Why Israel could hold a second national election in 2019

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a conference of his Likud party in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90) 

Ben Sales

(JTA) — Israel held a national election seven weeks ago. It might hold another one in September.

If that sounds weird to you, you’re right: Israel has a famously raucous political system, but it’s never held national elections twice in one year. Until now. Maybe.

Just to be clear, no one really wants this to happen, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; his main rival, Benny Gantz; or the president, Reuven Rivlin. Nor do Israeli political journalists, who just finished covering a vicious campaign.

So why is it happening? It’s a result of Israel’s fractious parliamentary system, strong egos and lingering resentments.

Here is the Jewish state’s unprecedented political quagmire, explained in plain English.

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Israelis voted on April 9. But the election isn’t really over yet.

Remember when Netanyahu won re-election last month? Turns out he didn’t really.

Netanyahu’s Likud party did win the most votes, but not an outright majority in the 120-seat parliament, the Knesset. In order to govern in Israel’s parliamentary system, Netanyahu needed to persuade other parties to form a coalition with him. He needed to reach 61 members, or a majority of the Knesset.

After Election Day, that seemed simple. Right-wing parties had won a clear 68-seat majority in Knesset, and they all agreed that Netanyahu should continue serving as prime minister.

But seven weeks later, Netanyahu has failed to form a coalition. Some would-be partners have refused to compromise, and his deadline is rapidly approaching. If he doesn’t form a coalition by midnight Wednesday, his time is up.

Why can’t Netanyahu’s partners get along?

The Israeli right is split among a few factions. Two of the biggest are secular right-wingers who support a hawkish military posture and religious right-wingers who want to preserve Orthodox Judaism’s power in government.

Usually those two groups make it work. Religious parties, especially haredi Orthodox ones, will go along with the government’s decisions on defense, security and West Bank settlement. In return, secular parties agree to maintain haredi control of Jewish marriage and conversion. Also — crucially — secular parties have allowed haredi youth to avoid military conscription, which is mandatory for other Israeli Jews.

This time, however, one of the secular parties is refusing to play that game.

Israel Beiteinu, headed by former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, won’t join Netanyahu’s coalition unless the government passes a bill drafting some haredi men. Haredi parties, in turn, won’t sign on unless the bill is softened. Israel Beiteinu won’t agree to the softened version.

And here we are. If Netanyahu can’t get his partners to agree, it will be the first time in Israeli history that a party failed to form a coalition after winning an election.

So what happens now?

Short answer: No one knows.

Long answer: No one knows. Netanyahu, political mastermind that he is, may still find a way to salvage this. But there are a few options if Netanyahu cannot form a coalition:

Option 1: A new election

This seems to be the most likely scenario if negotiations don’t work out. And it’s the one Netanyahu’s allies prefer. Here’s the thinking: April’s election didn’t work, so we’re going to try again.

It’s unclear whether that will make any difference. Unsurprisingly, polls show a second 2019 election yielding basically the same result as the first one. But changes within the parties could lead to a different result. There’s talk of the Arab-Israeli parties uniting or different right-wing parties merging. Or Israel could be stuck with the same problem four months from now.

The main reason Netanyahu’s allies want a new election is to forestall the alternative, which is …

Option 2: Netanyahu’s rivals get a chance to form a government

Netanyahu “won” the April election because it seemed like he could garner a majority, so the president gave him the first shot at forming a government. But if Netanyahu fails, Rivlin could pass the baton to the prime minister’s rivals, the centrist Blue and White party led by Gantz.

Blue and White would have a tough time forming a government. Haredi parties wouldn’t join because Blue and White also supports drafting haredi men. Staunchly right-wing parties are out because Blue and White is vague about the West Bank and Israeli settlements. And without those two groups, there’s no path to a majority.

A crazy compromise is always possible. But Blue and White’s best hope is …

Option 3: A unity government forms

Likud and Blue and White, the two largest parties, could form a coalition together. That would comprise a clear majority in Knesset and leave the smaller parties bickering in the dust.

But there’s a problem: They really don’t like each other. Blue and White’s campaign focused on calling Netanyahu corrupt and imperious, pointing to his impending indictment for fraud and breach of trust. Likud’s campaign portrayed Blue and White as dangerously unfit for office.

Blue and White’s leaders have said they would join a coalition with Likud on one condition: that Netanyahu step down. But he has shown absolutely no signs of resigning, and Likud just voted to retain him as leader for the next elections.

Isn’t everyone tired of this?

Yes. Rivlin, Israel’s president, in a video message to the Israeli public said, “I for my part will do everything in my power to prevent the State of Israel from going to another election campaign.”

Another election will cost taxpayers more than $130 million, according to Israeli news reports. And judging from Twitter, Israeli political journalists are exhausted from covering the never-ending campaign.

Netanyahu, who is facing indictment, wants to avoid the uncertainty of another vote. His rivals want a shot at forming a coalition.

And yet, here we are.