Last night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition government, which he had until midnight to do following his election one month ago. This has resulted in the calling of a new election which is scheduled for September 17th.
Our UJA Federation partner, Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) Israel office and JFNA’s President & CEO Jerry Silverman provides a comprehensive overview of what's to come.
As you are no doubt aware, there was tremendous political upheaval in Israel overnight, and new elections are now set for September 17. Our Israel office reports on the developments:
- As you know, a new Knesset was sworn in exactly one month ago, following elections where Prime Minister Netanyahu emerged as the clear winner.
- Under Israeli law, the Prime Minister had until midnight last night to form a coalition of at least 61 members of the new Knesset. While all of the parties on the right (including the religious parties) proclaimed they would support Netanyahu – giving him a majority of 65 – Netanyahu was unable to sign deals with all of the players in time.
- The main sticking point involved the five seats of the Yisrael Beteinu Party, led by Avigdor Lieberman (who was once an aide to Netanyahu). Lieberman was insisting that a bill that would see a modest increase in the number of Haredim conscripted to the IDF be passed as a condition for joining the government. Intense negotiations took place, and the ultra-Orthodox parties compromised their positions on the issue to a considerable extent, but Lieberman continued to insist that “not one comma” could be altered on the current bill. Negotiations continued until the very last minute, but it became clear that Lieberman would not budge. Many Israeli commentators believe that Lieberman never intended to sign the agreement, hoping to go to new elections with the image of someone who stands up to the ultra-Orthodox.
- Under Israeli law, once the deadline passed, the President can consider alternative members of Knesset and give them a chance to form a government. In order to avoid that scenario (and the risk of a different leader emerging), the Prime Minister gathered a majority of MKs to vote on a law to disperse the parliament, making the 21st Knesset the shortest-lived in Israel’s history, by far.
- Members of Knesset from across the political spectrum, not to mention the country, expressed dismay at the prospect – and considerable cost – of new elections. Likud and others say the situation was unavoidable given Lieberman’s intransigence; while others claim that Netanyahu should have given a chance for the President to invite another leader to form a government.
- Israel now enters a phase of a completely new election process. The vote will take place on September 17.
- In theory, we should see a similar result to the elections that just took place, but a number of changes are possible:
- Yisrael Beteinu: Lieberman saw polls yesterday that indicated his party would increase from 5 to 9 seats as a result of the public seeing him “stand up to the Haredim.” However, Likud is furious at Lieberman, and the party can expect the considerable weight of the Prime Minister and his political machine doing everything in their power to ensure that Yisrael Beteinu does not succeed. It is also possible that the public may punish the party for forcing new elections.
- Likud and Kulanu: Likud has already voted to cancel new party primaries, and will use the same list it had in last month’s elections, although some minor changes may be made. It is possible that the public may also punish the Likud for failing to negotiate a government effectively. In the meantime, Likud has already announced a merger with Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party that will see Kahlon, the outgoing finance minister, in the number 5 spot on the Likud list.
- Bennett and Shaked: One of the biggest questions now is what will happen to Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. These two very popular leaders made a significant mistake in the recent elections by splitting from their Bayit Hayehudi Party. In the end, the New Right Party they established did not cross the electoral threshold and both were left out of the Knesset (falling short by just a few thousand votes). Had they won a few more votes, not only would they have had four seats in the Knesset, but Netanyahu would then have been able to form a government without Lieberman. While Bennett and Shaked did not publicly criticize each other following their loss, commentators feel that their former close partnership was irreversibly damaged by the loss. There was some speculation that Shaked would join Lieberman, but given his current status, this is less likely. Likud is a more natural home for Shaked, but she would demand a very senior position, and rank-and-file Likud MKs are already displeased with a slot being reserved for Kahlon. If Bennett were to run alone, or with Shaked, he would likely win seats this time around as a number of his voters clearly voted for Likud in April and would probably return to Bennett having “learned a lesson.”
- Ultra-Orthodox Parties: The ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, are in a relatively good position. They were seen to have gone a long way at compromising to reach a deal, and are not viewed as the intransigent side in the dispute. Also, many are expecting low voter turnout in September, with the public less likely to want to vote for a second time in five months. However ultra-Orthodox voters are usually very disciplined and should continue to vote in the same numbers as last time; which may see them increase their seats in the Knesset.
- Blue and White: Benny Gantz’s party is in somewhat of a difficult position. They did very well in the April elections, but that was still a long way from being in a position to form a government. So it is difficult to see what they could do differently this time, meaning they may feel that they are fighting an unwinnable battle. In all likelihood they will maintain the same leadership and party line-up, although Yair Lapid (who is number two on the list, and leader of one of the three factions that make up the party) indicated that a discussion will be held as to who will lead the party; meaning that he will consider making a bid for the party’s leadership.
- Labor: One of Israel’s two traditional, long-standing parties, Labor emerged as the biggest loser in the April elections, dropping to just five seats. The party will almost certainly hold primaries to elect a new leader to replace Avi Gabbay before the September 17 elections.
The new elections are unprecedented and we are in somewhat murky waters. Surprises will no doubt emerge in the coming months, while the country takes an economic hit. The country will also have been operating under a Transitional Government (with limited powers) for the better part of a year, which hampers development, reform and progress.
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