As 7am on the 17th September arrived, Israelis across the country woke to the prospect of returning to the polls for a second time in 5 months in a bid to break the political stalemate that has stalled Israeli politics for close to a year. In typical election day style, social media was flooded with unsubstantiated warnings from all parties of low voter turnout and various factions coming out to vote in droves in an attempt to sway the last-minute undecided voter.
With an air of apathy surrounding these elections, voter turnout was predicted to drop considerably. In an unexpected turn of events, 69.4% of the 6.3 million registered voters cast their vote at the ballots exceeding April’s 68.5%.
Within minutes of 10pm Israel’s top news outlets released their exit polls, traditionally to be taken with a substantial pinch of salt. Reports were coming in of Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz neck and neck on 32/33 seats with several polls placing Gantz’s Blue and White a seat or two ahead of Likud. Uncharacteristically, all polls agreed that Netanyahu and the right-block had not received the crucial 61 seats needed to form a coalition and at this stage there was no clear winner.
Come midnight, most Israelis went to sleep more confused than they woke. Neither Netanyahu nor Gantz had made a public appearance, both awaiting more accurate polls before declaring themselves victorious. Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked who received 6-8 seats in the exit polls announced her party was dissolving back into its original 3 factions – The New Right, National Union and Jewish Home – confirming suspicions that Yamina was created with the sole purpose of enabling smaller parties to pass the 3.25% threshold.
The only party celebrating was Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu with an 8-10 seat win. As predicted, Lieberman was swiftly ennobled as this election’s kingmaker with neither Gantz nor Netanyahu able to form a coalition without him. In his victory speech, he called for a “wide, liberal, national government made up of his party, Likud and Blue and White”, stating explicitly that he will not consider any other offer.
Overnight, Gantz made his move before Netanyahu. Without declaring himself as winner, a mistake he made in the previous elections, he announced to his supporters “of course we will wait for the real results, but it seems we have accomplished our mission”, suggesting the party had successfully toppled the state’s longest reigning Prime Minister, Netanyahu. Gantz confirmed that he had reached out to the Labour-Gesher and Democratic Union parties and intends to consult with “everyone”. Closing with the final words “the work of unity and reconciliation is ahead of us”, Gantz urged his rivals to put aside differences and come together to support a National Unity government.
As Netanyahu took to the stage, his message took a different direction. Without announcing a victory, he reaffirmed Israel’s need for a “strong and stable government, a Zionist government and a government that is committed to Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people”. Amidst chants of “we don’t want unity” from the crowds at Likud HQ, Netanyahu’s vowed to create a “strong Zionist government” thwarting the formation of a “dangerous anti-Zionist, Arab government”, and with that he walked off stage neither the winner nor the loser, yet.
As the country awoke this morning, 90% of the votes had been counted, yet the country was no closer to understanding who the real winner is. Gantz is taking the lead with 32 seats while Likud is narrowly behind on 31, the Joint List (Arab) have received 13, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu with 9, Shas receiving 9, United Torah Judaism on 8, Yamina (now disbanded) with 7, Labour-Gesher on 6 and the Democratic Union coming in last with 5 seats. To the relief of many, the extremist right party Otzma Yehudit failed to pass the 3.25% threshold.
Coalition building with these numbers will prove incredibly challenging and the coming days are tainted by uncertainty. The right-wing block currently holds 56 seats and the left-block is trailing behind on 42 seats. With neither block receiving a 61-seat majority, the power is placed into the hands of kingmaker Lieberman and the Joint List.
Traditionally the Arab parties do not recommend a candidate for Prime Minister but Ayman Odeh, the Chairman of the Joint List, has suggested on numerous occasions both pre and post-election that he may nominate Gantz in a move to oust Netanyahu. Although he lacked party support for this move, if he follows through it will place the parties’ neck and neck and leave Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu with the deciding vote. If this situation comes about, Lieberman will be in an unenviable position. As a staunch right-winger, he’d have to choose between allowing the Arab party to become the main opposition (which includes MKs who have called for the destruction of Israel) if a national unity government is formed or sitting in a coalition with Netanyahu and the Ultra-Orthodox parties who he vehemently campaigned against. Alternatively if the Ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and UTJ join together in an alliance this could allow them to become the main opposition.
If the Joint List abstain from recommending a candidate for Prime Minister, Lieberman will hold all the cards. Yisrael Beitenu’s leader is likely looking to force a situation where the President mediates between Likud and Blue and White leading to the formation of a National Unity government. The Unity government would have a 14-seat majority from Likud, Blue and White and Yisrael Beitenu ousting the left, Arabs and Ultra-Orthodox to the opposition. Lieberman’s only caveat, is that Netanyahu must not be the leader of Likud. However, as it stands, Blue and White and Likud have the numbers (63) to form a unity government without Yisrael Beitenu.
Externally, Likud are standing by Netanyahu and there are no signs of them ousting him. However, rumours of internal disputes and MKs vying for the title of leader are beginning to rise to the surface.
Another scenario, could be as follows. If Lieberman chooses to nominate Gantz as Prime Minister and the Arab parties abstain, Netanyahu will still be ahead mathematically and will be asked by President Rivlin to form a government. Taking into account the last round of negotiations, it is likely that he will require the full 42 days to conduct these negotiations.
Coalition negotiations will run through the 2nd October, Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearing. Should he be indicted it is likely that the President will take matters into his own hands, and with a new Likud leader in place a National Unity government could be formed. If Netanyahu isn’t indicted, he will continue to struggle to form a coalition of over 61/120 seats presenting him with two options. He could either choose to conclude his premiership and allow a new leader to sit at the helm of Likud who may be willing to enter a National Unity government. The second option would be to find a legislative way to send the nation back to the polls for a third time. President Rivlin has given his word that the nation will not be returning to the polls in the coming months, however it’s possible that despite his best efforts this might be unavoidable.
What happens next?
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin has confirmed that he will begin consultations with party leaders next week to determine which candidate he will task with forming the next coalition government.
The candidate has 28 days to form a coalition but is able to request a 14-day extension from the President if negotiations are proving lengthy and challenging. If the candidate fails to win the support of at least 61/120 MKs in that time, the President can task another candidate with forming a coalition. The second candidate has 28 days to form a coalition, with no possibility of extension.
The next few days are set to be some of the most dramatic in Israel’s political history. Make sure to follow along with CFI on social media to keep up to date with the latest drama.