The 35th Israeli government

Last week, Israel finally got a new government, after three elections in under a year, the most recent of which was March of this year.

And what a government it is! Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud will remain prime minister, with a planned rotation of the premiership to Benny Gantz in 18 months.

It is being referred to as a “unity government” but that is a strange term for a government, the formation of which led to the break-up of three of the multi-party alliances that contested the most recent election, most especially Gantz’s Blue and White list. Maybe just like with “grand coalition” in Germany and Austria, it is time to dispense with the term, “unity government,” for Israel.

The most recent Israeli governments to which the term applied were following the Knesset elections of 1984 and 1988. In these elections the two main parties (Likud and Labor) each had won around 40 or more seats and formed governments in which the two parties governed together. Unlike the European examples, the parties in the earlier Israeli examples also agreed to rotate the premiership (two years one party, two years the other), although this plan broke down during the second term of planned “unity”.

This new government has the rotation plan again, but in other respects, it is quite novel. For one thing, as alluded to already, one of the two main components of the agreement, Blue and White, split. The part headed by Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi has joined the government with Likud, but the part consisting of Yesh Atid (led by Yair Lapid) and Telem (led by Moshe Ya’alon) will go to opposition. Likud won 36 seats in the most recent elections and Blue and White 33. However, with the split, the governing portion of the latter brings only 18 seats to support the cabinet. Thus, unlike the previous “unity” governments, in this one the two main lists that are forming the cabinet and rotating the premiership do not have a majority of Knesset seats between them (they have 54, where a majority is 61.)

(Yesh Atid and Telem, who will be in opposition, have 16 seats; there were also two from B&W who split off and joined the government as a separate party and two from the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance who joined the new rump B&W, while another effectively joined the Likud’s bloc… it gets complicated!)

Despite the imbalance now of the two main components, Likud and (rump) B&W, each has rough parity in the government. This is a sense in which it is still sort of a “unity” government. B&W currently has 13 ministers, while Likud has 14, even though the Likud caucus is twice the size of B&W’s. In addition, the B&W splinter joining the government, the 2-seat Derech Eretz, gets one minister. So does Gesher, which is just Orly Levi-Abekasis, who split from Labor-Gesher-Meretz to join the government. And Labor has two. In addition, there is Rafael Peretz, who split from the nationalist Yemina (the rest of which is going into opposition), plus one from United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and one from Shas. (The latter two, both haredi–or ultra-orthodox–parties, combine for 16 Knesset seats.)

Thus, strictly in portfolios, the remnant of Blue and White made off really well, getting 37% of the cabinet despite contributing only around 22% of the cabinet’s parliamentary basis. Likud gets 40% of the cabinet, with about 44% of the parliamentary basis.

Plus, of course, there is the rotation. Gantz gets a turn at the premiership after 18 months, if the agreement lasts. So, while critics on the leftish side of the political spectrum are calling Gantz a sell out for going into government with Netanyahu, he actually got a pretty good deal, in terms of the portfolios:legislators ratio. (I will not go into policy in this post, but my sense is he did decently well there, given the bargaining situation.)

In the end, both blocs failed to win three straight elections–even the first of which was called several months earlier than required. And so compromise was the only option. Well, no, actually it was not. A fourth election in just over a year’s time could have been called. In fact, under Israeli law, it would have happened automatically had a deal not been struck to form a government. Polling strongly suggested a new election would finally give the Nethanyahu-led bloc (Likud, Yemina, UTJ, and Shas) more than 61 seats.

The bargaining over government formation, when there is a looming return to elections, always takes place against the backdrop of what each side expects in the event of a new election. This only enhances the significance of the portfolio balance and rotation Gantz was able to extract. Likud and its allies certainly had no reason to fear the outcome of an election, and could have just run out the clock and let it happen, while blaming Gantz (and Lapid) for dragging voters to the polls yet again.

So Netanyahu and his allies struck a deal either because the ongoing coronavirus crisis made going back to the polls seem unappealing, or because Nethanyahu really preferred a coalition containing at least one party to his left over one formed around a narrow right-wing (nationalist-haredi) bloc. The reason need not be one or the other. Both factors probably matter.

