With more than 98% of ballots counted, the results from the Israeli election of March 23, 2021 are almost final. I am going to take a stab at analyzing the results and providing an update about the possible direction things may take in the coming weeks. I should note that the final results are due to be announced at 10 a.m. tomorrow, Israel time, but most commentators have indicated that few changes are expected. Apparently the ballots have actually been tabulated but the "official" statement has not yet been released.
On Wednesday night, Israelis tuned in to the news at 10 p.m. to hear the results of "exit polls" which, in Israel, are usually fairly close to the final results. Three different TV stations announced their respective projections. In two out of the three releases, Bibi was projected to have a 61 seat, bare majority - and perhaps, escape with a win. But over the course of the evening, the projections were adjusted and the real results started coming in. Bibi's bloc went down to 59 and it has remained there until now.
So here is where we are at. This is Bibi's "bloc" - the parties that have pledged their allegiance to him and are willing to form a government under his leadership:
Likud (Netanyahu (Bibi)'s party): 30;
Shas (Ultra Orthodox Sephardi) 9;
United Torah Judaism (Ultra Orthodox Ashkenazi) 7;
Religious Zionist (Extreme Right Nationalist): 6
As you can see, this adds up to 52. There are 120 seats in the Knesset so a coaltion must get to 61 to form a government. Prior to the election, most commentators were predicting that the missing piece to this puzzle would be the "Yamina" ("The Right") party led by Naftali Bennett. If the Yamina Party were to have received 9 or more, it would have been able to join this coalition and put the Likud over the top to form the government.
Yamina is generally a very right wing party, to the right of Likud. Their platform includes an overhaul of the justice system to allow the Knesset to override decisions of the Supreme Court, increased privatization of schools and healthcare, annexation of the occupied territories and reduction of taxes. They are quite comfortable with the coalition listed above but there are few, if any, other Knesset members willing to join this coalition and put it over 61.
At the same time, the leader of the Yamina party, Bennett, has been touting himself as a potential Prime Minister, able to bring together a wider tent than the Likud. Yamina was hoping to get between 15 and 20 seats but wound up with 7. During the campaign, Bennett repeatedly called for a leadership change though he stopped short of saying that he would refuse to sit in a Netanyahu government. Along the way, Bennett stated that he would absolutely not sit in a government led by Yesh Atid (Lapid) and he would not join any government with the Arab Joint List or even with Meretz. So, he limited himself a great deal but most commentators expected that he would join his natural coalition partners, the right wing bloc if this would lead to the formation of a government.
On the other side of the ledger, here is what we have:
Yesh Atid (Lapid) (Centrist or perhaps centre/left) - 17
Blue and White (Gantz) (Centrist or perhaps centre/right) 8
Yisrael Beitenu (Lieberman) (Secular, right wing) 7
Labour (Michaeli) (left) 7
New Hope (Saar) (Right leaning, similar to Likud, but anti-Bibi) 6
Meretz (Horowitz) (Far Left, secularist) 6
This all adds up to 51, which is still a long way from the 61 required to form a government.
There are two other parties - the Arab Joint List (Mostly secular, Arab) with 6 and the Ra'am Party (Religious fundamentalist Arab) (4). These parties could be enough to join either faction and put that group over the required 61 but that would be very unpopular, politically, in many Israeli circles.
Possible Directions - Can a Government Be Formed?
As many of you know, I am not a huge soccer (football) fan. One of the reasons is the high likelihood of a tie. No sports event, that I can think of, is less satisfying than watching two teams play to a 0-0 tie and then just leave the field and call it a day. I much prefer hockey playoffs - where the teams play "sudden death" and keep playing, for as long as it takes, until someone scores.
Unfortunately, here in Israel, we seem stuck in a soccer-like tie with no effective tie-breaker. After four consecutive elections, we do not have a clear result and we are unlikely to have a stable government any time soon.
