As the dust settles on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to form a government, Israelis now face an unwanted election campaign over the long, hot summer, with new elections likely to take place on September 17. With the onset of the High Holidays soon after, it’s unlikely that a new government will be formed until November. Netanyahu’s outgoing government will remain in a caretaker capacity, lacking a mandate but potentially facing consequential decisions regarding Iran, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and a burgeoning fiscal deficit. The upheaval also raises questions about the prospect for the Trump administration’s highly anticipated peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians, and it could cast a further shadow over the economic plan set to be showcased in Bahrain next month, which the Palestinians are planning to boycott.
The new elections have been brought on by Netanyahu’s failure to reconcile a dispute between Orthodox religious parties and the avowedly secular party of Avigdor Lieberman over drafting Orthodox Jewish seminary students into the army. Their refusal to compromise left Lieberman outside the governing coalition and Netanyahu one vote short of a majority in the Knesset. Rather than let the Israeli president give the task of forming a government to one of Netanyahu’s rivals, the prime minister chose to dissolve the Knesset and force new elections.
Shifts in the Political Landscape
A lot could happen in the three months before Israeli voters return to the polls. Still, the likeliest outcome is that Netanyahu will win again, though his chances of forming a government might not improve.
His Likud party will probably pick up at least three to four seats. These will likely come from votes for the soft right, including former Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who joined Likud days before coalition-building efforts collapsed. Votes wasted on other right-wing candidates who failed to pass the threshold for Knesset seats—the parties of Moshe Feiglin and Naftali Bennett—will now likely go to Likud too.
At the same time, the main opposition Blue and White party, led by Benny Gantz, will probably lose two to three seats. Some disappointed center-left voters will likely return to the Labor Party, especially if its leader, Ronnie Gabay, is replaced and Labor merges with Meretz, a more left-wing party. Some of the votes for Gantz’s partner, Yair Lapid, will likely go to Lieberman’s party, now that he has emerged as the champion of secular voters against the Orthodox parties, replacing Lapid. Blue and White’s fortunes could improve if it successfully mobilizes its base in Tel Aviv, where turnout was 59 percent, compared to 75 percent nationwide. But the uneasy coalition between its four leaders—Gantz, Lapid, Gabi Ashkenazi, and Moshe Ya’alon—could also start to come apart, undermining its credibility.
This new election is likely to revolve around the secular-Orthodox divide that Lieberman has managed to exploit so effectively. Lieberman will likely pick up two to three seats because of his anti-Orthodox stance. This could lead to an overall shift in Israel further right, in which the right-wing religious bloc gains several seats for a Knesset majority of 68–52 over the center-left Arab bloc. However, if Lieberman succeeds in securing nine seats, as early polls suggest, Netanyahu will still need to have him on board to form a government.
The alternative for Netanyahu, of abandoning the Orthodox parties and forming a secular national unity government with Blue and White, seems highly unlikely since the issue that has kept them apart—the pending indictment of Netanyahu on corruption charges—is even more relevant now. Netanyahu will face a hearing of the charges in October, a few weeks after the election. Ironically, the new election could thus fail to resolve the impasse that the previous election created.
No Deal of the Century?
There is a growing sense that the political dimension of U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s peace plan may now never see the light of day. Netanyahu will not want the plan launched before the September elections any more than he wanted it ahead of April’s election. With the next window for forming a government likely not until November, that makes an all-out push for a peace plan less plausible. It would be less than two months before the 2020 U.S. presidential primaries and U.S. envoy Jared Kushner will be needed for Trump’s campaign by then. Additionally, Trump will be loath to put forward a plan that could alienate evangelical Christian voters, a core segment of his base.
However, Trump will be looking for recompense for his brazen efforts on behalf of Netanyahu. He likely expects Netanyahu to return the favor by arguing to American Jews and evangelical voters that they should vote for Trump because he is the best friend Israel has ever had. If Trump releases a peace plan strongly slanted in Israel’s direction, the U.S. president could claim that he not only moved the embassy to Jerusalem and recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights but also buried Oslo and the two-state solution. That would require a plan that effectively offers nothing more for the Palestinians in regard to territory in the West Bank or Jerusalem, which would have no chance of attracting Palestinian or even Arab support. By that stage, though, the Palestinians likely would already have taken themselves out of the game by boycotting the gathering in Bahrain. So instead of a plan to promote peace, the “deal of the century” could well morph into a plan to promote Trump’s reelection.