But bear in mind that Nethanyahu has always had coalitions in which he had partners from the center-left as well as to his right, with the partial exception of the one formed after the 2015 election–the one that was ended early to kick off what would turn out to be a sequence of three elections. In that coalition, Kulanu (10 seats) was to Likud’s left, although firmly part of the “nationalist camp” in its self-definition (and merged with Likud after the first of the three 2019-20 elections). Thus it is entirely plausible that Nethanyahu preferred some sort of deal with Gantz, and could not get Gantz to back down from demands that his bloc get a large share of the cabinet even if he failed to bring his whole list with him. With the ulranationalist Yemina (6 seats) going into opposition, and the two haredi parties not really fitting on the left-right dimension (which, in Israel, is mostly about doves vs. hawks), Likud for the first time in the Netanyahu era will anchor the farthest right position in the cabinet. (Had they gone back to elections that resulted in a majority for the right-haredi bloc, Likud would have anchored the farthest left position in the likely government.)

(As an aside, I wonder how Lapid could possibly have been willing to go to another election, given polling suggesting only around 10% or so for his list. Or maybe he just really decided that being opposition leader was the least unattractive of all his options.)

On the question of whether the agreement can last, the coalition deal includes some creative constitution re-drafting. Before it was voted in as the government, the proto-coalition amended Basic Laws in order to attempt to secure its position, and thus not be vulnerable to a potential Nethanyahu decision to break it up early and precipitate elections. Here are the main points (thanks to JD Mussel for these):

  • There is now a new legal category of government called an “Alternation Government”. The following apply to such a government:
  • PM can’t fire ministers from other bloc without alternate PM’s consent.
  • If an election is called by the Knesset, with at least 12 members of the right bloc voting for it, Gantz automatically becomes PM (and vice versa after PM alternation).
  • The PM’s existing power to call an election (which is not exactly that, since a new government can be formed within 21 days) now requires the consent of the alternate PM.
  • Neither a sitting PM nor alternate PM can serve in a government installed as result of a constructive no-confidence vote (whereby 61 members of Knesset must elect a new government in order to oust the incumbent).
  • The Basic Law change contains an entrenchment clause: “This Basic Law [probably meaning specifically these amended clauses] may only be changed with the votes of 75 MKs,”

A strange beast Netanyahu and Gantz have created! But a political (and public-health) crisis required some creative bargaining and constitutional innovation.

A couple of final small thoughts:

  • Is this the first time in the annals of parliamentary government that a formateur (the one designated to attempt to form a government) had himself installed as Speaker to preserve his leverage while bargaining to install someone else as (initial) Prime Minister?
  • Is this the first case known to constitutional history of a 62.5% majority to amend?

Israel 2020a: Polling day

It is election day in Israel. Again. I probably have not followed an Israeli election so loosely since some time before the 1990s. If I am feeling this indifferent, I can only imagine how the average Israeli voter feels.

Polling throughout the period since the last election–only last September–shows little sign of any fundamental change in the political deadlock that has been a feature since the elections of last April. That is why I put “2020a” in the tile above. It is not inevitable that there will be a “2020b” election, but it is unclear how it will be avoided.

The potential governing scenarios are about the same now as they were when I last wrote, in November. Maybe one of these will happen this time, or maybe today’s results will surprise and the bargaining situation will be markedly different.

The lineup of parties is pretty much the same as last time. The main difference is yet another shift in the options on the Zionist left. The Democratic Union is defunct already, and the Labor-Gesher alliance has formed an alliance list with a third partner, Meretz. Cleverly, they are calling it Labor-Gesher-Meretz. The wider alliance was formed out of necessity, with the grave danger that one or both of the components could have fallen below the 3.25% threshold if running separately. The Greens are no longer in this partnership (or running at all), and Stav Shaffir failed to find a home, thereby depriving the left of one its star MKs (in my assessment).

There is also one candidate on the Labor-Gesher-Meretz list–in a realistic slot (#7)–from an old splinter party called Democratic Choice: former Deputy Chief of the General Staff Yair Golan, who had been elected with Democratic Union in September. Issawi Frej, an Arab politician who was elected in the 4th rank on Meretz’s list last April, has been dropped all the way to a likely unrealistic 11th on this election’s list. (He was 7th on Democratic Union’s list, which included Meretz and Greens, in September; the list won 5 seats.)

