Israel has held four elections in the last two years. Prime Minister Netanyahu set the stage for this farcical and unprecedented cycle of elections by dissolving his government with the mistaken idea that he could gain more members for his coalition if an election were held sooner rather than later. He couldn’t.
In Israel, there aren’t just two major parties like in the US. Here, there are many political parties. In the 73 years since Israel’s independence, no party has ever won a majority of the voters. Therefore coalition governments consisting of numerous parties are the rule. In former decades, either the “left” Labor party (now greatly diminished) or the “right” Likud party has usually been the largest party, requiring the addition of many disparate parties to form a majority coalition of 61 MKs (members of Knesset). Netanyahu has accomplished that several times in the last decade, exceeding the longevity of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to become Israel’s longest serving prime minister. He has been Israel’s leader since 2009, having previously served in that role from 1996 to 1999.
Israeli voters are predominantly on the right side of the political spectrum. At this time, there are 66 MKs of the 120-member Knesset who are on the right, plus 16 MKs from ultra-Orthodox parties who usually align with the right. Regardless of this majority, a governing coalition is impossible for Netanyahu to attain.
Why? Three former associates of the prime minister, members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, became alienated from Netanyahu, and now head their own parties. Two of them flatly refuse to join a Netanyahu-led coalition and all three are open to joining a mixed party of right, left, and center.
Thus, with less than two weeks remaining for Netanyahu to try to form a ruling coalition, he cannot attain 61 MKs. What will happen next is that President Rivlin probably will assign the task of forming a majority coalition to the leader of the last election’s second-largest party, left-of-center Yesh Atid (There is a Future). But strange circumstances may yield strange results. Its leader, Yair Lapid may be able to cobble together an across-the-board coalition, thus making himself Prime Minister, or possibly alternating the leadership position with one of the other party leaders. This coalition government would necessarily include far left, left, center, and right parties, with little likelihood to last a full four-year term – but few last that long anyway.
If Lapid were also to fail to assemble a coalition, the mandate automatically returns to the Knesset for a 21-day period. During that time, any MK is eligible to attempt to form a government. Possibly, Rivlin may skip the intermediate step and immediately send the coalition-building task back to the Knesset for the MKs to thrash it out. Ultimately, Israel will succeed to form a ruling coalition, or a fifth election will result – which no one wants.
Because President Rivlin’s term is up this summer, there is another angle. The MKs, who themselves elect Israel’s president, could choose Netanyahu for the post. This would clear the way for a right wing government to be formed, because without the impediment of Netanyahu as head of the Likud, all three of the disaffected right wing party leaders mentioned above would join with it, easily forming a majority. For his part, Netanyahu as president would have his ongoing criminal trial suspended for the duration of his 7-year term. And as the saying goes, in that period, “The dog could die.” (See appendix.)
One bright side to this “balagan” (Hebrew: big mess) is that electoral reform might be passed by the newly elected MKs to try to find a way to avoid serial elections. One can only hope…
In a faraway kingdom long ago, the King said to his jester, “You once told me that you have a dog that can talk. Bring the animal here tomorrow so that I can see and hear this wonderful dog.”
Jester: But sire, the dog is not well, so I can’t bring it here to talk for you.
King: OK, so bring it in a week from tomorrow. But, if you can’t bring in a talking dog as you said, in a week I will have your head chopped off!
Jester: Yes, Sire.
The jester went home and told his wife about this calamity.
Wife: Are you crazy? You can’t teach a dog to talk! We don’t even have a dog!
Jester: Well, a week is a long time. The king might die, I might die, the dog might die…