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Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
35–35 was final result of the 2019 Israeli election: 35 seats for Netanyahu’s Likud, 35 for Kahal Lavon, the party led by three former IDF chiefs, with TV host Yair Lapid as d’Artagnan.
But 61 seats are needed for a majority in the Knesset and so each needs to accumulate a further 26 to get to Balfour Street, as Israel’s Prime Ministerial residence is known.
In this coalition-building process, Netanyahu has the head start.
Looking to his right, Netanyahu can begin by observing with some satisfaction the eclipse of the most dangerous rivals within his own camp. The new right-wing party set up by Nafthali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked, which some had predicted would replace corruption-tarnished Likud, failed even to pass the parliamentary threshold.
Bennet and Shaked took what may fairly be said to be a national populist approach to the Israeli constitution. Whatever a Knesset majority can get away with, however narrow, goes, and institutions, such as the courts or minorities (or even the army, in Israel) should get out of the way. Shaked revelled in the attention, even starring in her own bizarre campaign ad where she pretended she was a perfume model promoting a scent called “Fascism.” The commercial ended with her saying: “It smells like democracy to me.”
In any event, neither that party nor the pro-Cannabis ultra-nationalist Zehut outfit, nor the Arab nationalist Balad, managed to get into the Knesset. Good riddance to all three, many Israelis will think.
Both Jewish religious parties, who appear to have turned out their vote very effectively, gaining eight seats each, are leaning towards a Netanyahu government. They rightly enough suspect he’s more likely to look after their interests (read: subsidies for their communities) than the distinctly secular Kahal Lavon.
This brings Netanyahu up to 51.
Meanwhile Benny Ganz, the leading musketeer, can add six seats from much diminished Labor — how far Ben Gurion’s party has fallen — and four from left-wing Meretz to bring his total up to 45. He can also rely on six more from Hadash Ta’al (a mostly Arab party that also includes some Jewish Communists) and at least the non-opposition of the Arab Nationalist Balad four Knesset members.
51–55 to Ganz.
Yet the fragmentation of the right did not sink all Netanyahu’s allies below the threshold. The Union of Right forces, as their name suggests, have nowhere else to go and will supply Netanyahu with another five seats, pushing him back into the lead.
The five seats of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and four of Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu are still, technically, up for grabs, but Netanyahu has crucial points in his favour. Both parties lean to the right (though Lieberman is fiercely anti-religious and stormed out of Netanyahu’s last government).
Though Ganz can count on some right-wing support – Moshe Ya’alon, a former Likud defence minister and IDF chief of Staff, is one of Kahal Lavon’s other generals – most of his voters hew to the centre and left. Furthermore his majority would need the active support of the Hadash Ta’al, which would be difficult for Lieberman, certainly, to swallow. The terms of trade thus tilt towards Netanyahu, who needs only Lieberman, whereas Ganz needs both.
Yet there’s one final fence at which Netanyahu could fall: corruption. Beset by three police investigations, he is desperate to avoid prosecution, and has proposed a law that would exempt sitting prime ministers from criminal charges. He calls this the “French Law” — the french president is similarly exempted — but it probably owes more to Berlusconi’s decriminalisation of tax evasion than the Elysée.
This could (indeed should, if he is to stand for anything) prove too much for Kahlon. It might also prove too much for Netanyahu’s rivals within Likud, who pray for the corruption investigations to open up a vacancy at the head of their party. None of them has Netanyahu’s political and rhetorical skill, but the large bloc of 35 seats those skills have just won is by Israeli standards a strong base to work from. A Likud led by someone other than Netanyahu could even come to an agreement with Kahal Lavon for a grand coalition.
In this unlikely scenario an administration possessed of 70 seats would finally govern without interference from racists, rabbis and Russians, while Netanyahu looked on, helpless, from the dock.