Commentary: Israel is on the cusp of a new era
Three possible scenarios have arisen as a result of a deadlocked election in Israel, with a unity Likud Blue and White coalition to form the next government the most plausible one, says Ofir Marer.
SINGAPORE: Israel went to polls on Tuesday (Sept 17) for the second time in six months. The result? No clear winner or loser and a whole lot of questions.
What does this mean for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the next government, or the Middle East peace process? No one really knows. What we have, instead, is a long process ahead that would determine the fate of the country for years to come.
Though a significant 70 per cent of Israelis voted in a repeat election that nobody wanted — an election forced by Mr Netanyahu after he failed to cobble together a coalition following polls in April — the latest results have failed to break the deadlock.
With almost 95 per cent of votes counted, the Likud-led right wing and ultra-Orthodox parties have approximately 55 seats, while the Blue and White centre-left coalition, led by Benny Gantz, took 56.
With neither side able to claim a majority, it will fall on the Israel Beitenu party, led by Avigdor Lieberman, to play the kingmaker role, and he has pledged to work to form a broad unity coalition — “unity” being the key word.
SCENARIO 1: A LIKUD-BLUE-WHITE COALITION
Despite the great uncertainty, there are three likely outcomes. The most significant of these is that a unity coalition of Likud and Blue and White could be formed to lead Israel.
The country could then begin to turn its back on the polarising politics of the Netanyahu era and its pandering to the ultra-religious right, and work instead to advance the interests of the majority of Israelis who are more secular in outlook.
Given the numbers, this is the most likely outcome. With a combined 64 seats, a Likud-Blue and White coalition could actually work.
This has happened only once before, in 1984, with the Labour-Likud coalition, but is now on the table again, with both sides publicly pronouncing it as the way to break the deadlock.
Such a coalition today, formed by a clearly moderate and stable majority without elements form either extremes, could turn its attention to solving the issues facing the country, rather than continuing to stake out positions at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
It could introduce a new budget, tackle the current deficit, and invest in education, health and infrastructure. It could even possibly advance peace talks with Palestine.
For this to happen, either President Reuven Rivlin would demand the formation of a unity government as a condition for giving his mandate during his deliberation with the parties, or one party could break from within.
One scenario suggests that Mr Netanyahu could be removed as the head of Likud as part of the ruling party’s attempts to remain in power. Another is that the left would fall apart, with one renegade party grabbing the chance of returning to power.
Both scenarios have been raised by Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz, but there is still no clear indication of who would lead the government that emerges.
Throw in the fact that Mr Netanyahu has a deal with all the right-wing parties, this means there is not much room for negotiations. Either way, this coalition — in whatever form it takes — appears most likely, as no clear path to power exists for either side.
If a unity coalition is indeed formed, Israel’s politics would change completely, by moving more towards the centre, a rare situation around the world today, where nationalist and other sentiments are cleaving a widening divide in many countries.
SCENARIO 2: NETANYAHU REMAINS IN POWER BUT IS BEHOLDENED TO LIEBERMAN
A second scenario is that a narrow right-wing coalition would emerge, with Mr Netanyahu nominally still leading the country, but with Mr Lieberman calling the shots since he can exploit the embattled leader’s needs and demand almost anything he wants.
This option is obviously Mr Netanyahu’s preferred one, but it appears implausible. The very reason Israelis had to go to the polls a second time was because Mr Lieberman, who was expected to back Mr Netanyahu, would not countenance sitting in a room with the ultra-Orthodox side and agreeing on any of the issues.
That said, the old saying that politics makes for strange bedfellows has some truth to it, and things could change quickly.
SCENARIO 3: CALL FOR ANOTHER ELECTION
A third outcome — and a terrifying one at that — is another dissolution of the Knesset resulting in a third election.
But I believe this is something most Israelis are keen to avoid, given the high costs involved in holding another poll in less than a year, the ineffectiveness of having a lame-duck government that cannot do anything for six more months, and, most importantly, the potential negative impact on society.
I am not quite sure that the state is up to yet another highly polarising campaign.
A REPUDIATION OF THE EXTREME RIGHT
Outcomes aside, the election revealed some significant trends in Israel. Once again, the ultra-Orthodox right-wing parties were a significant force. Accounting for 14 per cent of the vote, this almost guarantees that they would sit in any coalition.
The strength of the ultra-Orthodox faction points to key demographic changes in the country. There have been hints of this in the past, but with more than 20 per cent of all first-graders belonging to the ultra-Orthodox, and with this number slated to rise, Israeli society is undergoing a rapid change that will give rise to tumultuous political, social and economic transformation.
But while the religious right is growing rapidly, the election threw up a clear sign that Israelis are repudiating its extremist elements: The ultra-radical, ultra-nationalist, anti-Arab Otzma Yehudit party, which aligned itself with Mr Netanyahu, was eliminated for the second time in a row.
The fact that the party got a few thousand votes should raise some red flags, but ultimately, Israeli voters showed them the door by refusing to give them the minimum votes needed to make it into the Knesset.
Then there are the Arabs, who turned out in force in a bid to repudiate Mr Netanyahu. Arab voter turnout jumped by around 20 per cent, and their parties added between two and four more seats to their tally from the last election.
The results were an endorsement of Mr Gantz’s efforts to be more inclusive and court them, and a rejection of the Prime Minister’s scaremongering and intimidation tactics.
There is now a possibility that Arab parties could lead the opposition, a first for the country. Some have even expressed a desire to sit in a (centre-left) coalition, though the chances of this happening are practically non-existent, given Mr Lieberman’s anti-Arab sentiments.
Finally, the polls showed that Mr Netanyahu, who is facing three corruption charges on Oct 3, has failed to secure his own political and private future. Having become Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister just months ago, the country is now poised to ride into an uncertain future without him at the helm.
THE NEXT FEW WEEKS WILL BE CRUCIAL
The next few weeks, or months, will determine where Israel is headed. Will there be a reshuffling of parties and the formation of a unity government? An Arab-led opposition? Or the nuclear option of a third election?
Whatever the case, the new government, when it is finally assembled, will have a full plate to deal with — security threats (from the likes of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran); international superpowers to manage (including the United States, China and Russia); and a host of domestic issues.
Its immediate priorities, however, would be to heal a fractured country, as well as tackle tough economic issues, including a burgeoning fiscal deficit, rising inequality, and low productivity.
One thing is for sure — Israeli politics is going to be interesting, diverse, and always surprising. That is, at least until the next election.
Major (Res.) Ofir Marer is currently pursuing his master's in public administration at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He served as an intelligence officer in the Israeli Defense Forces and was the head of policy and regulation in the Israeli Ministry of Health’s Digital Health unit. He contributed this article to the Middle East Institute at NUS.