Despite efforts by Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, to convince Israel’s two largest parties – Likud and Blue & White – to forge a national unity government, the prospect of that desired outcome appears more distant. At Rivlin’s urging, the Likud’s Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu and Blue & White’s Benny Gantz met earlier this week for two hours to see if differences between them could be bridged but the parties appear to be no closer to bridging their gaps. Given the impasse, Rivlin just announced that he’s giving Netanyahu first crack at forming a coalition since Bibi received 55 parliamentary recommendations to Gantz’s 54. But there is no reason to believe that he’ll be any more successful than he was back in April when he failed to form a coalition following the first election. The magic number required for a governing coalition is 61.
Israel’s parliamentary system of voting whereby voters cast their votes for parties rather than individuals lends itself to dysfunction. Voters tend to gravitate toward special interests diluting the powers of the larger parties. There are 120 seats in Israel’s parliament or Knesset. Thirty-three of those seats are occupied by the centrist Blue & White while 32 are occupied by Likud. Then there are a myriad of smaller parties with special interests. The center-right Likud can rely on support from the right-wing Yemina party, which controls 7 seats and two ultra-orthodox parties, Shas (9) and UTJ (7). The centrist Blue & White can rely on 11 seats held by various leftist parties.
The anti-Zionist Arab parties hold 13 seats but quite understandably, no mainstream party will dare enter into partnership with them. The party capable of breaking the impasse is Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu (Israel Our Home) party. Prior to entering politics, Liberman was a bouncer but today, he’s the kingmaker. The 8 seats his party possesses can put Netanyahu over the top.
Ideologically, there isn’t much of a difference between Liberman and Netanyahu; both are center-right. Liberman, a resident of Nokdim, which sits across the Green Line separating Judea & Samaria from Israel proper, had been a reliable Netanyahu coalition partner in past elections. But Netanyahu and Liberman had a falling out in 2018 over what the latter described as Netanyahu’s capitulation to Hamas and his inadequate response to Hamas rocket fire from Gaza. Liberman also disagreed with Netanyahu’s decision to allow Qatari cash to flow into Gaza. The two men also likely share a personal animus toward each other.
Despite being ideologically right leaning, Liberman, who represents a large Russian constituency in Israel, is staunchly secular and this places him at odds with the ultra-orthodox parties. Central to the dispute between Liberman and the ultra-orthodox parties is Liberman’s desire for increased military conscription among the ultra-orthodox yeshiva students, who are generally exempt from military service. Neither side seems willing to compromise on the issue and Liberman has indicated that he will not join a Netanyahu-led coalition unless Netanyahu’s ultra-orthodox coalition partners agree to compromise.
Liberman has publicly expressed his desire for a broad-based national unity government and logically, that appears to be the best option available. No one in Israel wants a third election, which will likely end with the same inconclusive results as the previous two. Moreover, in terms of defense and security, there is little that separates Blue & White from the security-oriented Likud. Three of the four top leaders of Blue & White are former military chiefs of staff. But Blue & White’s Gantz has stated that while he was open to the idea of a unity government, he would not join one in which Netanyahu remains as Likud leader.
Netanyahu is currently facing indictment pending a hearing on three separate criminal cases involving charges of alleged breach of trust, fraud and bribery. Gantz has publicly called on Netanyahu to step down until these matters are resolved and conditioned his acceptance of a unity government on Bibi giving up the reins, something Bibi is unlikely to do voluntarily. It’s the old story of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object.
So, while Israel faces serious threats from nefarious entities like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Jewish State is in a state of political gridlock with neither side willing to budge and huge egos impeding cogent, rational thought. The Israeli electorate is exhausted, and Israel needs unity in order to face and overcome its strategic and economic challenges. If Israel is to move forward, its leaders must check their egos at the door and put aside their petty differences.