Note: This analysis piece is the second part of a series on Israel’s 2019 elections. For the first part and an introduction to the Israel political system, see Center-left Fever Strikes Israeli Public
With Israel’s legislative elections arriving on April 9, no clear leader has emerged in the race. In the Israeli parliamentary system, 61 Knesset seats are required to form a new government. As no one party has ever won 61 seats, parties must join together in coalitions to reach 61 seats and form a government. This process of building coalitions makes smaller parties highly influential in the coalition building process. Thus, to understand what Israel’s next next government will look like, we need to examine these so called “kingmaker” parties, small parties that will have the power to decide which major party will form Israel’s next government.
Israel’s election season has two main periods: parties splitting and parties rejoining in political alliances. In my last article, Center-left Fever Strikes Israeli Public, I covered some key party “break ups” including the split of the left-wing Zionist Union party, the dissolution of the Arab Joint List party, and the formation of the New Right party. By February 21’s party list deadline, Israel’s political parties had once again consolidated together into the combinations that they believe will bring them success in the April 9 elections.
The most important consolidation this election season was formation of the Blue & White party, a political alliance between Israel’s two major center-left parties: Hosen Yisrael (Israeli Resilience) and Yesh Atid (There is a Future). Led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and former journalist Yair Lapid, Blue & White immediately took the lead in Israeli opinion polling, with some polls predicting up to 38 Knesset seats for Blue & White. Though Israeli media refers to Blue & White as a center-left party, their platform reflects that of a center-right or right wing party on most issues. Supporting an undivided Jerusalem and unrelinquished control over Israel’s West Bank settlements, most Blue & White’s positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict appear identical to the right wing stances of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. While Blue & White differs with Likud over religious policy, the greater issue that separates Blue & White’s “center-left” politics from Likud’s right wing politics is negotiations with Palestinians. Though Blue & White has not left much room for compromise, they support negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and a two-state solution. In contrast, Netanyahu has rejected the possibility of a two state solution, on principle, claiming that a Palestinian state would “endanger our existence” in a February 24 speech.
The first potential kingmakers in the 2019 elections are two newly formed Arab political alliances. Following the dissolution of the Arab Joint List party, the communist Hadash (New) party merged with the Palestinian nationalist Ta’al (Arab Movement for Change) party. Further, the Islamist Ra’am (United Arab List) party merged with the Arab secular Balad (National Democratic Alliance) party, fearing that the parties would fall behind the electoral threshold if they ran alone. In Israel, there is a powerful stigma against forming a governing coalition with Arab parties. Essentially ruling out the possibility of incorporating the Arab political alliances into his coalition, Blue & White leader Gantz promised to form a coalition with “anyone Jewish and Zionist.” Nevertheless, campaign promises are not always kept and it is conceivable that Gantz would join with the Arab parties if that were his sole path to the Prime Minister post. Hadash-Ta’al leader Ayman Odeh has stated that he is open to joining a Gantz-led government in order to stop a Likud government if Gantz promises to increase support of Israeli-Arab communities and pursue a two-state solution. Further, 73% of Israeli-Arabs support Hadash-Ta’al entering a Gantz-lead coalition. Joining a Blue & White coalition, however, is not the only way the Arab alliances could be the 2019 elections kingmakers. The parties could also serve as a “blocking vote” where they would support Gantz for Prime Minister in a vote of confidence but would not join his government or agree to support Blue & White legislation. This form of tacit support, called a tactical blocking agreement, is uncommon but not unprecedented. For example, in 1992, Hadash joined Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s blocking majority, allowing him to continue as Prime Minister.
The second potential kingmaker in the April 9 elections is the Zehut (Identity) party. Led by former Likud MK and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Moshe Feiglin, Zehut will be a major wildcard in the coalition building process. An oddity in the Israeli political landscape, Zehut’s platform resembles American-style libertarianism. Illustrating this libertarian ideology, Zehut proposes eliminating half of government ministries, easing access to guns, and instituting voluntary taxes. While Zehut has many decidedly right-wing views, such as support for West Bank annexation, Zehut’s libertarian ideology also aligns in many areas with the center-left. Most notably, Zehut supports cannabis legalization and the separation of religion and state. In fact, only 53% of Israelis believe Zehut is right-wing, according to a Yisrael Hayom poll. Until recent months, Zehut was considered a fringe party and not even included on most opinion polls. However, the tides turned for Zehut in February when the pro-cannabis legalization Ale Yarok (Green Leaf) party withdrew from the race and Zehut held Israel’s first-ever open primary. Since then, Zehut has seen increasing support from all sides of the political spectrum and has consistently passed the electoral threshold in opinion polling. In several recent polls, Zehut has earned as many as 6 or 7 seats, making it a considerable dark-horse in this election season and a major force in coalition building negotiations.
The major question is whether will Zehut would join a Blue & White government or a Likud government. Based on policy alone, Zehut leader Moshe Feiglin does not favor one party of the other. Zehut’s stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict is further right than both Blue & White and Likud. As Blue & White supports a two-state solution, they will not concede any conflict policy to Zehut in a coalition agreement. In contrast, Zehut’s conflict policy aligns with URWP, a key Likud coalition member that also supports West Bank annexation. Feiglin, however, has dismissed the importance of his similarity to URWP, stating that the conflict is “only one issue.” On the matter of religion and state, however, Zehut aligns with Blue & White. Both support a reduction in power for the Israeli Rabbinate—Israel’s authority for Jewish religious matters. Key components of a Likud coalition, however, would refuse to sit in a government with a party that opposes the Rabbinate’s influence. For Feiglin however, one issue stands out in importance. In an interview with Israel’s Army Radio, Zehut leader Moshe Feiglin announced that “[cannabis] legalization is the condition for us joining any government.” This led both Blue & White and Likud to subsequently announce that they are looking into the matter.
