Bibi was right to be worried: So now what?

Update: Three Joint List MKs (the Balad faction) have written to the President to say they withdraw their recommendation of Gantz, contravening the leader’s earlier claim to be speaking for all 13. This puts Gants one behind Netanyahu. I don’t think it changes the bigger picture, as described below, however.


Over the summer, I noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was, by his actions, showing he was worried that he would not retain his post after the elections of 17 September. He was right to be worried. The election results were very bad for him. His party, Likud, came in second place, two seats behind the Blue & White alliance, led by Benny Gantz. The 31 seats for Likud represent a loss of 8 seats, based on the combined strength in the April election of the Likud list and Kulanu (which merged into Likud before this election). That is a stinging rebuke from the voters.

The combined right-wing/Haredi bloc had 60 seats in April; it seemed like 65 as the results came in, because it was assumed that Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Liberman, should be counted in the bloc. However, it was already evident before the April election that Liberman’s support could not be guaranteed. It was his decision to leave the government in December, 2018, that led Netanyahu to go for the early election in the first place; an election was not required earlier than November, 2019. (Liberman also had taken his time joining the government after the 2015 election, having initially remained outside and thus leaving the Likud-led bloc with 61, the narrowest of majorities.)

Liberman refused, after the April election, to rejoin a Netanyahu-led government, which is the main reason a new election was called for September. Based on the results, the bloc that was Bibi’s government on the eve of the April election has lost five seats, and now has only 55.The Haredi (ultra-orthodox) have grown from 16 to 17 seats (Shas, the Sephardi Haredi party, picked up a seat). The ultranationalists, reunited on the Yamina list after the disaster of April when New Right barely missed clearing the 3.25% threshold, wound up with 8 seats. Superficially, this is gain, as the Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP) had only 5 seats in April. But their potential might have been greater, given that their reunion should have also added on the 4 potential seats they just missed out on in April. However, they again lost votes to division, as the racist Otzma Yehudit (which was part of URWP and also had a candidate on the Likud list) ran separately but still earned 1.9% of the vote in this most recent election–about 2 seats worth, but well below the threshold.

However, there is a really important point that casual observers of Israeli politics often overlook: There is not even a semblance of a unified center-left bloc that could form an alternative government now that the “Bibi bloc” (minus Liberman) has been decisively defeated. While Blue and White has 33 seats, and thus a plurality, the only plausible center-left coalition partners (the realigned Labor + Gesher but minus Stav Shaffir, who joined the Greens and Barak + Meretz) bring in only 11 more seats (6 for Labor-Gesher, 5 for Democratic Union). So that’s 55 for the right-Haredi bloc and 44 for what might be loosely called a center-left bloc. Very loosely, as there is little about B&W that actually leans left. It ran about as pure a “valence” campaign as you will ever see, meaning it focused on how they could be tougher on Hamas in Gaza than Bibi has been, and would be competent, but otherwise not much on issues.

One issue B&W did emphasize was secularism, which is also one of the issues that propelled Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, to a strong debut showing in 2013. Lapid is the #2 on the B&W list. This was also the issue that Liberman emphasized in refusing to rejoin Netanyahu’s bloc after the April election. It certainly worked, as he increased his seats from 5 (his party was below the threshold in many pre-election polls earlier this year) to 8. He has said he will only recommend to the President that the government to be formed now be a “unity” government of B&W, Likud, and his party.

This leaves us with the Joint List, consisting of Arab parties. (One component is Hadash, basically the Communist Party, which always has one Jewish MK.) Reunited for this election, after running in two separate lists in April, the Arab parties got back to their 2015 debut performance as a single list, winning 13 seats. This makes them the third largest bloc in the Knesset. During the campaign, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh tried to set some conditions under which they would join a government. However, he immediately had to walk them back as other leaders of the parties in the list clearly were not on board with the idea.

Odeh and others have made several statements since the election that they are not interested in sharing collective cabinet responsibility. So do not even ask if there could be a government of B&W, the left parties, and the Arab parties. It is not going to happen, even if Gantz invited them, which he will not. Also note that even if this were a viable option, it still is not a majority–it is 57 seats–unless Yisrael Beiteinu joined. And that is really hard to imagine. Or if the Haredi parties joined, which honestly is easier to imagine, but still highly unlikely.

Nonetheless, the Joint List made an announcement on 22 September that it will recommend to the President that Gantz be given the first attempt to form a government. A fly in the ointment is that Balad, one of the components of the Joint List, says it opposes recommending Gantz; they have three seats, and it is not clear if this means they would vote differently from their colleagues if it came to that. But we are a long way from any vote testing Joint List discipline. Odeh said, in part:

My colleagues and I have made this decision [to recommend Gantz be tasked with forming a government] not as an endorsement of Mr. Gantz and his policy proposals for the country. We are aware that Mr. Gantz has refused to commit to our legitimate political demands for a shared future and because of that we will not join his government…

Our decision to recommend Mr. Gantz as the next prime minister without joining his expected national unity coalition government is a clear message that the only future for this country is a shared future, and there is no shared future without the full and equal participation of Arab Palestinian citizens.

