Several times during the election campaign, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made remarks about legislators from other parties who were likely to defect to Likud after the vote. As of Wednesday night, the Netanyahu bloc and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party had captured only 59 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, so those comments may be put to the test in the coming days.
Tempt legislators to join Likud. Israeli law imposes tough restrictions on MKs who leave a party to join another outfit or operate independently as a one-member caucus. A legislator who leaves his or her party and doesn’t resign from the Knesset can’t run in the next election with a party represented in the outgoing Knesset. If this MK wants to run, it can only be with a new party.
This is a harsh sanction: Legislators most likely to defect are backbenchers, which makes it unlikely that they can lead or join a new party that will pass the electoral threshold. Defections carry two other sanctions: The renegade can’t be appointed a minister or deputy minister during that Knesset, and that legislator’s old party’s allocation for him or her under the Party Funding Law is withheld.
Recruit non-coalition MKs to support the government in the initial vote of confidence. A candidate for prime minister needs only a simple majority to get a government sworn in. But any effort to “buy” votes from rival parties by promising them something is doomed: The Basic Law on the Knesset states that voting against one’s party in a vote of confidence is considered an automatic resignation from the caucus if any benefit was provided in return for that vote. But if an MK can prove that no benefit was granted, his or her vote won’t be considered a resignation.
Divide up a caucus made up of more than one party. The Derech Eretz party headed by Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser ran on a joint slate with Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope but maintained the party’s independent status. As long as the parties informed the Central Elections Committee that though they were running together they preserved structural independence, the Basic Law on the Knesset lets such parties operate independently after the election.
This is what allowed the three parties in Kahol Lavan – Hosen Leyisrael, Yesh Atid and Telem – to break up in the outgoing Knesset without being sanctioned, facilitating Benny Gantz’s entry into Netanyahu’s government. In the current Knesset, Hendel seems to be the only MK from the anti-Netanyahu bloc who meets the criteria. As of Wednesday night, New Hope has only six seats, so Hauser, who was No. 8 on the ticket, won’t make it into parliament.
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Break up an existing caucus. The law permits a third of the members of an existing caucus to break off without sanctions and operate as an independent political entity. Such a move can only happen in a caucus with at least six legislators. As of Wednesday night, the parties that could be Netanyahu’s breakup targets are Yesh Atid at 17 seats, Kahol Lavan at 8, Yisrael Beiteinu and Labor at 7 each, and New Hope and the Joint List of Arab parties at 6 each.
Defections in return for changing the law. Netanyahu can try to change the law to lift the sanctions on individual MKs who defect so as to encourage such desertions. To do that, even before he forms a government, he would have to get the new Knesset to amend the relevant legislation, recruiting potential defectors to vote for the new bill so it can pass. He could appoint these people ministers and promise them a good spot on the Likud ticket in the next election.