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Israel - Knesset Election - 2019

In April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared victory in the Israeli elections. He tried to form a coalition with other right-wing and religious parties but he failed. Now Israelis are going polls again in September. This time other Israeli parties were forming new alliances.

No single party has ever won a majority of 61 out of 120 seats in the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, making coalition governments the norm. With less than a week before the deadline to form a coalition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met urgently on 23 May 2019 with right-wing parties in a bid to form a majority coalition, but without Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beitenu party the PM will not muster enough seats. As the May 28 deadline approached to present their coalition, Netanyahu called a meeting of all right-wing parties but former Defense Minister Liberman, leader of Yisrael Beitenu was not expected to attend.

Afterward, Netanyahu’s Likud party issued a statement saying that right-wing parties had agreed on the necessity to form a right-wing government, even if it doesn’t comprise Liberman. This would mean that without Israel Beitenu’s five seats, Netanyahu would have to attempt to win the Knesset approval for a coalition with only 60 members, one short of a majority in the 120-member Israeli parliament.

Liberman said he would vote against a minority government. “A government of 60 is not a right-wing government, but an ultra-Orthodox government that, instead of preserving Israel as a Jewish state, will change it into a theocracy,” Liberman said. The former Defense Minister, leader of the secularist party, had not agreed on the right-wing coalition over the ultra-orthodox refusals to allow men to serve in the military.

Israel moved closer to new parliamentary elections 28 May 2019 as lawmakers voted in favor of the first of three procedural moves necessary to dissolve the current parliament. This marked the first time in Israel’s history that the presumed prime minister has failed to form a government. The 66 to 44 vote set a tentative date of September 17 for a new election, if the measure makes it through the final two rounds of voting. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been unable to form a new government since his party won the most seats in an election last month. He has until 29 May 2019 to reach a coalition deal with other parties or risk having Israel's president give someone else a chance to form a coalition government. Netanyahu is unlikely to allow that to take place, preferring to take his chances in a new election.

Netanyahu's outgoing government is seen as the most right-wing in Israel's history, and the coalition he sought to form following the April 9 vote would have been similar if not further to the right. Netanyahu's prospective coalition had been thrown into turmoil by former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman, sometimes a Netanyahu ally and sometimes a rival. Lieberman demanded passage of a new law mandating that young ultra-Orthodox men be drafted into the Israeli military, like most other Jewish men, while Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies called for the current draft exemptions to remain in place.

Israeli lawmakers voted 30 May 2019 to dissolve parliament, paving the way for a new election after veteran Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government before a midnight deadline. The ballot was widely expected to take place in September, the second this year. It represented unprecedented upheaval, commentators said, even in a country used to political infighting, and dealt a blow to Netanyahu, who had claimed victory in the last vote, held on April 9. Parliament's 74-to-45 vote took place just minutes after a midnight deadline for Netanyahu to form a coalition. He is set to become Israel's longest-serving prime minister in the summer.

While Netanyahu has proven himself to be a resilient politician, the veteran politician will have to overcome a looming indictment, as well as a crumbling alliance with right-wing and religious parties, if he hopes to remain in power. It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu or Lieberman will be strengthened by the new election. If Netanyahu does triumph in September’s elections, it’s unlikely that Lieberman will be part of the government, as the two men won’t budge on their clashing policy positions.

The April 2019 Election

Israel will hold new elections on 09 April 2019 after the heads of all six coalition parties announced 24 December 2018 that they were dissolving the government. The current government’s term was set to end in November 2019. “Out of national and budgetary responsibility, the leaders of the coalition parties decided, unanimously and unanimously, to dissolve the Knesset and go to new elections at the beginning of April after a four-year term,” the party heads said in a joint statement, The Times of Israel reported. The party heads added that “the partnership in the Knesset and in the government will continue during the elections.”

The coalition heads decided to go to elections at the beginning of April because they couldn’t reach agreement on the ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill — legislation addressing a judge’s order that could mean that all members of the haredi Orthodox community are subject to the military draft. A new law extending the military draft to ultra-Orthodox men appears to have triggered the government's downfall. Netanyahu's ultra-Orthodox partners demanded the legislation be weakened and his small parliamentary majority made such a compromise impossible. Ultra Orthodox Jews have been exempted from the draft for years as they fear conscription could lead to immersion in secularism.

A series of corruption probes against Netanyahu and pending decisions by Israel’s attorney general on whether to follow police recommendations to indict him had raised speculation he would opt to seek a public show of confidence at the ballot box. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in the cases and has given no indication he will step down if charged.

Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid opposition party, was the strongest candidate to succeed Netanyahu in any upset. Lapid’s party was second to Likud in opinion polls. Former army chief Benny Gantz was seen as a dovish potential candidate who could tip the balance in favor of a center-left bloc, but had not thrown his hat in the ring. On the right, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, could both seek to lead a right-wing bloc if Likud emerged in a weaker position after an election.

No Israeli government has served out its full term since 1988. Since then, elections have almost always been moved up because of a coalition crisis or a strategic move by the prime minister to maximise his chances of re-election. There had long been speculation that Netanyahu would call a general election before its scheduled date of November 2019. The attorney general was expected to announce charges against Netanyahu in two corruption probes in the coming months, and some analysts believe he would be better positioned to combat them with a fresh electoral mandate. But Netanyahu would want to make the move at the most advantageous time and likely not with public attention focused on the Gaza ceasefire.

In mid-November 2018 the Knesset seemed headed for an early election, with Avigdor Liberman resigning from the Defense Ministry and pulling Yisrael Beytenu from the coalition, and Bennett immediately demanded to replace him. Netanyahu said there was no need for an election, but Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon called for an election to take place as soon as possible, and Interior Minister Arye Deri and Bennett joined the call. But Deri retreated from his remarks, and a day later, Bennett did the same. Bennett said “It’s better that Netanyahu beat me in politics than [Hamas leader Ismail] Haniyeh beat Israel in the battlefield.”

Israel seemed slated to go to the polls in early 2019 after government falls following the resignation of Avigdor Lieberman. There is likely to be a two- or three-month campaign, with the focus again on security. Bennett's Jewish Home expected to increase its influence. The party, which represents settlers, had eight seats but early polling predicted this could rise to 12, while the centrist party Yesh Atid – led by former TV presenter Yair Lapid – also expected to do well, going from 11 seats to 17. The left-leaning Zionist Union had 24 seats but polling predicted this could shrink to just 11, marking the end of the ‘left’ as a mainstream political force in Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took over the defense portfolio in his government after his defense minister resigned, sparking speculation of an early election. Netanyahu's right-wing coalition government was rocked by Avigdor Lieberman's resignation on 14 November 2018 in protest of a ceasefire reached between Israel and Gaza. Lieberman's far-right Yisrael Beitenu party quit the coalition and its five MPs withdrew support for the government.

Netanyahu was seeking to contain the political fallout of his decision to accept a ceasefire deal on 13 November 2018 that ended the worst escalation between Israel and blockaded Gaza since a 2014 war. Lieberman said it was "capitulating to terror" when announcing his resignation and also criticised Netanyahu's recent decision to allow Qatar to send millions of dollars in aid to the blockaded Palestinian enclave.

Netanyahu met with key coalition partner Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party, who had sought the post for himself, but the two men emerged without an agreement. After Bennett and Netanyahu's meeting, a spokesman for the PM's Likud Party said that for now Netanyahu would handle the defence portfolio himself. Other coalition partners would oppose Bennett, who leads an ultra-nationalist, religious party, becoming defence minister. Bennett, who opposed any Palestinian state and who has opposed every ceasefire reached with Hamas over Gaza in recent years, said he wanted to get his hands on the ministry “so Israel could start winning again”.

Before the November 2018 crisis Netanyahu's coaltion had 66 seats in the 120-seat parliament. The loss of Lieberman's five has brought him down to a perilous 61. Losing Bennett's eight means Netanyahu would lose his majority. Netanyahu took over the defence portfolio at least temporarily – in addition to the premiership, foreign affairs and health portfolios he already has.

A poll published on 15 November 2018 found 74 percent of respondents were unhappy with Netanyahu's handling of the escalation with Gaza and Hamas, though it also showed his party would still win the most seats. Giving further ammunition to Netanyahu's political critics, Hamas has portrayed the ceasefire and Lieberman's resignation as a victory.

Netanyahu faced unexpected resistance from former army chief Benjamin “Benny” Gantz, who declared his candidacy for the top political post last month, establishing a new party called the Israel Resilience Party. Netanyahu, who holds the record for the longest single term (his second term) in Israel, is seeking a fifth term in office. If he wins one more time and stays in power for at least three months, he will be the longest-serving prime minister of Israel, surpassing the country’s founding leader and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. But Netanyahu's leadership of more than a decade appears to have come full circle as the right-wing politician not only faces the anti-incumbency factor but also a smouldering resentment from within his own administration. He faced serious corruption charges at home and a lot of Israelis, including Gantz, have criticised him for being a polarising figure.