The realignment on the right was minor, with Yamina back as the more nationalist and Religious Zionist flank to the right of Likud. Naftali Bennet of New Right is back to being #1 on this list, with Ayelet Shaked (who led the list in September) dropped to #3; in between them is Rafi Peretz of the Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi) group within the Yamina alliance. Otzma is again running separately, and no poll that I have seen has put it anywhere near the  threshold.

Yisrael Beiteinu is still claiming not to be willing to go back into the right-wing/Haredi bloc, and without their seats, there probably is still no majority for the right. YB leader Avigdor Liberman is also again saying that his backing a minority government with support from the Joint List (of predominantly Arab parties) is also out of the question.

Then there is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing legal problems–this time an actual trial set to begin on 17 March. The Attorney General and Supreme Court may have to rule on a question that they have so far dodged–can a leader on trial form a new government? I can’t claim to know, but the Basic Law on Government certainly does not say clearly that he could not. (Logically one might think he could not!)

If he were to be ruled ineligible, then a unity government (Likud and Blue and White) probably would form. But it would be very messy, to say the least, if it was the legal system that ultimately forced Netanyahu out.

The lists of Likud and Blue & White are not much different from September, but one potentially significant change is Gadi Yevarkan, a representative of the Ethiopian community. He was at #33 on the list of Blue & White in September, making him the list’s last winner. For this list he jumped to Likud, and with the 20th slot on the list, he is a sure winner.

As far as the polls are concerned, most of them showed Blue and White ahead until recent weeks, when Likud has pulled ahead. Quite a few polls have shown them tied, lately around 33 or 34 seats. More importantly, none that I know of has shown the current governing bloc at 61 seats, the number needed for a majority government. (This refers to the bloc without YB, which has shown no willingness to rejoin since walking out of the government in late 2018.)

The last polls to show Blue and White with a lead seem to have been published around 21 February. I will use one example to compare to the late-campaign averages. The Panels poll conducted on 19 February showed B&W on 36 seats and Likud on 32. This was one of the worst results for the right/Haredi bloc, showing it with 54 seats (it won 55 in September). It had YB on 8 seats (same as in September). The average of the last seven polls shows Likud at 34 and B&W at 33, with YB at 6. More importantly, this average has the right/Haredi bloc on 58. The Labor-Gesher-Meretz list has increased from 8 seats in that Panels poll of 21 Feb. to 9 in the late average. Overall, this suggests there has been some movement from B&W + Labor-led (44 then, 42 now) to the right. Of course, all such differences are within the polls’ margin of error. In any case, the main conclusion is that, if the polls are roughly accurate, there is still no majority for Netanyahu’s coalition. There is, of course, also no alternative majority that is viable without Likud or some part of that bloc, because B&W is not going to govern with the Joint List, and that (with Labor+) would still not be a majority without YB. So we are stuck, again.

Finally, on the Joint List, it is currently at 14 in the late-polls average, which would represent a one-seat gain on the last election. If it gets 14, it will elect three women; if it were to get 15, it would elect four (two are in safe seats). The parties in this alliance are trying to reach Bedouin voters and others who have not supported it in the previous elections. As always, it has to overcome calls by some in its community to boycott. If there is widespread abstention by Arab citizens, it will help the Likud and allies, though it still seems that the latter getting to 61 would be a stretch, unless the result diverges considerably from the consensus of the polls.

Oh, and really finally, it is my wish that the media stop calling this a “third round” of elections. Both the April and September elections of 2019 were fully complete, legitimate elections that produced a Knesset. The parties elected at those times simply failed to agree a government. This isn’t another round of one process, but a third discrete attempt to elect a Knesset that actually can sustain a government.

Attorneys General–institutions matter

Now that indictments have been announced against the (outgoing–dare I say?) Prime Minister of Israel, it is worth reviewing the institutional basis of the office of Attorney General in Israel.

