Many have attributed this crisis to the fact that Israel is deeply divided: left and right, religious and secular, Arab and Jew. The “king maker” in the Knesset is Avigdor Liberman, the leader of the secular right-wing party Yisrael Beitenu. He has declared that he will not sit in a government with the Joint Arab List or the Ultra-Orthodox parties. As a result, neither a right-religious bloc led by the Likud party nor a center-left bloc led by Blue and White can command a majority in the Knesset.
Israel’s political stalemate does not revolve around issues of identity politics. Rather, it revolves around the identity of one man and one issue: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his campaign to procure immunity from prosecution. Despite the backing of the rest of the right-religious bloc, without Liberman’s party, Netanyahu, also known by his nickname Bibi, does not have enough votes to secure immunity. Liberman won’t challenge Netanyahu openly, as it would kill his ambition of leading the right in the future. But he has demanded a unity government centered on Likud, Yisrael Beitenu and Blue and White.
Scenarios for breaking the stalemate
According to Israeli law, Netanyahu can continue to serve as prime minister under indictment, and he has stated that he intends to do this. Any attempt by Netanyahu or his opponents to determine matters via the courts will take too long to impact the political state of play this side of a third election.
While the legal route to breaking the deadlock is a long and winding road, a political route could open up sooner. Despite their constant profession of loyalty to their leader, there is no shortage of Likud members of the Knesset (MKs) who would like to replace him. Until now, potential challengers were held back by Bibi’s unassailable position. For over a decade Netanyahu has been viewed by a plurality of Israelis as the candidate most fit to be prime minister. He has amassed greater control over the Likud than any leader since Menachem Begin resigned in 1983. He has skillfully extended that control to the religious-right bloc more generally with unprecedented success.
With the indictment, Netanyahu’s political capital has been depleted and, consequently, Likud MKs’ political calculus has changed. The most popular challenger, Gideon Saar, has called for leadership primaries before a third election. He is arguing that Netanyahu has demonstrated twice that he is unable to form a government and that nothing will change if he gets a third chance. Bibi’s supporters, however, dropped the idea of holding primaries once Saar threw his hat into the ring; even if Saar lost to Netanyahu, the exposure of internal divisions could seriously damage Bibi.
There is a chance that Likud MKs will abandon Bibi and join a unity government, thereby preventing a third election. The idea of holding such an election is very unpopular, and if Netanyahu were to be viewed as responsible, Likud MKs will fear that they will pay a price at the polls.
A Likud MK who garners the support of enough of his colleagues could become prime minister within days as part of a rotation agreement with Blue and White. As speaker of the Knesset, the widely respected Likud MK Yuli Edelstein is perhaps best placed to lead efforts to put a unity government together without Bibi in the coming two weeks.
Immunity for Netanyahu?
Though unlikely to succeed, Netanyahu may request that the Knesset grant him immunity from prosecution. Just trying could damage his standing with some right-wing voters. A recent poll indicated that a majority of right-wingers believe the prime minister should stand trial. In other words, the political risks of sticking with Netanyahu have increased.
Still, one can never count Netanyahu out. Israel’s longest serving prime minister, he is probably the most skillful politician Israel has ever known. He could get his supporters out on the streets and thereby intimidate Likud MKs to remain loyal. And any security-related confrontation would likely cause the country to unify behind the prime minister.
If indeed Netanyahu deters an internal challenge, then Israel will go back to the polls. The prime minister will be hoping that the election will produce a bloc of 61 MKs willing to support his immunity from prosecution; in other words, a right-religious bloc minus Liberman. To achieve this, “the immunity bloc” would need an extra six seats. The chances of this happening are low.
Bibi would likely try to further unite the right to prevent votes being wasted on right-wing parties that fail to cross the electoral threshold. But even if all those votes went to right-wing parties that cross the threshold, it would not be enough on its own to make the difference.
The size of the “immunity bloc” might also grow if the turnout is low. The Ultra-Orthodox turn out in large numbers come what may, so if the general population expresses its dissatisfaction by not voting, it could increase Ultra-Orthodox representation in the Knesset by a seat or two; not enough even when combined with maximum efficiency concerning the electoral threshold.
Likud could also lose seats to other right-wing parties as some right-wing voters disapprove of an indicted leader serving as prime minister. If the Likud is significantly smaller than Blue and White, that would give Benny Gantz the edge in future coalition negotiations. Netanyahu may counter by trying to merge the other right-wing parties into Likud, but that would be extremely difficult to accomplish. Consequently, it would increase the chances that any remaining party to the right of Likud would fail to cross the electoral threshold, and those votes would then be lost to the bloc as a whole. A more unified Right could also push the center-left to form a unified bloc, which could lead to Blue and White losing the support of some of its center-right voters. However, these people would probably vote for Liberman rather than Likud.
If indeed, Netanyahu were to fail to obtain the magical 61, his political position would probably erode to the point at which the most likely outcome would be for him to leave the political stage.
Jonathan Rynhold is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University. He has co-edited several books on the Israel elections and publications on Israeli foreign policy and U.S.-Israeli relations, including “The Arab-Israeli Conflict in American Political Culture.”