Gantz is supportive of an intensive air campaign against Iranian targets, which could lead a wider war across the Middle East between Tel Aviv and Tehran. A well-educated military man surrounded by generals, Gantz appears to embody an Israeli statesmanship, something the country desperately seeks in an age of corruption scandals, according to some experts. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was convicted on bribery charges in 2015. Moshe Katsav, Israel’s eighth president, was also sentenced to seven years in prison in 2011 over obstruction of justice, rape and other charges. Even a former energy minister, Gonen Segev, pleaded guilty of spying for Iran, the archenemy of Israel. Netanyahu was on the edge of a possible indictment over bribery and fraud charges.


On 20 May 2016, some said reflecting the principle of “keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” the hawkish Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman was the presumptive defense minister, outgoing Likud Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon abruptly took a break from political life over the rift with Netanyahu and his demotion. Netanyahu and Yaalon had public disputes in recent days over the role of military officials in discussions of policy. Netanyahu has argued that military officials should avoid speaking about policy matters publicly, while Yaalon has encouraged senior officers to “speak their mind.” Ya’alon had defended Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan’s expression of concern over fascist trends in Israeli society. In his resignation speech, Ya’alon said dangerous men had gained control of the country.

Former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said he would be willing to align his far-right Yisrael Beitenu party with Netanyahu’s coalition, but only if he was named defense minister. With the predictably off-script and far more hard-line Liberman’s five seats joining the coalition, Netanyahu had seemingly solved the problem of political extortion in his 61-MK razor-thin coalition, in which every Knesset member, with the weight of their single vote, had the leverage to make serious demands.

Liberman’s appointment as defense minister sent shock waves across Israeli society. The governing pendulum swung sharply to the right on a host of issues, including war and peace, racist trends in Israeli society, the rule of law and Israel’s international standing.

A survey by Israel Radio published on 27 May 2016 indicated that a new center-right party would beat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud by four seats, with Israel’s ruling party dropping from its current 30 seats to 21. A new [ie, presently non-existent] political party with former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon and former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar would get the largest number of seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament — 25. With the new Ya’alon-Kahlon-Sa’ar party in the running, the Zionist Union would fall dramatically — from 24 seats to 11 — and the center-left Yesh Atid, right-wing Jewish Home and right-wing Yisrael Beytenu would all snatch up two more seats than they had (Yesh Atid would rise from 11 to 13, Jewish Home from 8 to 10, and Yisrael Beytenu from 6 to 8). The Joint (Arab) List would remain steady with 13 seats, as would the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism with eight. Ultra-Orthodox party Shas and left-wing Meretz would each lose one seat, according to the survey.

Ya’alon, Sa’ar and Kahlon had not suggested they will run on a joint ticket in the future, and the survey is entirely speculative. Without the formation of such a new center-right party, the Likud would shrink by two seats (28) but remain, by far, the largest party in the Knesset, according to the Israel Radio poll.

Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon announced 16 June 2016 at the Herzliya Conference [Haaretz]. "I intend to run for the leadership in Israel in the next elections," he said during his speech. Ya'alon lashed out at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, claiming he is trying to scare Israeli citizens about security threats in order to distract them from other problems in Israel.

"At this time and in the foreseeable future, there is not existential threat to Israel. It is the strongest state in the region and there is an enormous gap with every country and organization stationed around it. Therefore, it is appropriate for the leadership in Israel to cease scaring the citizens and to stop telling them that we are on the verge of a second Holocaust."

Ya'alon sharply attacked Netanyahu's behavior and blamed him for incitement, factionalism and creating a divide in the nation. "The leadership of Israel 2016 is busy with inflaming passions and causing fear between Jews and Arabs, between right and left and between different ethnic groups in order to survive in power and earn another month or year. The job of leadership is to bring together the people and not to tear it apart, incite and urge attacks."

