Vote Early and Often
by Simon Rosenblum*
Israel prides itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East, but surely it's taking democracy a bit far. Once again, the country is about to head to the polls. The third national election in less than 12 months!
Most observers, including myself, did not foresee this third election round. Other outcomes seemed more likely. One possible outcome was Avigdor Lieberman eventually supporting Likud and its allies, thereby giving Benjamin Netanyahu enough seats for a stable government. Instead, Lieberman intensified his defiance of Bibi and firmed up his battle with the ultra orthodox. A national unity government seemed much more likely, and I was surprised when negotiations to produce one failed. I thought President Reuven Rivlin would succeed in his bid for a national unity government via a rotation agreement between Likud-plus-allies and Blue and White. Under such an agreement, Netanyahu would remain prime minister for six months, then turn the position over to Benny Gantz, and later, possibly, return to being PM if he managed to avoid conviction on the three legal charges he faces. But Netanyahu never gave up trying to get immunity in his legal battles, while Blue and White distrusted Bibi to keep his word about handing over the PM position. So the proposed deal went nowhere.
The upcoming vote
It's unlikely the results of the March 2020 election will be much different from the previous two. The averages of the last 20 polls (published December 12 and which possibly understate some of Blue and White's growing momentum) indicate the distribution of the Knesset's 120 seats will look more or less like this:
Blue and White - 35
Likud - 33
Nationalist and religious right-wing parties - 22
Joint (Arab) List - 13
Meretz (Democratic Union) and Labour - 10 (these two parties might run together to ensure neither of them falls below the 3.25% electoral threshold)
Lieberman - 8
(Yes,this adds up to 121. Feel free to deduct the extra seat from the party you like least!)
The next step is to aggregate these numbers into political blocs. Thus we get Likud and company with 55 seats; Blue and White plus Labour and Meretz with 45; the Joint List, 13; and Lieberman, 8. Though these numbers are fluid, the trends have been remarkably consistent over time. And this shows another stalemate is likely. That said, Bibi will be seriously weakened by March - both politically and legally. His weakened state will make it more likely a unity government can be successfully negotiated.
What about the possibility of a minority Blue and White plus Labour/Meretz government, backed from the outside by the Joint List? The current numbers rule that out, but it's not just about the numbers. The Joint List is made up of four groupings, and at least one of these groupings is considered beyond the pale by Jewish Israelis. As well, important elements of Blue and White would not want go in this direction. Additionally, such a development would quite possibly result in Lieberman feeling forced to rejoin Likud and company in a narrow right-wing government. So we return again to a unity government being by far the most likely outcome of a third election.
Such a national unity government - whether led by Benny Gantz or any Likud leader - will bring little change. On the positive side, the push towards annexation will lose steam. Given how destructive annexation would be to the possibility of an eventual two state solution and Israel's security relations with both the Palestinian Authority and Jordan, this is no small thing. However, it's very unlikely the next government would attempt to make progress towards a two state solution, even were there a ready, willing and able partner on the Palestinian side. Remember that Blue and White leans centre-right on peace and security issues and that Benny Gantz has shown no interest in pursuing peace with the Palestinians. The best one can say is that Blue and White - whether as part of a national unity government or even as a government on its own - might not do much to negatively impact the possibility of a two state solution in the future.
On a somewhat more upbeat note: the end of the Netanyahu era promises a return to greater civility in Israeli politics, a return to the rule of law and quite possibly better relations with Israel's Arab minority. Nothing miraculous, but not chopped liver either.
*Simon Rosenblum is a frequent commentator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was a founding member of CFPN and a former national chair. The views expressed in this article are his own do not necessarily reflect CFPN positions.