Both Netanyahu’s Likud party and the center-right Blue and White party fell short of a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat parliament, or Knesset. Likud’s seats dropped from 35 in the April election to 31 in September, while Blue and White dipped from 35 to 33.
The parties of the Jewish left — those most likely to pursue negotiations with the Palestinian Authority — maintained about the same number of seats. In April’s election, the two left-wing parties committed to a two-state solution and diplomacy — Meretz and Labor — won 10 seats in the Knesset. In September, Labor, running in an alliance with Gesher, a marginal center-left party, is estimated to have taken six seats. Former prime minister Ehud Barak’s Democratic Camp, into which Meretz merged, appears set to receive five seats.
While this looks like a one-seat gain, it is not a significant endorsement of the peace process. These 11 seats are not enough to tip the balance of power between the two big parties, not least because it is offset by all the seats won by the right, far-right and religious parties. In addition to the estimated 31 seats for Likud, Shas (an Orthodox party) won nine, United Torah Judaism (another Orthodox party) and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu each took eight, and Yamina — an alliance of far-right factions — won seven, for a total of 62 seats. All of these parties are, at best, suspicious of the Palestinians’ interest in peace and, at worst, implacably opposed to a viable independent Palestinian state.
Blue and White’s primary leader, Benny Gantz, has been vague on what he thinks is the best solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Gantz did not emphasize the peace process during the electoral campaign. Instead, he focused on domestic social and economic conditions, and on the need to remove Netanyahu from power over his alleged corruption.
Where Gantz has referenced a Palestinian state, he has not made clear that he supports a fully independent state. He is reported to have contributed to a policy paper by the prestigious Institute for National Security Studies that called for Israel to engage in unilateral action if necessary. The paper referenced a vague Palestinian “entity” and allotted that entity only 65 percent of the West Bank, a nonstarter for any Palestinian leadership.
Of the other top leaders of Blue and White, former chief of staff Moshe Yaalon is committed to the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and hostile to Palestinian demands. Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid has shown no particular interest in the peace process. His conditions for a successful peace process include that in any solution Israeli troops be allowed to enter Palestinian territory if they deem there to be an urgent terrorist threat; the Jordan Valley remain under Israeli control; there be no right of return for Palestinians; and Jerusalem remain united under Israel. All of these conditions are nonstarters for Palestinians.
If Gantz were able to persuade his co-leaders to focus on negotiations and provide the necessary concessions acceptable to the Palestinians, he would have to form a government with Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Union, and the 13-seat Joint List, the primary political vehicle representing the Arab community in Israel. In addition to calling for negotiations with and concessions toward the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, 10 out of 13 Knesset members of the Joint List recommended Gantz for the premiership.
But Gantz would need either one of the religious parties or Liberman to also join. None of them would be willing to sit with the Joint List, however. There is an implicit norm in Israel against including Arab parties in the government, out of mutual suspicion. And, for some, there is a sense that the Jewish state should not rely on non-Jews to make policy.
Is annexation in the cards?
Netanyahu asserted during the end of the campaign that once he is reelected, he would begin the process of annexing part of the West Bank — the area Palestinians demand and will need for their own state. Netanyahu maintained that he would do this in “coordination” with the United States. Presumably he assumed that President Trump would be a willing partner in this process, given the punitive policy the Trump administration has pursued against the Palestinians.
It’s not clear that all of the other right-wing and religious parties are ready for such a sudden move. In addition to their opposition and suspicion of negotiations, the religious parties seem to prefer the model of “creeping annexation,” in which Jewish settlements are expanded across the region and Israeli law is slowly and intermittently applied not just to the settlements but to the areas surrounding them. So while the pursuit of full annexation is not likely, the result is the same.
Liberman has insisted that he will not sit in a government under Netanyahu, thus potentially depriving the former prime minister of the ability to form a coalition. But that still means a majority of parties in the Knesset take a hard line on the peace process and are not likely to actively pursue negotiations.
There is, thus, an overwhelming majority of Knesset members uninterested in or hostile to the peace process. Under these conditions, there should be no expectation that negotiations with the Palestinians will be high on any government’s list.
The post-election bargaining process discourages interest in the peace process. Whoever is given the first mandate by the Israeli president to try to form the government must do so within 28 days, though they can ask for an additional 14 days. If that person fails, the president can task a second politician with forming the government. Should that person also fail, 61 members of the Knesset can write to the president asking him to give the mandate to a specific Knesset member. And if that doesn’t work, new elections must be held. After all of that politicking, the parties’ focus will not be on negotiations with the Palestinians, but on simply getting back into government or the Knesset.
Brent E. Sasley is an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington. He tweets at @besasley.