The Central Elections Committee put overall turnout, some four hours before polls closed, at 2.5 percentage points lower than at the same time during the previous national ballot in 2015. It was also lower than the 2013 levels for the equivalent period. After a tightly-fought race with former general Benny Gantz, the preliminary exit polls all gave slightly different projections. Some polls suggested that the Likud Party was projected to win 36 seats versus 37 seats for the Blue and White bloc. Channel 13’s exit poll has Blue and White and Likud tied with 36 seats each. The right-wing bloc leads, with 66 seats, making Netanyahu better positioned to form a government, compared to 54 seats for the center-left. Others suggest that Gantz's party may have four seats on the Likud Party. But the right-wing bloc is stronger, according to Kan, with 64 seats, compared to 56 for the center-left. Netanyahu may was on pace to securing his fifth term as the nation's prime minister, allowing him to become the longest-serving individual in that position.

With 97 percent of votes counted, the two main parties won 35 seats apiece. Likud party and the centrist Blue tied the Blue and White party led by Netanyahu's main rival Benny Gantz. Likud, which gained five more seats compared with the 2015 elections, needed 61 seats to form the government. The Likud party with the help of other right-wing parties were likely to muster enough support to get a majority in the 120-seat parliament, known as Knesset. Netanyahu had an advantage as nearly all right-wing parties had declared their support to the Israeli leader.

United Torah Judaism, Shas, Yisrael Beitenu, Right-wing Union and Kulanu are parties from the right-wing bloc that passed the 3.25 percent threshold to enter Knesset, obtaining 30 seats combined. This placed the right-wing bloc in a 10-seat lead over the left. In the center-left bloc Labor, Meretz and the Arab parties of Hadash-Ta'al and Balad-Ra'am obtained 20 seats.

Despite a low voter turnout among Israeli Palestinians, the Arab lists of Hadash-Ta'al and Balad-Ra'am passed the threshold gaining six and four seats respectively. However, their total of 10 Knesset seats is lower than in the 2015 elections, when the Arab joint list won 13, making them the third-largest faction in the 20th Knesset. An hour before voting closed, Israeli Palestinian turnout was at 46 percent, well below the 61 percent turnout nationwide. Palestinian turnout in the 2015 election was 63 percent. The New Right, Zehut and Gesher parties did not pass the threshold.

The September 2019 Election

Israeli legislators voted 29 May 2019 to dissolve parliament and set the country on the path to a second election within months, after right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to put together a ruling coalition before a midnight deadline. Netanyahu appeared set for a fifth term as prime minister after his Likud Party won 35 of the 120 seats in the parliament, even though he faces possible indictment in three corruption cases. He has denied any wrongdoing and accused his opponents of mounting a witch-hunt. But despite weeks of negotiations he failed to overcome divisions between secular and religious allies and parliament voted by 74-45 to dissolve itself. The unprecedented vote was prompted by Netanyahu's failure to reach a coalition deal even though his party and its allies won a majority in the April 9 election.

In addition to a campaign promise to annex illegal settlements in the West Bank, Netanyahu had promised in a dramatic speech last week to "apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea immediately" if he won. Although Gantz has called for pursuing peace with the Palestinians while maintaining Israeli security, he has remained largely silent on the latest US-sponsored peace plan during his campaign and avoided questions about his favored solution to the conflict.

In the Israeli system, who becomes prime minister isn't about who wins the most seats, but who can actually form a government. With more than 60 percent of votes counted, Netanyahu's Likud party and the Blue and White party led by former army chief Benny Gantz were neck and neck with 32 seats each, according to Israeli media reported 18 September 2019. The Arab Joint List, an alliance of four smaller parties, is projected to have performed better than in April election, becoming the third-largest bloc with 12 seats, while Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu is expected to win nine seats. The partial results showed that a potential centre-left bloc could win 55 seats, while a right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc was expected to pick up 56, both shy of the 61 seats needed for a majority. There will probably be weeks of coalition negotiations before a government is formed.

With Blue and White also seemingly unable to form a coalition without Lieberman, analysts said the Yisrael Beiteinu leader could become a kingmaker. Lieberman told his supporters in Jerusalem that the "one option" was a unity government, bringing him and the two largest parties, Likud and Blue and White, together in a broad, secular coalition that would not be subject to the demands of ultra-Orthodox parties. Netanyahu said early on Wednesday that he would seek the formation of a new "Zionist" government that excludes Arab parties. Halabi said that he expected Gantz to form a unity government with the Yisrael Beiteinu and the Likud, which could see the ruling party split and Netanyahu kicked out.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's offer of a unity government was rejected on 19 September 2019 by Gantz. Moshe Yaalon, a senior leader from Gantz's centrist Blue and White Party, announced, "We will not enter a coalition led by Netanyahu." Instead, Gantz expressed his wish to become prime minister. "In order to make a unity government you don't come with spins and blocs," said Gantz. "I intend to establish a wide liberal unity government."