I am seeing some casual takes on Twitter about why the US doesn’t have an Attorney General who takes a tougher line against law-breaking at the top of government. But the offices could hardly be more different. The US Attorney General is a cabinet appointee. The President picks who holds that position, subject only to Senate majority confirmation. Of course, Trump has had a highly compliant Senate majority throughout his presidency.

Trump could not have had occupants of the office that have been as awful for the rule of law as they have been, if the office were structured like Israel’s. So it is worth sketching how the process of appointing the Israeli Attorney General works. My source for this is Aviad Bakshi, Legal Advisers and the Government: Analysis and Recommendations, Kohelet Policy Forum, Policy Paper No. 10, February 2016.

a. There shall be formed a permanent selection committee that shall screen suitable candidates, one of which shall be appointed to the position by the government. The term of each committee shall be four years. 

b. The chairman shall be a retired justice of the Supreme Court who shall be appointed by the President (Chief Justice) of the Supreme Court upon the approval of the Minister of Justice, and the other members shall be: a retired Minister of Justice or retired Attorney General appointed by the government; a Knesset Member elected by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of the Knesset; a scholar elected by a forum comprising deans of law schools; an attorney elected by the Israel Bar Association. 

c. The AGI term duration shall be six years, with no extension, irrespective of the term of the government. 

d. The government may remove the AGI from his position due to specific reasons.… These reasons include, in addition to personal circumstances of the AGI, disagreements between the AGI and the government that prevent efficient cooperation. In such an event the selection committee shall convene to discuss the subject and shall submit its opinion to the government, in writing. However, the opinion of the committee is not binding, and the government may decide to remove the AGI contrary to the recommendation of the committee. The AGI shall have the right to a hearing before the government and before the committee. 

All of this makes for a reasonably independent office. Even if appointment and dismissal are still in the hands of the government, the screening and term provisions make it an arms-length relationship. The occupant of the post is obviously not a cabinet minister, as in the US, and is not a direct appointee of the head of government or the cabinet.

Worlds apart, institutionally.

And this is even before we get into the parliamentary vs. presidential distinction. A president is–for better or worse–meant to be hard to indict, let alone remove. That’s why the main tool against a potentially criminal executive in the US and many other presidential systems is lodged in the congress, through impeachment, and not in a state attorney. A prime minister in a parliamentary system, on the other hand, by definition has no presumption of a fixed term.

The normal way to get rid of a PM is, of course, a vote of no-confidence or the PM’s own party or coalition partners withdrawing support. But that’s the point–they are constitutionally not protected when the political winds, let alone the legals ones, turn against them.

In the broader institutional context of a parliamentary system, it is presumably much easier to take the step of also designing an independent Attorney General’s office that has the ability to indict a sitting head of government.

On the other hand, there is still no obvious way to remove Netanyahu from office any time soon, unless his own party rebels against him. Even though Trump’s own party will probably block the super-majority in the Senate needed to remove him from office*, the resolution of the case against Trump might happen considerably sooner than any resolution of Netanyahu’s case. Barring a rebellion by his current allies, Netanyahu may remain PM fore another 4-5 months, through a now-likely third election (since last April) and the post-election coalition bargaining process.

* Assuming the House majority impeaches him, which now looks all but inevitable.

What kind of government for Israel, or third election?

(Some questions at the end about comparative context. Help, please!)

This Wednesday night, Benny Gantz’s period as designated formateur expires. His odds of successfully forming a government look bleak. Nothing has changed to make it any easier than when I last wrote on the topic of government-formation options. And at least one thing has changed to make it harder. It is important to understand that a third election (April 2019, Sept. 2019, and potentially March 2020) is the default if no agreement is reached. There is actually a 21-day period after Gantz’s mandate expires before the election becomes automatic, but there’s scant reason to believe the next 21 days would result in an agreement. (During this 21-day period, it requires 61 Knesset members’ signatures to nominate a PM. Fat chance.)

The change that makes forming a government harder than it was in April or even immediately after the September election is that the bloc that incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) prefers has held tenaciously together. This is the combine of Likud, the two ultra-orthodox lists, and the nationalists that formed the government up until the April election. This bloc lost seats in April, relative to the 2015 election, and lost quite a few more in September. It was a majority when Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu was with it, but he pulled out in December, 2018, and has so far adamantly refused to rejoin it from April till now.