For Likud, however, Feiglin’s personal history with Netanyahu could complicate the coalition building process. Viewed as Netanyahu’s “nemesis” and archrival” by Israeli media, Feiglin embarked on a blunt crusade to take over the Likud party in the mid-2000s. In a campaign abound with animosity, Feiglin accused Netanyahu of being a “pitiful puppet” and “actively trying to create a Jew-free state of ‘Palestine.’” In retaliation for his attempted takeover of the Likud party, Netanyahu allies demoted Feiglin in the party slate, essentially preventing Feiglin from entering the Knesset. Given these circumstances, it appears unlikely that Feiglin would prefer a Likud coalition. Feiglin leaves this possibility open, however, stating that he is not motivated by anger or vindictiveness. “I’m not in anyone’s pocket. I will go where we can have the most impact,” Feiglin added. Zehut’s support for weakening the Chief Rabbinate and Feiglin’s history with Netanyahu, however, weakens the possibility of Zehut joining a Likud lead coalition.
In the coalition building process, the party with the most seats is typically given the first attempt to build a coalition. This is not always the case, however, and a party without the plurality of seats may assemble the coalition first if the Israeli President believes they have enough support to form a 61 seat coalition. With Blue & White receiving the plurality of Knesset seats in 75% of opinion polls conducted since March 1, Blue & White will most likely be selected first by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to attempt to form a coalition. Blue & White, however, will also face a significant challenge putting together a coalition. Though Blue & White nears 61 seats if Zehut were to join its coalition, no poll shows a Blue & White coalition crossing 61 seats with this combination. In this case, Likud would then be given the next attempt to form a government. An analysis of polling data, however, shows that Likud does not have a clear path to a coalition either. Of the 23 polls major opinion polls conducted since March 1 where Likud does not receive the plurality, 7 polls show Likud unable to form any coalition, even if Zehut agrees to join. An additional 11 polls show that Likud would require Zehut in their coalition in order to form a government
Given the challenges both Likud and Blue & White would face building a coalition, there are four paths that the parties could take to form a government. In the first path, Zehut would support a Likud government, giving Likud the support needed to build the first coalition. If Likud and its coalition partners receive 61 seats, Likud will be able to build a right wing government.
In the second path, Blue & White would earn enough Knesset seats to have the first chance to build a coalition. Blue & White would then form a technical blocking agreement with Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad. As Zehut would refuse to sit in a government with that includes an Arab technical bloc, Blue & White would only pursue this option if Zehut refused to join its coalition or if Zehut fell behind the threshold. As Ra’am-Balad frequently falls behind the electoral threshold in opinion polling, only one in five of polls show that a technical bloc with Arab parties would give Blue & White the 61 seats needed to form a government.
The third path to building a government is a party defection. Under Israel’s Basic Laws, a Knesset member can change their party affiliation post-election and still remain in the Knesset. March polling data shows that if Likud is given the first chance to form a coalition, they could need anywhere between one and nine Blue & White members to defect in order to give Likud a 61 seat coalition. Vice versa, Blue & White would need anywhere between two and eighteen Likud members to defect, varying largely on whether Zehut enters the Knesset or aligns with Likud. A defection of a one or two knesset members is well within the realm of possibilities and could lead to a Likud government. It would be unprecedented, however, for as many as 9 or 18 members to defect.
The final way a government could be formed is the creation of a national unity government. In such a scenario, Likud and Blue & White would join together in a coalition led by the party with the greater number of Knesset seats. A national unity government is precedented in Israel, having happened in 1967 and in 1983. According to Lapid, a national unity government is of aim for the Blue & White party. Gantz, however, has indicated the Blue & White would oppose sitting in a government with Netanyahu due to his pending indictment on bribery charges. Consequently, Blue & White would only attempt to build a coalition incorporating Likud if Netanyahu resigns after losing losing the plurality. According to Kan News, this is the path Lapid predicts will lead to a Blue and White government.
Looking at the four paths to forming a government, it is clear that Zehut will be a kingmaker come coalition building negotiations. Their support for Likud could give Netanyahu’s party a simple path to 61 seats. Their support for Blue & White will be necessary for nearly all paths to a Blue & White government. The reason predicting which side Zehut will join is so difficult is that Zehut’s ideology is above Left and Right. Critics on the Left claim Zehut uses pro-cannabis rhetoric to bring far-right politics into the Knesset, while many on the Right criticize Zehut for giving up far-right principles in exchange for cannabis legalization. Zehut does not fit neatly into any side of the spectrum, making them likely to be the critical kingmaker in the 2019 elections. Though Zehut disagrees with Blue & White on many key issue, they share a rejection of this political status quo. According to Gantz, “Right and Left are concepts that have to be reconsidered in Israeli society.” If both Feiglin and Gantz are guinee in these views, it is very possible that their rejection of Left and Right will bring the parties closer than their partisan divides separate them.