Defections or Unthinkable Cooperation: Scenarios for the Day After Israel's Election

Only a few seats will decide whether Netanyahu is able to form a coalition after Israel's election or if Gantz can stop him from getting another term

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Election slips at Likud headquarters on March 2, 2020.
Election slips at Likud headquarters on March 2, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

After the tweets and the victory celebrations subsided, the Israeli political world entered another round of arm wrestling on Tuesday. After two election campaigns we have learned that the winner is not declared on election night, but rather at the President’s Residence, in the photo of the government's swearing-in.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has improved his poker hand significantly, but the 59 seats that the exit polls predicted for the right on Monday night are not the 61 he was aiming for in the campaign, and apparently are out of his reach. The final count of almost all the votes is expected to be published only on Tuesday afternoon, and on Thursday the counting of the additional ballots (for those voting outside regular polling stations, such as soldiers, prisoners, foreign diplomats, and others) will be completed.

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The difference that each seat makes is very important – it’s the difference between Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz’s ability to block Netanyahu, or to take active steps – and the path to it is very short: In the September election, 68 votes determined whether a seat went to Likud or to United Torah Judaism. Every division of seats is expected to lead to a different scenario in the coming weeks:

Netanyahu forms a government with the help of MKs from other parties

Likud claims that they already have defectors in the pipeline – it’s possible that on the margins of Kahol Lavan or Yisrael Beiteinu there is someone who would prefer to go to the bathroom during the government's swearing-in and to be appointed ambassador to the United Nations rather than wandering around aimlessly in the corridors of the Knesset. That’s why the final result is critical – whether it is 58, 59 or 60 seats for the bloc loyal to Netanyahu. Recruiting three defectors would be harder than recruiting only one. In any case, Likud is spreading claims that it has such agreements in order to pressure Gantz to compromise.

A government supported by the Joint List

The unfavorable results for Benny Gantz and Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman may actually push them into doing what they failed to do before. Lieberman said outright before the election that he won’t be a member of any government supported by the Joint List, but for him it’s now or never. The scenario that sounded unimaginable until yesterday may be crucial for Gantz, Lieberman and Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh, in order to prevent the government of deserters, and they will have to make a decision very soon. Already on Monday,  Lieberman said that there won’t be another election and he won’t be a member of a Netanyahu-ultra-Orthodox government, and he may be plotting something.

A national unity government

As of now, Likud is not interested in a national unity government with Gantz. It would be a huge government that would transfer part of the yoke of government from Netanyahu to his rival. There is no trust at all between the sides, and Kahol Lavan's chairman has promised not to participate in a government under the indicted Netanyahu. In his speech on Monday night, Gantz once again emphasized that in two weeks, on March 17, Netanyahu's trial will begin, and the prime minister didn’t even mention Gantz in his speech. That is not a good beginning for negotiations for a compromise and agreement to rotate the role of prime minister.

A fourth election

If the bloc loyal to Netanyahu ends up with 58 or 59 seats, the option of another election is still on the table, but it’s hard to see what motivation Gantz and Lieberman have to get involved in another election campaign after their failure, or Odeh, after he increased the Joint List's power. The politicians’ emotional burnout after three election campaigns is likely to prevent them from rushing into another election.