Readers who watch the HBO series “Veep,” whether as a brilliant comedy or a sharp mockcumentary on American politics, shouldn’t be surprised or bewildered by what’s happening in the aftermath of Israel’s latest election: indecision leading to a tie, culminating in an impasse, and suddenly, just maybe, revealing a way out.
Recent episodes of season 5 of “Veep” have featured a triple deadlock: an inconclusive election result leading to a recount in Nevada and an Electoral College tie at 269, and when the House is set to elect a president by state delegations, no candidate wins the necessary 26 votes.
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But while “Veep” is fiction, the messy results of the Israeli election are very real, for the fourth time in two years.
A jaded Israel emerged from the vote basically facing the same three possibilities as when heading in: a Netanyahu-led, extreme, racist right-wing/ultra-Orthodox coalition; a convoluted, heterogeneous coalition of six or seven parties whose only gel is ridding Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu’s presence; or a failure of these two possibilities, leading to another election, but not before major political and legal drama.
With 99.5 percent of the votes counted, the bloc of parties that could join a Netanyahu-led government has 59 seats, two short of the required 61, while the fragmented anti-Netanyahu bloc has 61. This decisively diminishes the probability of a Netanyahu-led coalition, though hypothetically it still exists.
While in the coming weeks the pundits will continue speculating about political scenarios, let’s put to rest two popular myths about Israeli politics that were proved very wrong this election.
The first is that Netanyahu is a political genius, a voodoo magician repeatedly beating the odds and defying political analyses. The second is that Israelis, however fully cognizant of his indictments, flaws, abject lack of credibility, incitement, divisiveness and style, vote for him again and again.
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Well, he’s not a magician, he’s not beating the odds, he’s not in a “different league,” as the election billboards showcasing his bromance with Donald Trump proclaimed. A majority of Israelis didn’t vote for him this time, far from it. Netanyahu is most definitely a skilled and savvy political tactician, but he has been made to look a giant only by the flattering comparison to his less-than-impressive rivals since 2009.
Base is getting tired
Let’s look at the basic numbers. In four straight elections in the past two years, Netanyahu failed to win 61 seats and form a government. The one cabinet he did form, in March 2020, was due to Benny Gantz’s centrist Kahol Lavan party, which reneged on all its campaign promises to join a short-lived coalition with Netanyahu, which fell apart after less than a year.
In three of these four elections, Netanyahu's party won just over 25 percent of the vote, and in the last one this week it took in just under 25 percent. Furthermore, only 52 seats in the upcoming Knesset are members of parties that explicitly supported Netanyahu. That’s 43 percent.
A majority of the vote in this election went to parties that vociferously campaigned to oust him. In addition, Likud lost six seats, 16 percent of its previous showing, even though it ran in a relatively favorable political landscape. In eight traditionally Likud-dominated cities, Netanyahu lost an average of 8 percent of the vote compared with the previous election. Segments of his base are getting tired of him.
Of the four elections since 2019, the one Tuesday was supposed to be the most winnable for Netanyahu. His corruption indictments are already factored into voters’ decisions. Israel is enjoying a quiet, stable security environment. He took credit for persuading Trump to withdraw the United States from the Iranian nuclear deal, celebrated Israel’s improved relations with the United Arab Emirates and took exaggerated and arrogant credit for Israel’s successful COVID-19 vaccination campaign, conveniently ignoring his government’s colossal mismanagement of the pandemic.
He then opened the country’s economy just in time for the election, in which he faced a splintered opposition with no center of gravity and no clear candidate for prime minister. Meanwhile, his bloc of right-wing and religious parties was solid, united and resolute. In other words, Netanyahu ran against himself, against the fatigue that his continued presence generates in Israel, and lost.
A series of fumbles
Imagine him as a running back in American football breaking free of a weak and disoriented defense, just 20 yards from the end zone, and then fumbling. He fumbled because despite what his fans think, he was neither strong nor fast.
The fumble was actually a series of fumbles. His mentor and friend, Trump, lost the U.S. election, and then Joe Biden took a full month to get on the phone with Netanyahu. The UAE turned down his repeated attempts to force on them a grandstanding preelection visit, while Pfizer’s CEO refused to play a prop in the campaign and postponed a planned visit to Israel. Many Israelis grew weary of his authoritarian tendencies and war against the “elites” – against the judicial system, the media and Israel’s democracy.
Add to that the perception that he caves easily to pressure, a hostage of his extremist coalition partners, and the realization that he contracted a political case of Stockholm syndrome: He fell in love with his captors, sharing with them the sanctimonious, victimized notion that a cabal of elites was out to get him.
He joined and winked at those who seriously claimed that he was persecuted by former U.S. President Barack Obama and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, as well as George Soros, a vast left-wing conspiracy in Israel, the media, the police, the senior army command, the former Mossad chiefs, the judges and the attorney general. Everyone was after him.
His devout followers bought into this big lie, but a majority of Israelis did not.
Still, this isn’t a political eulogy for Netanyahu. The anti-Netanyahu bloc of 61 is far from united and may not be capable of forming a governing coalition, and Netanyahu will do his utmost to trigger another election, one that would leave him at the Prime Minister’s Office until someone else can form a government and replace him.
The next 10 days will be crucial. President Reuven Rivlin will consult all the parties and eventually empower a candidate “with the highest probability of forming a government.” While in the next hours and days Netanyahu will do his best to complain about a “stolen election” and try to lure defectors from the parties that oppose him, threatening the right-wingers among them that they’ll be enabling a left-wing government, the real drama will be on the other side.
Fully realizing that forming a government is extraordinarily complicated, requiring right-wing parties to accept Arab parties’ support and reconciling parties such as Naftali Bennett’s Yamina with the very liberal Meretz, his rivals could instead focus on something else: passing a law that will bar indicted politicians from forming a government.
That sounds easier than it is, but some of his rivals – like Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman – believe it’s attainable and have begun the process of securing enough votes to pass it. If that happens after the new Knesset is sworn in, Israel’s political deck of cards will be completely reshuffled and coalitions that seem imaginary at the moment could become a reality.