I don't take too much joy in stating that my blog predictions from March 11, 2021
were reasonably accurate and pretty much assessed the situation that we now have. As we sit here now, Bibi and the Likud party have four options for forming a government but they are all low percentage options from where we sit currently:
1. Negotiate a deal with anther party or two: One option for Bibi is to be able to convince one of the right or left centre "anti-Bibi" parties to join his government. He could offer all kinds of incentives and financial rewards, cabinet posts etc., In particular, he may try to convince the New Hope party under Saar, the Labour party (Michaeli) or the Blue and White party (Gantz) to join his coalition. These other parties have all insisted that they will not join a Bibi-led government. Last time around, Gantz gave in and made a deal. Will he do it again? It turned out very badly for Gantz. Will Saar make a deal? He has stated repeatedly that he won't. Or perhaps Labour? Labour could exact a very high price from Bibi though they would have to compromise their principles. I don't think we can rule this possibility out entirely. Bibi is very talented and convincing and he is willing to promise just about anything. The problem, though, is that the coalition he would be heading would be a very right wing leaning government. He would really have to try and square a circle. Overall, I think this is quite a low percentage option.
2. Convince a few individual Knesset Members to "cross the aisle."
In Bibi's post-election speech on Wednesday night, he suggested that this (or option 1) would be his main plan. He implored all of those members of the Knesset who "agree with his agenda and his achievements" to join his coalition. He will try to convince members of the New Hope Party, the Blue and White Party or perhaps even Yesh Atid to join his right wing coalition and put the bloc over 61. Once again, I don't think we can rule this out entirely but I think it is going to be quite an uphill battle for Bibi.
3. An Explicit or Tacit Coalition with Ra'am or the Joint List (Arab Parties)
Over the course of the campaign, Bibi knew that there was a chance that this is where things would wind up. So he began courting one of the two Arab parties - the Islamist Ra'am party - to consider supporting his coalition in exchange for potential support for some of the things Ra'am might want. This is incredibly cynical politics by Bibi who has repeatedly undermined the legitimacy of the Arab parties in previous elections, fearing that they could join the left and overturn his leadership. If it was just the Likud party, this may have worked. But the Likud led bloc has teamed up with a group of parties that are much further right than the Likud including the anti-Arab, far right nationalist party the "Religious Zionist Party." In short, Bibi's coalition partners, or at least some of them, are absolutely opposed to a coalition that is dependent on the support of a radical Islamist Arab party. So this is still possible but seems unlikely.
4. Bibi Departure
Right now, this does not seem to be very likely. However, if Bibi were to resign, his Likud party could almost certainly form a government very quickly with a number of the different parties on the "anti-Bibi" side of the ledger. Bibi's criminal trial is scheduled to resume on April 4, 2021. If no government is formed and the trial begins to progress, there may well be a situation in which Bibi negotiates some type of plea-bargain or political deal to end his trial in exchange for his resignation and immunity. I think this is a longer range possibility but it may be something that takes place before a fifth election in September or October.
Now on the other side of the ledger, the question is, can the "anti-Bibi" forces form a government or will we have another round of elections. Here are the options:
1. Lapid-Led Coalition:
This would seem to be the best possibility, in an objective sense. After all, Yesh Atid has 17 seats, the second highest number after Bibi and leads a group that adds up to 51 without the Joint List or 57 with the Joint List. The problem here is that Lapid does not seem to have the ability to attract 10 more Knesset members to his coalition. One possibility would be a coalition with all 10 Arab Knesset members, including the Joint List and the 4-seat Ra'am party. I don't think some of the right-Centre bloc members will agree to this. In particular, some members of the Blue and White party and some from the New Hope party may not agree. So this seems unlikely, overall.
2. Coalition Led by Bennett, Saar or Gantz
This is another possibility that is being floated by commentators. The idea is that one of these three leaders would have a better chance of building support among the centre and the centre-right than Lapid. In particular, one of these three might be able to attract the United Torah Judaism party and/or Shas to join the coalition. It sounds possible but I'm not convinced it is going to happen. Bennett seems to me to be too far to the right for the anti-Bibi bloc and this group would cover such a wide spread across the political spectrum that it is hard to imagine that they could all agree on anything.