However, all the other party leaders in the bloc have steadfastly said that Netanyahu negotiates for all of them. This has foreclosed, so far, any of the rumored defections whereby some party in the bloc would join Gantz and Liberman to help establish a majority coalition without Likud. In fact, one of the member parties of the bloc actually folded itself into Likud, with Naftali Bennet getting the post of Defense Minister in the deal. This move does not change the fact that the bloc has only 55 seats, six short of the minimum needed for a majority government. But it closed off one potential, if unlikely, path that might have led to a breaking of the deadlock.

It seems that the idea of a minority government of Blue and White (the list Gantz heads), which would have to have the support of both Yisrael Beiteinu and the Joint [Arab] List, is actually being taken semi-seriously. It still seems unlikely, but Gantz just might go for it if late talks with Netanyahu do not produce an agreement. The best evidence that it is being taken seriously is that Netanyahu has gone verbally ballistic–even by his standards–over the possibility. And while the idea has not been endorsed by Gantz, he has not denied it, either. A government needs only a plurality of Knesset votes to be installed. In other words, abstentions do not count against it.

Still, even though the Joint List would not have cabinet positions in such a case (and thus would not be “in government”), the prospect is fraught with difficulty. Not, I would stress, because the parties are Arab, per se. But because they potentially can be classified as anti-system parties, or as a semi-loyal opposition. Parties that do not accept the fundamental character of the state rarely get any kind of formalized role in backing a minority government in any democracy. (I invite examples, but I can’t think of any.) And it would probably need to be formalized–in a “confidence and supply” agreement–because of one of the ways a government can collapse and early elections be mandated: If a government can’t get supply (i.e., pass a budget). If such an arrangement could be agreed, then a minority government can be stable. It takes 61 votes–a majority–in a constructive no-confidence vote electing a replacement government in order to remove an incumbent cabinet. But the problem is getting it installed and with a supply lifeline in place.

As has been the case since April, the most logical outcome is a “unity” government. But Gantz ran on replacing Netanyahu (policy differences are scant) and he and, even more forcefully, his co-leaders have claimed they will not serve under Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the incumbent is claiming a right to go first as PM in a rotation deal. It would be a little odd to give the priority to the one who came second in votes, though his bloc is indeed the larger one. That bloc again… Netanyahu also wants all the partners to be included, which implies Blue and White would be just an appendage to a right-wing government. B&W got lots of votes from leftist voters, despite what we would normally call a center-right party positioning. So Gantz’s lack of enthusiasm is understandable.

Of course, Netanyahu wants to go first because he still may be indicted at some point in the near future. His time horizon is a bit short! B&W might need to insist on a legal change that would ensure Netanyahu would step down if indicted, but one can imagine this is going to be a hard pledge to extract.

Another possibility not to be ruled out is Liberman going back to the right-wing bloc. He has dug in hard enough that I actually don’t think this is likely. But if he gets compromises he can sell to his voters, he might do it. He does not exactly have a record of being the most consistent politician.

A third election might not change much. The five polls so far since the last election have not shown much movement of voter support. What movement they have shown has been somewhat downward for the Bibi Bloc in the three most recent polls. It may be relevant here that only the first of these polls showed Liberman’s party losing ground, and the two most recent ones show him gaining one. (The second and fifth polls in the sequence are by the same pollster.)

Will there be a deal? Who knows!

Finally, this all leads me to some questions:

  1. In other parliamentary democracies, how common is it for parties that ran separately in an election to negotiate as a bloc (delegating the largest party thereof as negotiator for them all) after the election?
  2. How common is it for parties that could be classified as “anti-system” or “semi-loyal” to be the outside support parties to a minority cabinet?
  3. Are there any other cases of something that may yet happen here, in which the one designated as formateur agrees to be in a cabinet but not its (first) head?

Israel 2019b, compared to 2019a

Here, following up on the earlier discussion of post-election bargaining scenarios, I want to compare Israel’s two elections of 2019 on several statistical measures. The 2019b (September) results are not quite official yet, but are very unlikely to change other than in the smallest of voting detail.

