Last week, when the polls here in Israel closed on election night, I was dreading the result. I was afraid that this time around, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would garner enough support to form a stable right-wing government, remain in office and undermine Israel’s democratic institutions to evade his criminal trial on corruption charges.
Now that the results are in, it appears unlikely that he can form a government. His Likud party and the other parties committed so far to support him have just 52 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, nine seats short of a majority.
This was not an election between the right and left. The country has become more right-wing. It was an election about whether Netanyahu should remain in office. Any statesmanlike leader would resign at this point, but for Netanyahu, almost nothing seems to be off limits to cling to power.
In Israel’s proportional representation system, there are 13 parties in the new Knesset. No single party has ever gotten the 51% of the vote necessary to have a majority on its own. The assumption in the run-up to the election was that the right-wing Yamina party, which refused during the campaign to commit to support Netanyahu or join the anti-Netanyahu camp, would play the role of kingmaker. The expectation was that it would provide the necessary seats, along with Religious Zionism (a faction of extreme right-wing and homophobic legislators) and the two ultra-Orthodox parties to give Netanyahu a majority. But the actual results leave Netanyahu two seats short – even with Yamina.
Among the new faces in the Knesset is the head of Reform Judaism in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, as a Labor Party legislator. At the other end of the political spectrum is Simcha Rothman, a Knesset member for the far-right Religious Zionism faction. According to The Jerusalem Post, although he was born in Israel, a prior generation of his family immigrated from Cleveland. And then there’s Yitzhak Pindrus, a returning Knesset member for the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism faction, who according to the Post has a parent from Cleveland.
Amazingly, the balance of power this time around is in the hands of the United Arab List, an Islamist party that shares ideological roots with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in the Gaza Strip – anathema as a partner in government, particularly a right-wing one such as Netanyahu’s. Right? Wrong.
In 2015 on Election Day, Netanyahu urged supporters to turn out and vote and warned that the Arabs were “going to the polls in droves.” This time around, officials in his Likud party are eyeing the support of this Islamist party in a last-ditch effort to cling to power.
It’s hard to believe that Netanyahu’s right-wing partners would join forces with an Islamic party. Even the suggestion is causing dissension in the Likud. Imagine if the Israeli army finds it necessary to launch a military operation against Hamas in Gaza. Would the cabinet tolerate an effort by United Arab List to veto the move?
I am somewhat comforted that in the outgoing cabinet, which is in power until a new government is formed, Netanyahu is forced to share the leadership with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, who has thwarted Netanyahu’s efforts to subvert the judicial system.
A fifth round of Knesset elections later in the year appears to be a distinct possibility if the disparate forces opposing Netanyahu don’t form a government. My guess is that at that point, when Netanyahu’s trial will have been well underway, he would be roundly defeated, if he hadn’t already resigned as part of a plea agreement.
Cliff Savren is a former Ohio resident who covers the Middle East for the Columbus Jewish News from Ra’anana, Israel.