately dissolve the legislature. This was unprecedented, and it was weird. The reason Likud did this was that they preferred a second election in a few months’ time to giving Gantz and Lapid a chance to form a coalition.

So here we are.

One of the things that has happened since then is that there’s been a lot of small parties combining into blocs. So only 9 parties will be on the ballot in the upcoming election, the smallest number in Israel’s history. The Arab parties, which ran three different slates in the last election, have formed a Joint List (when they’ve done this in years past, they’ve tended to get more seats). Blue and White, which came closer than most expected to toppling Likud in April, has been laying low, and now, as they launch their new heavy PR push, they’re having in-fighting problems that are generating bad press for them. Lovely.

Meretz, traditionally the party of the peace camp, has merged with a newly formed party announced by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, calling itself the Democratic Union. On the right, some of the smaller parties have formed Hayamin Hachadash – “The New Right.” There’s some super creepy folks in that cohort, let me tell you.

Below is a graphic I pulled off of a webinar that shows, in the center column, the names of the 9 parties (or slates) that will be on the ballot. The column on the right shows how many seats each of these slates won in April – only because some of these slates were divided into smaller, separate slates last time, what the makers of this chart have done is combined the totals that smaller parties got last time when appropriate.

vote tallies 2019

So what do we make of this chart?

Well, here are the center-left parties:

vote tallies 2019 a

Basically, the center-left bloc, if voting patterns play out the same as they did in April, would have 45 seats (35 + 6 + 4). If you add the Joint List (Arab Parties), that brings it up to 55, but it’s very unlikely that a center-left government led by Blue and White would be willing to include the Joint List in a coalition (it’s never happened in Israeli history). Blue and White wants to form a unity government with Likud, and to convince Likud to oust Netanyahu as their leader. That’s their ideal governing scenario. So friends hoping for a center-left government to swing back into power, it’s a fool’s hope.

The center-right bloc (which isn’t very center and is very right) projects to 61 seats (35 + 5 + 8 + 8 + 5). I know what some of you are thinking – hey wait a minute, 61 right wing seats plus 55 left wing seats does not equal 120 seats. That’s because of things like slates not making the mandatory threshold required to get any Knesset seats – 3.5% of the total vote, and other such technicalities.

Analysts are predicting that Lieberman is going to draw votes away from Blue and White, and polling is showing his Yesh Atid party winning a much larger number of seats. Whether Lieberman will be willing to form a right wing government with Netanyahu is impossible to know. If his party emerges with, say, 10 seats this time instead of 5, that could motivate him to be either more or less amenable to joining a Bibi-led coalition. More amenable if Bibi can agree to most of his terms for supporting secular Israeli agendas that seek to push back against certain ultra-Orthodox priorities. Less amenable if his supporters appear to be behind him so that he will double down on his intransigence on these issues, and so that he will help push Likud to ditch Netanyahu as their leader. It’s impossible to know. But for those of us rooting for a post-Netanyahu Israel, the most likely way that will happen is if Lieberman decides to block Bibi from forming a government again.

Bibi, for his part, is facing the beginning of legal hearings related to the bribery and corruption crimes he has been indicted for. His first major court appearance is set for mid October, and the Attorney General has stated flatly that he won’t postpone the proceedings again (he already did once). Bibi desperately needs to have Likud be the number one vote-getting party in September, and then succeed in forming a coalition government quickly. If he can do that, and get the Knesset to quickly pass a law creating prosecutorial immunity for the Prime Minister, at least while in office, then he can avoid possible conviction and even prison time.

Let’s say his party comes out #1 on election night. The week that follows will probably be high-stakes political poker of the first order. All of the other right wing parties, Lieberman’s included, will have a lot of incentive to use Bibi’s desperate straits to leverage as many agreements and concessions out of Likud as they can possibly get. If Bibi can get to 61 seats without Lieberman, and without Blue and White, he pulls yet another rabbit out of his hat. On the other hand, if Bibi needs Lieberman to get to 61, and Lieberman’s terms are deal breakers for the ultra-Orthodox parties that Bibi also needs (or if Lieberman simply just has it in for Bibi and sees a chance to end his career here), then expect Bibi to make a last ditch attempt to turn to Blue and White to form a unity government.

The thing is, Bibi’s asking price is prosecutorial immunity, and Blue and White’s leaders have never stopped saying loudly that it’s never going to happen on their watch, and that they regard it as a horrible abuse of democratic norms and rule of law. In Israel, as everywhere, politicians sometimes say anything one day and do something else another. But I think Blue and White’s people aren’t likely to be flexible about this matter. It’s a big part of their raison d’etre.

Anyway, I have no idea what will happen. But for those of you who care, I hope this summary is useful.

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