Earlier this month, followers of Israeli politics bore witness to the second round of national elections in 2019, the culmination of an unprecedented display of political theater. In a close contest, incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fell short to his challenger, former Lt. General Benny Gantz, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff from 2011 to 2015, in a race that was intended to finally determine who would win control of the government.

However, the election took a strange turn, and despite Netanyahu garnering fewer votes and therefore fewer seats for his party in the Knesset — Israel’s parliament — he has been granted the first chance to form the new government by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. If Netanyahu succeeds, he will continue to serve as prime minister with the potential for a full, four-year term. This is the life in the complex Israeli political system.

In the election, the two main candidates carried a significant share of Israeli votes, with Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White party earning 31 and 33 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, respectively. While Netanyahu and his leading opponent predictably became heads of the Knesset’s two largest individual parties, Netanyahu will face difficulties in creating a governing coalition of 61 or more Members of Knesset, or MKs.

Netanyahu’s main challenges stem from a set of corruption charges that range from alleged offers of interference in the Israeli media in order to boost positive coverage of himself in a prominent newspaper to providing tax benefits and other special privileges to friends. Ever since February, when Netanyahu-appointed Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit recommended that the prime minister be indicted, he has faced many repercussions in his reelection campaigns. 

Perhaps most directly, other politicians have expressed resistance to joining a Netanyahu-led coalition if he will be on trial during a future term. The most significant of such proclamations came from Gantz and his party’s co-leader, former journalist Yair Lapid, both of whom promised not to enter a Netanyahu coalition, even before April’s elections that saw Likud originally emerge with the most seats. Though Gantz’s party shares many policy positions with Likud, they were determined to appear as a true alternative to the prime minister throughout the election cycle. However, additional political factors have played a role in the Knesset’s opposition toward joining Netanyahu.

For Netanyahu, his history of appeasing former ultra-orthodox coalition partners has carried major consequences. The most recent cycle of elections began in late 2018, when longtime Netanyahu ally and former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman withdrew his party from the already fragile coalition of 61 MKs. In his decision not to join Netanyahu’s government after the April elections, Lieberman cited Netanyahu’s willingness to allow exemptions from otherwise mandatory military conscription for ultra-orthodox 18 year-olds. Exemptions for Israel’s most religious Jews, who claim that their youths cannot serve due to a variety of supposed justifications from Jewish tradition, have irritated much of Israeli society for quite some time. 

Lieberman seized his opportunity to create desired policy change and send the prime minister a clear warning. With Lieberman’s right-wing party winning eight seats and refusing to join in a coalition led by his former colleague, he has made Netanyahu’s path back to his old office even more difficult. His firmness in his position, along with the many other roadblocks that Netanyahu has faced, are likely to make his attempts to form a government extremely difficult, if not impossible altogether.

Even as Rivlin has decided to give Netanyahu an opportunity to form a government, Lieberman has instead pushed for a “unity government” of Likud, Blue and White, and his party, yielding a strong 72-seat coalition. Under this model, Netanyahu and Gantz would split a four-year term in the prime minister’s office. Varying forms of unity governments have been established in Israel before, but only once in its history has such a direct power-sharing model been reached. In 1984, Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud partnered with Shimon Peres’s Alignment party to form an 85-seat coalition, with each holding the premiership for two years. The government remained intact for its full term, and showed that leaders with competing philosophies can unite, serve and forestall the frustrations of further elections and instability.

While this form of a coalition would not completely please the Israeli electorate, given the current circumstances, it appears to be the best, most realistic option available. A rotating unity arrangement would give Netanyahu a chance to either quietly finish his career as prime minister and possibly retire with a plea deal if found guilty, or time to fight the case being built against him while Gantz takes his turn as prime minister. Gantz would get a chance to prove himself as a competent political leader and give Israelis a fresh face and personality in the nation’s highest office. 

Supporters of each major party could find satisfaction from a government with little policy disagreement within its ranks. It would prevent Netanyahu from going through the near futile effort of trying to form an effective government that would be acceptable to his base and to most of the country. It would also stop him from calling a vote for another of elections, just as he did in May after April’s results presented him with a difficult road to the premiership.

Outside the Knesset, most Israelis would likely be relieved that ultra-orthodox parties would no longer be part of a governing bloc. A majority of Israel’s citizens disagree with the Haredi parties on questions about public transportation over the Sabbath and ultra-orthodox exemption from military service. Perhaps most of all, Israelis would hope to avoid a third round of elections in one year. The first two have been unusual enough.

In a country with so many competing demographics and agendas, it would be impossible for Israel’s government to satisfy all its people’s desires. However, when weighing the choices available to the newly-elected Knesset, it becomes clear that a unity model would be best equipped to give Israelis what they truly want: a strong government committed to ensuring freedom and security, and markedly less bound by unpopular religious constraints from inflexible politicians. 

Though partisans may complain of their failure to achieve a complete victory, those who care most about the prosperity of Israel and the wishes of its civilians can look to this potential government not as a last resort, but as an opportunity. At this point, such an outcome appears unlikely, but for a significantly divided Israeli society, a measure of unity — just in time for the Jewish new year — may go a long way.

Noah Ente can be reached at noahente@umich.edu.

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