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Andrzej Kohut  25 października 2019

Political stalemate persists in Israel

Andrzej Kohut  25 października 2019
przeczytanie zajmie 7 min

For the second time in 2019, Israeli citizens have set off to the ballot boxes, but again the elections failed to bring a clear settlement. One thing is certain: the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, Binajmin Netanyahu, is not only struggling for the prime minister’s seat but first and foremost for immunity privilege. Failure to form a coalition may mean the end of his political career and even the end of his life at large. His list of charges is a long one.

Let’s recall – after the April election, Netanyahu was close to success. Admittedly, his Likud party practically tied the centrist Blue-and-White (Kachol Lawan), winning 35 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, but several other groups expressed their desire to form a coalition, guaranteeing a majority of over 60 people. Things got complicated when one of the potential coalition partners, Avigdor Lieberman, representing Israel Our Home party (Jisra’el Betenu), Netanyahu’s longtime partner in previous governments, set a hard ultimatum: restricting privileges for religious Jews, especially ultra-orthodox ones.

Lieberman was aware that a coalition government would not be formed without his five MPs. On the other hand, he could not fail to understand that the changes he requested (including the duty of military service for yeshiva students) were unacceptable to Netanyahu’s other allies representing the ultra-orthodox electorate. It can, therefore, be assumed that Lieberman consciously led to the collapse of the coalition, not wanting to form it with the prime minister, who may face prosecutor’s charges. In doing so, he also strengthened his image among liberal voters.

In the last act of those weeks of struggle, a parliamentary majority was built successfully, which voted in favour of self-dissolution and early elections. The politician often referred to as a magician due to his ability to come out of trouble’s way unscathed, hoped that he would change the electoral result this time. Winning the elections was to bring about the possibility of changing the law to one that would protect the incumbent prime minister from justice. Pushing such a change was one of the terms he set for his coalition partners in the spring.

However, it seems like this time Netanyahu may not have a chance to start coalition talks at all. The September results, although seemingly very close to April ones, brought a number of significant changes, among which the fact that this time the Blue and White party ended the election race at the front was not at all the most important one.

Estimating electoral losses

First of all, the ruling Likud party itself lost a lot of blood. It is difficult to assess to what extent the spring failure in forming a coalition contributed to this. The fact that the President of the United States showed little to support this time certainly did not help either. Shortly before the April elections, Trump made a great gift to his ally, recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory (contrary to the UN opinion) and thus showing that Netanyahu is the guarantor of American support for Israel. This time the president limited himself to a few tweets. The last attempt to warm up relations with Iran (before the aerial attack on Saudi refineries) could have determined this, or the White House has already accepted Bibi’s downfall and is calmly waiting for a new leader to emerge in Israel.

Furthermore, one fact may have helped cool the relations, as mentioned by Rex Tillerson, former Secretary of State, during a speech at Harvard. Netanyahu supposedly was to mislead President Trump on several occasions to achieve his gains. „I’m worried that our ally, who is so close and important to us, would deal with us this way.” Perhaps Trump too had thought that Netanyahu had overreacted.

Vladimir Putin also showed a lot of distance. Before the April elections, he had met with Netanyahu in Moscow, showing him his full support. This is a significant issue in Israel: Moscow’s approval is part of the fight for the votes of the Russian-speaking community – those who came to Israel in the 1990s and 2000s from the former USSR. Likud fought Lieberman’s group (Israel Our Home) for this electorate fiercely.

Lieberman had a good chance in this fight. First, he belongs to this minority; he was born in Chisinau, in the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. Second, his agenda regarding the restriction of the orthodox privileges is in line with this electorate’s expectations: newcomers from the USSR are often not recognized as legitimate Jews by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which e.g. makes it difficult for them to marry (according to the law, marriages between Jews in Israel must be sanctioned religiously). Binjamin Netanyahu, an ally of the orthodox parties, could not promise them changes in this matter. Therefore, the news of the freezing relations with Putin was even worse news for him. Although he did manage to meet with the Russian president in Sochi a few days before the election, he gained little other than a photo together. Especially since the context of this visit was a criticism of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Netanyahu’s idea of annexing the Jordan Valley.

Netanyahu hoped that such a declaration on the final stretch of the campaign would attract the votes of more radical right-wing voters, but no greater electoral effect can be seen. It is likely, however, that this unexpected announcement, as well as Bibi’s previous anti-Palestinian rhetoric, could have further mobilized Arab voters. This time the representatives of this ethnic group started from a single electoral roll, which combined with a much higher voter turnout (12% more Arabs took part in the vote compared to the April election) gave the third result and 13 seats in the Knesset (three more than two Arabic parties had previously).