Selecting a formateur–a member of the Knesset who will attempt for form a government–is one of the President’s few constitutional duties. Usually it is perfunctory. However, with neither the former governing bloc nor any obvious alignment around B&W having 61 Knesset members backing it, this time the President, Reuven Rivlin, actually has some discretion.

It looks like there will be 55 recommendations for Netanyahu and 57 for Gantz. If Liberman also recommends Gantz, then the latter has 65. Even if Liberman does not do so, it is likely that Gantz now will get the first call as formateur. But it is only an opportunity. It does not make him Prime Minister. So, can he pull it off?

A unity government (a grand coalition of some degree of grandness) still would be the most viable, and closest to what both Gantz and Liberman campaigned for. However, the very large obstacle is the continued presence of Netanyahu. Gantz and his allies in B&W have repeatedly said they will not sit in a government with him, and at least for now I assume they will stick by that. So unless Netanyahu sees the writing on the wall and resigns, or somehow Likud tells him it is time to spend more time with his family (while he can before he goes to prison), this option won’t materialize at least for a while.

It is possible that Netanyahu will face his formal indictment some time over the period Gantz gets to form a government. In that case, maybe the odds of the “unity” outcome improve with a new Likud leader as #2 in the cabinet. Till then, it remains difficult to see how it happens.

The other option is a minority government. In many parliamentary democracies, that is exactly what would happen in such a situation. But Israel has no such tradition. The only minority governments the country has had were short-term cases after some parties left a government, not the first government formed after an election.

A minority government is more politically sustainable now than it would have been before the most recent amendment to the Basic Law provisions on government formation and dissolution. There is now a full constructive vote of no confidence, whereby the Knesset majority is unable to vote a government out unless it affirmatively elects, with at least 61 votes, a replacement. Thus it does not take 61 votes to form a government (as always, a plurality of those voting would suffice), but it takes 61 to replace it. This increased viability for minority governments is exactly why I recommended a constructive vote of no confidence be adopted when I was an advisor to the Israel Democracy Institute in 2010. Now it has been adopted; I am not claiming credit, but I sure would like to see it put into use!

Such a formula could be stable, but would require an agreement with outside support parties regarding budgets. That is the one way a government could still be forced out even without 61 votes for a replacement–if it could not pass a budget. Given that the demands the Joint List presented concern enhanced funding for their services and infrastructure, including a new Arab town, there actually is the basis for such a deal. But, again, it would still require either Liberman to go along (whether in government or outside), or the Haredi (who have been known to be buyable with budgetary concessions!).

I do not think such a government will be formed. It is way too sensible! More seriously, it would be fraught with problems, with the risk that the cabinet takes some military measure due to a provocation from Hamas (or someone else), and the Joint List pulls the plug, giving up the budgetary concessions for the feel-good political gains of denouncing the government’s actions.

So, what other options are there?

The following looks implausible as of now, but it is a majority: a center-left-Haredi coalition consisting of B&W (33), Labour-Gesher (6), Democratic Union (5), and the Haredi parties (17). I will assume that Liberman would not join this; he has said he will no longer sit with the Haredi parties, but if a sufficient accommodation were made to appease Lapid and others in B&W, would he sit out? If he did not join, it would be only 61 seats and thus precarious. Perhaps it still could strike some sort of deal with the Joint List to tacitly support it in exchange for some policy concessions, without formally signing up to keep the government in power.

If Gantz gets the nod, which seems likely (whether they want to go first or not), he has at least three paths to forming a government, but none of them will be easy. To summarize, they are:

  1. Hold out for Netanyahu to leave the scene, and head a “unity” coalition with Likud (with or without Yisrael Beiteinu, whose votes would not be needed).
  2. A minority government, taking advantage of the stability conferred by the constructive no-confidence vote provision, with agreements from the Joint List, the Haredi parties, and Yisrael Beiteinu (at least two of those three, although the Haredi would be sufficient) to support it on budgetary and other key policy votes.
  3. A majority coalition with the Haredi parties.

For each of these, it is easy to name the reasons why it won’t happen. But one of them needs to happen, or else the country will go to a third election. Actually, that could be more likely than any of the above! But that is a topic for another day.

Follow up: The statistical indicators of the two elections of 2019, compared.

12 thoughts on “Bibi was right to be worried: So now what?