Netanyahu announced 21 October 2019 that he had failed to form a majority government in parliament, marking a major setback for the embattled Israeli leader that plunges the country into a new period of political uncertainty. Netanyahu said he had worked "tirelessly" to establish a unity government with his chief rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, but been repeatedly rebuffed. Netanyahu said he was returning the "mandate" to President Reuven Rivlin, who will now ask Gantz to try to form a coalition. Gantz, however, could face an equally difficult task.

While Netanyahu remained at the helm of his Likud party, his announcement marked the second time this year that he has been unable to form a government. With Israel's attorney general set to decide in the coming weeks on whether to indict Netanyahu in a series of corruption cases, the longtime Israeli leader could come under heavy pressure to step aside. One party rival, Gideon Saar, has already indicated he would challenge Netanyahu if Likud holds a primary.

Without Likud, Gantz would have a hard time securing a majority in parliament. The opposition to Netanyahu included a diverse group of parties, ranging from Arab parties to the secular ultranationalist party Yisrael Beitenu, that were unlikely to sit together in partnership. The religious and right-wing parties held fast to their 55-seat bloc under Netanyahu. United Torah Judaism leader Ya’acov Litzman wrote to Rivlin that he still supported Netanyahu as prime minister. Even the weakest link in the bloc held fast - New Right leader Ayelet Shaked stated she would be willing to meet with Gantz, but only to tell him he's wasting her time, because her party will not negotiate independently from the bloc.

Under the “Rivlin plan”, Netanyahu would be premier first and then take an extended break while fighting corruption charges, with Gantz taking his place as prime minister. Or Gantz might form a 44-seat minority government with Labor-Gesher and Democratic Union, with Joint List and Yisrael Beytenu support from the outside. That would provide 65 seats voting in favor of the government’s formation. But such a minority government, might not last very long. The religious-Right bloc won’t support anything it does, and it would be hard to get Joint List and Yisrael Beytenu to support the same policies in the Knesset. If Gantz failed during his 28-day window, a majority of lawmakers could try to endorse a third candidate, something that has never happened before.

And if that fails, the country would be forced into the unprecedented scenario of a third election in under a year. Former justice minister Ayelet Shaked wrote that her Yamina party is not open for negotiations with Blue and White. "Another election is unnecessary and harmful. Einstein defined insanity as repeating the same action over and over and expecting to get different results."

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman’s announced on 20 November 2019 that he will only support a national unity government and not any other options. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz were unwilling to make the compromises necessary to form one. The head of Blue and White returned the mandate four hours before the midnight deadline.

Gantz did not have the option of a 14-day extension after failing to form a government after 28 days, like the first candidate does, according to Basic Law: Government. The Knesset will have 21 days, until December 11 at midnight, to find a new candidate for prime minister. The candidate must have 61 votes in his or her favor, and it can be Netanyahu or Gantz, even though they failed to build a coalition before, or any other member of Knesset. Should the Knesset fail to find a candidate for prime minister by the end of December 11, the law says an election should be held on the last Tuesday within 90 days. Yinon wrote that if the Knesset does find a candidate, but then the government he or she presents to the Knesset – following the procedure for any new government - is voted down, “the process cannot be revived,” and an election is called for 90 days later. The 90th day after the Knesset’s deadline is Tuesday, March 10, which is the holiday of Purim.

On 21 November 2019 Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit charges PM Benjamin Netanyahu with fraud, breach of trust, and accepting bribes in three different scandals. Avichai Mandelblit has "decided to file charges against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for offences of receiving a bribe, fraud, and breach of trust," a ministry statement said, throwing the country’s paralysed political system into further disarray and threatening the longtime leader’s grip on power.

Netanyahu's main political rival said the indicted prime minister has "no public or moral mandate to make fateful decisions for the state of Israel." Former army chief Benny Gantz said in a statement the indictment raises concerns that Netanyahu "will make decisions in his own personal interest and for his political survival and not in the national interest."

Unable to establish narrow coalition governments, the two major parties - White and Blue and Likud - are likely to enter negotiations over a future national (Jewish) unity government, possibly with other right-wing parties like Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu. There is no appetite for holding a third election in a year.

The formation of a national unity government will de facto render the Arab List - the third-largest bloc in the Knesset - the official opposition party, with privileges, including top-level security briefings for its leader.

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Page last modified: 12-12-2019 19:07:32 ZULU