No one in Israel wants a fourth election round, while the Likud in general, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in particular, made impressive gains (36 seats) in this last round of elections. The Center-Right bloc, with 58 seats, came short of a majority of 61 seats needed to form a government. The Center-Left actually lost ground in the March 2, 2020 elections, but the Unified Arab List gained in this election 15 seats. It gives the Blue and White Party, led by Benny Gantz, an option to form a government with the Joint Arab list and Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu party (Israel Our Home) 7 seats, as well as Labor, Gesher, Meretz combined list of 7 seats, a coalition government of 62 in the 120 member Knesset (Israeli Parliament).
Ironically, Lieberman’s constituents are rightists who are dead set against a coalition government with the Joint Arab list. It is however, Lieberman’s deep hatred for Netanyahu that is overriding his own declarations of not participating in a coalition deal with Arabs. Forming a government with the outside support of the Unified Arab List party is bound to cause controversy among the Blue and White party rank and file. The party leaders have previously declared repeatedly that they have no intention of being involved with the Unified Arab List. Moshe Ya’alon, the head of the Telem faction of the Blue and White party, one of three such factions that make up the Blue and White party (the other two are Benny Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid) who previously rejected the idea of counting on the Arab list, is now willing to accept them. But two of his associates in Telem, MK (Member of Knesset) Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, oppose the idea of going with the Arabs and are advocating a national unity government with the Likud.
Considering the indictment Prime Minister Netanyahu is facing, and the dominant and hostile left-leaning Israel media that has for years incited against him, Netanyahu’s electoral achievement in this election is significant. He was able to bring about a surprisingly high voter turnout despite voters weariness of repeating elections within one year. It is clear that the majority of Israelis still consider him the most qualified person to serve as Prime Minister. In a 2018 poll by the Madgam Institute, 34% responded that the most qualified candidate for the post of prime minister is Benjamin Netanyahu. 13% thought Benny Gantz was, 9% said Moshe Kahlon, and Naftali Bennet received 3%.
Should Gantz and Lieberman go ahead and form a government with Arab support in contradiction with their promises to their voters on the eve of the election, it is likely to jeopardize their chances in the next election cycle, which may not be far off. Conversely, a national unity government with the Likud may be problematic for Gantz as well. He has declared on the eve of the recent election that he will not sit with Netanyahu in such a coalition government. In the meantime, Gantz and Lieberman are seeking to advance legislation that would bar Netanyahu, under the specter of indictment, from serving as prime minister.
The Likud primaries overwhelmingly elected Netanyahu as its chairman and party leader. The party’s rank and file are unlikely to abandon him, nor will his party’s Knesset colleagues, with perhaps the exception of Gideon Saar, who has challenged Netanyahu’s leadership and failed.
The solution to this electoral impasse was outlined originally by President Reuven Rivlin. His proposal called for a national unity government in which Netanyahu, as the leader of the largest party, will serve the first year. If he should be convicted of the charges (bribery, fraud, and breach of trust), he would duly resign and be replaced by whoever the Likud elects in his place as party leader. If, however, Netanyahu is found innocent of the charges, he could serve another year. Gantz would then serve the remaining two years.
A precedent for national unity governments already exists. In 1984, a similar impasse occurred in which neither bloc could form a majority government. It was resolved to have the office of prime minister rotate. Shimon Peres, whose Alignment party with 44 seats (predecessor of the current Labor Party) being the largest party, served as Prime Minister from July, 1984 to October, 1986. Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud party (41 seats) leader, took over as prime minister and served until 1990.
Israel’s first national unity government was formed on the eve of the Six Day War in June, 1967, under Mapai’s (the early predecessor of the Labor Party) Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol. It included Menachem Begin’s Herut party (predecessor of Gahal and Likud), and Ben Gurion’s Mapai’s split-away party, Rafi. Moshe Dayan, of Rafi became Defense Minister. It also included Israel’s socialist party Mapam (United Workers party), and the religious parties. This government lasted until February, 1969, when PM Eshkol passed away.
The second national unity government continued under Eshkol’s successor, Prime Minister Golda Meir of the Mapai party (Israel’s Workers Party). It broke apart in August, 1970, with the introduction of the “Roger’s Plan” (William Rogers serves then as Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon). The “Rogers Plan” called for the principle of Israeli territorial withdrawal without a guarantee of a full peace treaty with Egypt (this occurred during the War of Attrition along the Suez Canal, and threatened to involve the two superpowers the Soviet Union and the U.S.). Menachem Begin and 26 MK’s bolted the government.
In 1984, the national unity government was able to tackle runaway inflation, bringing stability to the Israeli economy. The narrow coalition of the Likud and the ultra-orthodox parties provided large sums of money to yeshivot and military exemptions to yeshiva students, which angered the rest of Israeli young men who were obligated to serve. Similarly, a narrow government of the Blue and White party, along with the Arab list, and Lieberman, is likely to risk Israeli security interests. Moreover, a secular-leftist government would betray the Jewish character of the state of Israel.
A Likud – Blue and White unity government would fulfill the wishes of the majority of the Israeli public. Such a government would be able to focus on disparities in housing, energy usage, and be able to deal with the Chief Rabbinate, which needs to have Zionist rabbis. It could also resolve the issue of drafting the ultra-orthodox and assign Arab-Israeli citizens to an organized national service system instead of military service. Arab Israeli volunteers would still be accepted into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
For Netanyahu, a strong national unity government would enable him to furnish his legacy, not only in the economic and diplomatic arena, but in strengthening Israel’s domestic social fabric. Additionally, he would seek to improve his relationship with certain elements of the Diaspora Jewry. Gantz will benefit greatly by gaining the government experience he lacks, to make him a viable claimant to Israel’s leadership.
In conclusion, the best solution to Israel’s political impasse is a strong national unity government led by the Likud, Blue and White, and inclusive of all the Zionist parties, but absent of any small party to extort the government and hold it hostage.