  1. Lieberman has since announced he won’t recommend either candidate. I presume Balad will be included within the Joint List recommendations, and therefore Gantz will have the lead.

    Rivlin, if I understand the Basic Law and unwritten conventions correctly, can nominate whomever he wants, and it’s quite possible he nominates Netanyahu first, plausibly on the grounds that he is the current Prime Minister but really on the grounds that the two hate one another and he wants to see Bibi fail. It would also give Gantz more time to negotiate behind the scenes.

    Bibi will probably prefer a third election, but I can’t see Bibi and his forces gaining support and the most likely outcome I see from that is the center-left bloc gaining seats and potentially Arab turnout increasing as well. If the rest of the Likud see the writing on the wall I think we may see a rapid abandonment of Bibi, who, in my perception, is not loved as much as he is feared.

    • That all seems correct to me.

      I am not sure which leader Rivlin will tap first, but there have been indications (including one I linked to) that Blue & White actually thinks Bibi will fail and would like that to happen before they get called.

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  3. Two things:
    1. I don’t think the President actually has that much discretion – the law now requires him to make the leader with more MK recommendations formateur, right?
    2. A really determined majority could bypass the constructive non-confidence vote by either changing the basic law or calling an election.

    • On #1, I don’t think so. I understand the specific process of soliciting and counting up recommendations to be informal. He only has to select an MK who is “prepared” to form a government following “consultations”. If it is not clear who is most “prepared” because no one has a clear majority, that is discretion, isn’t it? (See excerpt from the Basic Law below.)

      On #2, of course, that is correct. But how would a minority government pull either of those off? The point of the consultative vote is you need a determined majority to replace a government, so how does the government preempt it with either of the moves you mention?

      _______ Excerpt from Basic Law: Government __________

      7 (a) When a new Government has to be constituted, the President of the State shall, after consultation with representatives of party groups in the Knesset, assign the task of forming a Government to a Knesset Member who has notified him that he is prepared to accept the task; the President shall do so within seven days of the publication of the election results, or should the need arise to form a new government; and in the case of the death of the Prime Minister, within 14 days of his death.
      (b) Should these consultation take place before the new Knesset is convened, the President will consult the representatives of the lists of candidates to be represented in the new Knesset.

      • “how does the government preempt it with either of the moves you mention?”
        That’s not what I meant. What would a gov’t achieve by bypassing a law that protects it? No, I meant that if there was a majority in the Knesset opposed to the govt, but without agreement on an alternative government, the constructive no confidence requirement is de facto not binding for them because it can be bypassed. This may be one reason why minority governments have not yet had much serious consideration.

      • Fair point. It is still a bigger and more politically risky step to call an election or change the Basic Law than to replace a government midterm under a constructive vote. But, yes, this is the nature of a majority-rule constitution: the majority can do lots of things.

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  5. Via Lahov Harkov on Twitter, President Rivlin has just tasked Netanyahu as formateur, saying he had the best chance to form a government due to having more recommendations that Gantz. As noted in the update added yesterday at the top of this thread, Netanyahu surpassed Gantz by one seat when the Balad faction of the Joint List withdrew its recommendation of Gantz.

    Wouldn’t it be ironic if Netanyahu snatched victory from the jaws of defeat due to an Arab nationalist party?

    Of course, getting the first try does not mean succeeding, and this does not really change anything of what I wrote above about the governing options.

    • I don’t really think it would be thanks to Balad. Balad certainly won’t be voting for his investiture.

      If Bibi forms a government, it will be thanks to Lieberman, Labor, or Kahol Lavon (or at least 6 members thereof) giving him the support he needs.

      I don’t think Gantz coordinated with Balad to vote against him, but I actually think that gives him more time to negotiate with Lieberman and/or Aryeh Deri behind the scenes to arrange a government before he is actually tasked with doing so. I also think that’s why Rivlin nominated Bibi.

      Of course, there is also the real possibility that Bibi does something like giving Lieberman unprecedented power and shoving the Haredim aside and taking their confidence vote in the face of an Arab-allied left for granted. Lieberman seems unusually genuine in having elevated his anti-Haredi rhetoric to almost the same level as his anti-Arab rhetoric, but it may be a ruse or flexible (as he has so often shown himself).

      If I were betting I would put a Kahol Lavon-Shas-Labor-Meretz government with outside Arab support as the favorite, followed by a third election, and at much worse odds a Bibi 55-Lieberman government. I was hopeful that the Likud would pressure Netanyahu to step aside once it was obvious he wouldn’t have 61 seats, but it doesn’t appear they will do so.

  6. Also, the number of seats in the final results for Likud is 32, not 31. UTJ lost a seat. These two parties are in the same “bloc” so it does not change the balance of recommendations, nor the fact that Blue & White is the largest seat-winning list.

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