3. Elections Round 5
As of right now, this looks like the most likely scenario. What will change between now and round 5? Bibi will be deep into his trial, Covid-19 will be a thing of the past (in Israel at least) and the public will be even more sick of the idea of being dragged to a fifth consecutive election. In short, I do think that the situation, politically, will become somewhat worse for Bibi if Israel goes to a fifth election and, at some point, there will be calls for him to resign from within his party. I think that many in the "anti-Bibi" bloc are banking on this as the most promising scenario. I should note that, according to the deal that was signed into law during the last government, if no new stable government is formed by November 2021 and things are still up in the air, Gantz will officially become the Prime Minister in November of the interim caretaker government. For Gantz and the Blue and White party, that might be worth waiting for.
Winners and Losers and Closing Comments:
I thought it might be worthwhile to add a few additional comments about winners and losers from this election and why.
In the winners category, it is fair to say that both Meretz and Labour are big winners They both bounced up in numbers and had been considered by some forecasters to be on the verge of being ousted from the Knesset. The left is still alive in Israel.
The Blue and White party was also a big winner with 8 seats. Gantz had entered a disastrous deal with Bibi which was criticized in many quarters. But the Israeli public apparently felt that he had done so in the interest of helping the country out of a political crisis so it rewarded him with 8 seats.
There were two other big winners. The Religious Zionist party made it into the Knesset for the first time. This collection of misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic far-right extremists picked up 6 seats. Very few of the other parties are interested in joining a coalition with this motley group. The very fact that this party will sit in the Knesset is frightening to many inside Israel and worldwide.
The other big winner was the Ra'am party, the Arab Islamist party that splintered away from the Joint List. Ra'am is now trying to use its new-found political clout to influence the election results and serve as a king maker. It remains to be seen whether Ra'am will be able to do that but the fact that it is even a possibility is a huge victory for Ra'am.
On the losers side of the ledger, it might be a bit early to say. The New Hope party was very disappointed with only 6 seats. Out of the gate, this party was hoping to get 15-20 and offer a real alternative to the Likud party. That simply did not happen.
Yamina was also strongly rebuked with only 7 seats. Bennett was hoping to muster between 15 and 20 and thought he was on track to be a real alternative to Bibi. He may still be able to work something out in his favour as discussed above, but he can't be happy with only 7 seats.
Bibi has to be disappointed as well. With a high percentage of Israelis vaccinated and peace deals with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, Bibi thought that the timing of this election, just as everything was reopening in Israel, would give him the best chance of winning the election with a bloc of between 62 and 67. But his bloc underperformed dramatically and left him in a very tenuous situation.
The other big loser, at this point, is the Israeli public. We are faced with the very likely prospect of a fifth consecutive election, a caretaker government, no budget (there was no budget in 2020 and there is no budget for 2021) and no likelihood of a positive change anytime soon. Moreover, we now have two new extremist parties in the Knesset, the Religious Zionist party and the Arab Ra'am party, both of which are very problematic for many people.
Despite all of that, we are ready to change our clocks and spring ahead tonight so that we can welcome the imminent arrival of the Pesach holiday. A large number of Israelis have been vaccinated, Covid-19 is in decline and the vaccine seems to be working. So despite the political logjam, there is a great deal of positive news in Israel, certainly compared to where things sat one year ago.
Perhaps, while Israelis across the country are enjoying their four coups of wine at the Seder and opening the door for Eliyahu (Elijah the prophet), a wind of inspiration will arrive and will lead to some unexpectedly pleasant political resolution. After all, we always conclude the Seder with the statement "next year in Jerusalem." Since Jerusalem is Israel's capital and the home of the Knesset, maybe what we really mean is "hopefully, by next year, there will be a government in Jerusalem." Inshallah (if it is a government supported by Ra'am or the Joint List).
Wishing everyone a happy and healthy Peseach holiday. Another update will follow in a week or two if there are some new developments to report.