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Netanyahu fails to win 61 seat majority

What happened: With 92 per cent of the votes counted in Israel’s election it appears Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to get a 61-seat majority without the support of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party. 69.4 per cent of eligible voters turned out to vote, an increase of 1.5 per cent compared to April’s election.

  • The unverified results based on 92 per cent of the vote count are that Likud and Blue & White have 32 seats each. The Joint Arab list is the third largest party with 12 seats, two more than in April, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu has 9 seats, four more than in April.
  • The ultra-Orthodox parties Shas party have won 9 seats and United Torah Judaism 8 seats.
  • The right-wing Yamina party has 7 seats with the two left-wing parties, Labour-Gesher on 6 seats and Democratic Union on 5 seats.
  • Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Likud supporters at around 03:00 and emphasised his desire to set up a “strong Zionist government”. He confirmed that he had already spoken with all of Likud’s partners in the right-wing bloc, and that they all pledged to work together.
  • Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said he would try and form a broad unity government. He has already spoken to Democratic Union leader Nitzan Horowitz, Labor-Gesher leader Amir Peretz and Joint List leader Ayman Odeh.
  • Avigdor Lieberman called for a broad liberal national unity government alongside both Likud and Blue and White. Lieberman suggested President Rivlin invite Netanyahu and Gantz to an informal meeting on Friday afternoon even before the formal publication of the election results by the Central Elections Committee. He added that if the two parties agreed to form a national unity government without him he would also be ok with that.
  • The President’s office said: “The President will be guided by the need to form a government in Israel as quickly as possible and to implement the will of the people as expressed in the results of the election, as well as the need to avoid a third general election. Accordingly, the president will allocate the role of forming a government after consultation and discussion with representatives of the factions and the leaders of the relevant parties.”
  • The key results of the night were the doubling of support for Lieberman which was likely fuelled by moderate right-wing voters, perhaps previous Kulanu voters, who decided not to support Likud.
  • The increased support for Arab parties was also crucial and voter turnout in Arab communities was much higher than the 49 per cent low in April’s election. It’s possible the higher voter turnout was a reaction to Netanyahu’s proposal to put cameras in polling stations in Arab communities and his repeated allegations of voter fraud in Arab communities.

Context:

  • As it currently stands the centre-left bloc has 55 seats and the right-wing ultra-orthodox bloc has 56, with Lieberman’s 9 seats on the fence.
  • Netanyahu’s call to establish a “strong Zionist government,” while clearly dismissing the Joint List, could suggest he is making the first step towards a unity government. However, Likud supporters were deliberately chanting that they “don’t want [a] unity government”.
  • Benny Gantz’s speech was missing two key components from his campaign, he did not explicitly rule out serving in a coalition with Netanyahu and he did not mention his commitment to forming a ‘secular’ government (without the ultra-Orthodox parties).
  • In order for the Arab Joint List to support Gantz as Prime Minister the party is demanding the abolition of the Nation-State Law, more building permits in Arab communities and a diplomatic plan for talks with the Palestinian Authority.
  • If Likud and Blue and White do manage to form a unity government, Ayman Odeh will become the first Israeli Arab to be the Leader of the Opposition. This would involve regular meetings with the Prime Minister and regular briefings with the military and intelligence services.
  • Lieberman’s conditions for joining a future government include: passage of an ultra-Orthodox military conscription bill, mandatory core education schooling (English, science, and maths) in ultra-Orthodox schools, allowing civil marriages, as well as running public transportation and keeping supermarkets open on the Sabbath. Crucially, Lieberman did not reject outright the possibility of serving in government with Netanyahu.

Looking ahead:

  • We can expect results after all votes have been counted by Wednesday afternoon but the Central Election Committee may not announce the official results until later on Thursday.
  • The President will then announce a formal consultation process where he will meet each party and ask who they recommend should be Prime Minister.
  • By next week the President will ask the party leader with the best chance of building a 61-seat majority to form a government. That candidate will have 28 days (plus the option of a two week extension) to form a coalition. If that candidate fails, the President is expected to demand they return that mandate to him so he can ask another party leader in order to avoid a repeat of what happened in April when Netanyahu initiated a vote to dissolve the Knesset.
  • Netanyahu is scheduled to have a pre-indictment hearing in early October to challenge the evidence in the three cases where the Attorney General has recommended he be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
  • The most likely outcome with these results is some form of grand coalition but the exact make up of that and the policy compromises required will be negotiated fiercely in the weeks ahead. But one thing is clear, Benjamin Netanyahu has failed for the second time to form a 61-seat majority coalition and that could cause intense debate in the Likud about whether they should stick with him or move to appoint a new leader.