Benjamin Netanyahu is to tight corners as Harry Houdini was to handcuffs. Only a fool or an expert foreign analyst would write off Netanyahu simply because Likud didn’t come first in Tuesday’s elections. There’s about as much chance of him throwing in the towel after coming a close second to Blue & White as there is of him ending up in Houdini’s bracelets because of corruption charges.
Consider the blue-rinsed Machiavelli’s previous electoral failures. In 2009, Likud won 27 mandates, second to the 28 seats of Tzipi Livni and her new centrist party, Kadima. Netanyahu formed a majority coalition government, Kadima dissolved after the 2015 elections, and Livni, a politician without a public, retired from politics in 2019.
In 2013, Likud won 18 seats, second to the 19 seats of Yair Lapid and his new centrist party, Yesh Atid. But Netanyahu, having run on a joint ticket with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, could count on 31 seats. Netanyahu formed a majority coalition government, Yesh Atid stumbled after the 2015 elections, and Lapid folded the remains of his party into Blue & White.
Only in the 2015 elections did Likud gain a clear margin of victory, with 30 seats against the 24 seats won by Isaac Herzog and his new centrist party, Zionist Union. Netanyahu formed a majority coalition government, and the Zionist Union dissolved soon afterwards.
Three conclusions can be drawn. First that Netanyahu knows his job, and knows how to keep it. Second, that centrist parties don’t last in Israeli politics. They form as single-issue parties, built on the personal popularity of their founders. Blue & White was assembled from three parties. A lesser talent than Netanyahu should be able to break them up again.
Third, like a criminal conviction in the lower courts of Italy, the voting is only the first round of an Israeli election. It’s the coalition game that counts. In 2009 and 2013, Netanyahu turned ‘electoral defeat’ into victory by finding a path to a stable coalition. He had a path last April, when Likud tied with Blue & White on 35 seats each, but despite starting negotiations in a stronger position than in 2009 and 2013, Netanyahu was unable to form a government. Avigdor Lieberman refused to join a nationalist and religious coalition, hence this week’s repeat election.
The mostly Arab Joint List is the third-largest party, with 15 votes — confirmation, it is were needed, that Israel is the most incompetent ‘apartheid’ state ever. On Wednesday morning, Blue & White leader Benny Gantz announced that he’d spoken with Ayman Odeh, the genial anti-Zionist who leads the Joint List, and that the two would be meeting. But Gantz and the other lead Blue & White leaders know perfectly well that entering a coalition with an Arab-majority party would mean the end for a party representing Jewish voters.
A Blue & White minority government with the Joint List’s external support wouldn’t bode much better. This is an unwritten rule of Israeli politics, observed by both Jewish and Arab parties. The exception to the run remains notorious, and so do its electoral consequences. In 1993, Yitzhak Rabin’s Labour-led minority government squeezed the Oslo Accords through the Knesset with the votes of the Arab opposition parties. Jewish voters have yet to forgive Labour for Oslo.
Anyway, the most optimistic Jewish-Arab mathematics gives a Blue & White coalition only 55 seats, six short of the 61 majority. Gantz’s talk with Odeh is a way of keeping up the pressure on Netanyahu. Meanwhile, what Blue & White really want is a unity government with the Likud, but without Netanyahu. This, incidentally, would make the Joint List the leading opposition party. That would be nothing if not symbolically appropriate, and also not bad going for an ‘apartheid’ state. It’s not impossible to imagine Netanyahu being overthrown from within the Likud. It’s easier to imagine his tempting Blue & White into coalition, minus Blue & White’s Yair Lapid, who has promised that he wouldn’t serve under Netanyahu. Lapid’s exclusion would, in the logic of centrist parties, initiate the decline of Blue & White.
Avigdor Lieberman forced this second election in the hope that he would win more seats and emerge as the kingmaker of a Likud-Blue & White alignment. This secular coalition could force through the Knesset the long-delayed bill on conscripting ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military. Lieberman has raised his party’s seats from five in April to nine (probably), but Netanyahu is already one jump ahead.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu met with the leaders of the religious parties, Likud’s historic partners, and also with the leaders of the parties of the nationalist right — apart, of course, from Lieberman — and obtained their consent to act as a single bloc in coalition talks. ‘We decided unanimously that we’re going forward together to negotiations that will establish a government led by me,’ Netanyahu announced afterwards.
This maneuver allows Netanyahu to claim that he represents 55 seats, not 31, and to be the first to attempt to form a coalition. It turns Lieberman from kingmaker to petitioner at the gate. It reduces the scale of Blue & White’s leverage, and raises the possibility of splitting Blue & White. ‘Now there are only two possibilities,’ Netanyahu explained on Wednesday with his usual charm, ‘a government led by me, or a dangerous government that depends on the Arabs.’
The likely outcomes from this election aren’t so different from the last. Netanyahu comes out on top, one way or another. He tries to form a majority coalition, with Lieberman and immunity from prosecution as the stumbling blocks. If he can’t, he can try to rule with a plausible minority coalition, with annexing parts of the West Bank as the issue that will split Blue & White. If that fails, there’ll be a third election in the space of one year. The voters, who didn’t want a second election, will be even more angry about a third, and will, rightly, blame Lieberman and Blue & White. Given which, Netanyahu will probably lose that third election better than he did this election, and perhaps lose it even better than he lost April’s election.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.