Another burden are the criminal charges, which will most likely soon be presented to Netanyahu – on October 2, he will face a preliminary hearing, after which the prosecutor will be able to formally place charges against him. Bibi, who had been his party’s electoral powerhouse for years, this time could have contributed to it losing some votes. One thing remains clear: Likud lost four seats in the Knesset. And even more, if one considers that this time the representatives of Kullan were running in the group – a party that had 4 MPs after the spring election. Netanyahu’s determination, who was vlogging live for the last two hours before closing the booths calling for support for Likud, proved to be for nothing.

Israel Our Home is the main actor

Avigdor Lieberman may feel the major winner, even though Israel Our Home only finished the election fifth, which resulted in only 8 MPs. After all, the key is the fact that it may not be possible to form a government without this Moldova-born politician. In the previous elections, it was also Lieberman who held the future of the government coalition in his hand, and it was his withdrawal that brought on Netanyahu’s final defeat, although he was only one vote short. This time, the alliance between Likud, right-wing and ultra-orthodox parties is even further from the goal: they will be six votes short. And although Lieberman could fill the gap this time as well, nothing seems to suggest that he would be willing to change his position.

However, the current prime minister’s major rival, Benny Gantz from the Blue and White party, cannot do without Lieberman as well. An alliance seems much more likely, as it offers a much greater chance of implementing Lieberman’s flagship postulates regarding the reduction of privileges for orthodox Jews.

Interestingly, if such a government were to be formed, it would also have to include Arab MPs, which has been discussed for quite some time now. Benny Gantz even gave interviews for Arabic-speaking media, and the leader of the Joint List Ayman Odeh suggested that he did not rule out joining the centre-leftist government headed by the Blue and White leader.

This way Binjamin Netanyahu’s defeat can be complete. Apart from losing the elections, losing power after a decade of uninterrupted rule, as well as a potential verdict, he is also facing the nightmare of opposition government supported by the Arab minority. However, one needs to remember that such a scenario was already considered before the April elections and Benny Gantz ruled out the possibility of an alliance with the Arabs at the time. So it can happen that there will be no agreement this time either. Then what?

History repeats itself

In 1984, the election result was close to a draw: The Labor Coalition won 44 seats and Likud won 41. Neither of the groups was able to rule on its own, nor were they able to form a ruling coalition. It was then that it was last decided to establish a government of national unity, which also included several smaller groups in addition to the Coalition and Likud. An unusual solution was also chosen: rotation in the Prime Minister’s office. Each of the party leaders, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir, held this office for two years.

It has been suggested to use this solution again and build a new government based on Likud and the Blue and White party. This would be bad news for Lieberman – his participation would no longer be essential. This is also feared by the parties of orthodox Judaists (Shas and the United Torah Judaism), as this would also mean that their influence on government policy would weaken or even disappear. It is not said, however, whether Binjamin Netanyahu himself would enjoy such a turn of events.

A coalition between Likud and the Blue and White is possible, but preferably without Netanyahu as a leader. Although Bibi appeals to Gantz to agree, the latter has long ago ruled out the presence of his party in a government whose head is facing charges. On the other hand, some Likud activists criticize Bibi more and more loudly, openly stating that a change of leadership could have secured a better election result. This is yet another difficult ordeal facing Netanyahu in the near future: maintaining leadership in the party despite electoral failure.


Is there any chance that this time the „magician” Netanyahu turns the tide of adverse circumstances in his favour? That is quite impossible. A weaker election result than before, a pending investigation against him and his weakened position within his party are enough to remove him from power. The possibilities, therefore, include a great coalition between Likud and the Blue and White party, or a Blue and White government with Lieberman and the Arab Joint List.

Arabs can definitely talk about victory. Even if they do not join the government (in a scenario where a joint government is formed), they will become the most prominent opposition party, and Ayman Odeh will gain all the privileges of an opposition leader: monthly briefings from Mosad and the opportunity to meet with leaders of other countries visiting Israel.

Apart from the Joint List’s decision, Lieberman’s behaviour and internal reshuffling in Likud will be essential. Theoretically, a scenario is possible where the government will not be established at all and further elections will be necessary. Can we hope that the third time’s the charm?

Polish version is available here.

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The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2019" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2019”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.