JERUSALEM — Israelis return to the polls in less than two weeks for the second time this year, facing the very real prospect that the outcome could land them back in the exact same place: with no clear victor able to form a governing coalition and a constitutional crisis at their door.
Polls show the two largest parties — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and former army chief of staff Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White — are running neck and neck. If the polls are accurate, neither faction may be able to craft a ruling coalition based purely along ideological lines.
Of course, there are many variables that could influence the final result: the tensions on Israel’s northern border with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah; the continuing security threats arising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and the fact Israelis, frustrated by the do-over election, have grown largely apathetic.
“Right now, the situation looks like a complete repeat of last time, and all we can do is hope that if this second election does not produce a clear winner, Israeli politicians will be extremely fearful of going back for a third time,” said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Israel’s electoral system is based on proportional representation, with each party receiving a share of parliamentary seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for them. No party has ever won an outright majority in Israel’s history, and the country’s largely ceremonial president is tasked with inviting one of the party leaders to forge a coalition based on recommendations from each party that has won a seat.
While Likud scored slightly fewer seats than Blue and White last time, it was Netanyahu who was asked to form a government. But after failing to procure coalition agreements, Likud broke with precedent, moving to dissolve the parliament, called the Knesset, and throw the country back into a second round of elections.
“We are going through a constitutional crisis because of these elections,” said Tal Schneider, a diplomatic and political correspondent for the Israeli business newspaper Globes. “A lot of what happens next will be up to the president to make sure we will not be in another situation of deadlock.”
Schneider said Netanyahu is responsible for the emergence of blocs dividing Israel’s political scene into two distinct groups: right, nationalistic and mostly religious vs. left, liberal and mostly secular.
“Historically, it was never about just one bloc forming the government,” she said. “Before 2009, Likud would always be expected to call on the Labor Party or another centrist party to form the government.”
Schneider said that in recent years Netanyahu has turned only to right-of-center parties, including those representing national-religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews. In the current campaign, Netanyahu has again turned to the right, encouraging at least two small factions to fold into Likud or pull out of the race in the hope he can scoop up their votes.
In an appeal to these right-wing voters, Netanyahu on Sunday, the first day of the school year, took his reelection campaign to a school in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, and on Wednesday he visited the West Bank city of Hebron, where a few hundred Israeli settlers live surrounded by thousands of Palestinian residents. In both places, he pledged not to dismantle any Jewish settlements and to extend Israeli sovereignty to such communities, which have remained under military rule since the 1967 Israeli-Arab war. Both are central demands of the parties representing the national-religious population in Israel, a small but vocal constituency.
It is unclear, however, whether their votes will be enough to give Netanyahu the edge he needs in the Sept. 17 election.
If Likud does manage to pull ahead of Blue and White but overall the right-wing bloc falls short of the 61 Knesset seats needed to create a majority coalition, Netanyahu could be forced to turn to factions on the other side of the political spectrum. Most have shunned him until now.
Netanyahu’s former political ally Avigdor Liberman could prove to be the kingmaker. Liberman rejected coalition deals three months ago over disagreements with the ultra-Orthodox, propelling the country into this crisis. His stand against the religious parties appears to have boosted his popularity.
Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, is predicted to win as many as 10 seats in the election. He has said he will join Netanyahu only in a government that is broad, centrist and free from extreme religious elements.
Blue and White — a party that spans from center right to center left and features three former army chiefs of staff, as well as a popular former television news anchor — has said it will join such a government only if Netanyahu, who is facing a possible legal indictment in three criminal cases, is excluded.
“We will not join a corrupt government with Netanyahu,” Gantz said at a forum on Monday, adding that his party would be willing to “form a national unity government with other parties on the basis of shared principles.”
Tal Shalev, diplomatic and political correspondent for the news website Walla, said that the public can not take another round of elections if there is political deadlock after this vote. “Someone will have to give up,” she said. “Either Netanyahu will have to leave or Blue and White will have to give up on not wanting to sit with him.”
Some possible scenarios
●Likud significantly out-polls Blue and White and Netanyahu is asked to form a governing coalition. Together with the right-wing party Yamina and the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, Likud reaches 61 seats and Netanyahu can form a stable government, similar to the one he led until late last year.
●Likud wins the election and poaches support from Blue and White, a party that has several members that would fit well, in terms of ideology, within Netanyahu’s camp. He picks apart Blue and White, and together with Yamina and the ultra-Orthodox parties reaches a coalition of more than 61.
●Likud wins by a slight majority but Netanyahu manages to persuade Blue and White to join him in a coalition to avoid further instability. Gantz agrees and manages to persuade his cohorts, arguing it is for the good of the country.
●Blue and White wins, and Gantz, asked to form the next governing coalition, seeks an agreement with parties on the left: Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Union. He manages to scrape together enough seats to attain a parliamentary majority. (The party largely backed by Arab Israelis is unlikely to join this or any other coalition.)
●Blue and White wins, but the rest of the left-wing camp is too small for Gantz to form a center-left government. He then turns to right-wing factions — Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Likud. In such a scenario, Gantz has indicated he would insist Netanyahu step down as head of Likud. It would then be up to Likud to decide whether to oust its longtime leader.
●No one bloc gains a majority, and whoever the president calls on to form the next government is unable to forge a coalition. Israelis head back for another election.