The table below compares the votes for Netanyahu’s “Bibi bloc” of right-wing and Haredi parties, by various definitions, as well as the indicators of fragmentation: effective number of parties by seats and votes, total number of lists with seats, and the seats won by the largest list. For each measure, there is a comparison of change from April to September. The final three columns refer to output of the Seat Product Model (SPM) for the indicators of fragmentation–what is expected from the model (given an assembly size of 120 and district magnitude also of 120), and ratios of the actual indicators to the expectation.

Measure April Sept change SPM expected Ratio, April Ratio, Sept.
Bibi bloc (percent votes) 48.7 44.5 -4.2
… plus YB 52.7 51.5 -1.2
… plus Otzma 46.4
… plus YB & Otzma 52.7 53.3 0.6
Effective N, seats 5.24 5.67 0.43 4.93 1.06 1.15
Effective N, votes 6.33 6.11 -0.22 5.23 1.21 1.17
No. of lists with 1 or more seats 11 9 -2 11 1.00 0.82
Seats for largest list 35 33 -2 36 0.97 0.92

The scale of the defeat for the core Bibi bloc is clear. Already in April, these parties had less than 50% of the votes, at 48.7%, which is why they won only 60 seats under Israel’s proportional system. If we include Yisrael Beiteinu in the total Bibi bloc, we get 52.7% (which is why this larger definition of the bloc had 65 seats). As I have explained already–both before and after the most recent election–we should not count YB in the bloc, particularly since it was this party’s actions that precipitated the early elections of 2019–yes, both of them.

In the second election of 2019, this Bibi bloc fell to 44.5% of the vote, a drop of 4.2 percentage points. If we include YB, they do have a narrow majority of votes (51.2%), but we should not include them. However, we probably should include Otzma Yehudit, given that it was part of the Union of Right Wing Parties in April, and probably would have been invited to join a coalition had it cleared the threshold in the September election. But still this is short of a voting majority without YB, at 46.4% (which would mean a loss of 2.3 percentage points off the April showing of 48.7).

For a baseline, consider that the Bibi bloc had 48.4% in 2015, or 53.5% including YB (which was without doubt part of the bloc at that time–their staying out of the coalition initially in 2015 was a surprise). Note that, leaving out YB, they were already below majority voter support in 2015, but had managed 61 seats. The reason they gained ever so slightly in votes in April, yet got only 60 seats, was all the wasted votes for New Right (3.22%), which did not clear the threshold in the April, 2019, election.*

If we include both Otzma and YB in the 2019b election, it looks like a very small gain for the wider bloc. But we should not do this because some of YB’s increased votes probably came from Blue and White or other parties not in the right, due to YB’s promise not to return to a Likud-led government unless it was a “unity” government with Blue and White.

On the fragmentation indicators, the effective number of seat-winning parties went up, from 5.24 to 5.67, despite the drop of the total number of lists winning seats, from 11 to 9. The increase in the effective number is due to the smaller size of the largest party in the more recent election, 33 seats (Blue and White) vs. 35 (tie between Blue & White and Likud).

The effective number of vote-earning parties came down somewhat, from 6.33 to 6.11. None of these measures is much different than what we should expect under the SPM, although the raw number of represented lists this time is actually smaller than expected, while the effective number of seat winning parties was closer to the expectation in April than now.

We should expect the largest party, given this electoral system, to have 30.2% of the seats, which out of 120 works out to 36 (rounded down). The election pretty much nailed that in April, but this election saw a return to a smaller than expected plurality party.

So, strictly from the SPM, this was a slightly less “normal” election than 2019a, although not too far off. From the standpoint of the usual pattern with a “b” election (a second one within a year), it was, as I anticipated, a little unusual. Typically, the effective numbers go down and the size of the largest up. Israel went the opposite way between April and September, and thus government formation still will not be easy.

* We could go back and include Yachad (of which Otzma Yehudit was a part) in the 2015 count, which would bring it to 51.3%, but at the time I do not recall their being taken seriously as part of the bloc. Doing so, of course, increases the scale of the loss of voter support already as of the first election of 2019.

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.