As Israel shuts down for the weekly Sabbath time-out, the results of the final polls before the election on Tuesday are being mulled by pundits and voters. The largest parties—Blue and White and Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud—are a dead heat with approximately 30 seats each, far short of the 61 required for the barest majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
And, as in every election, small niche parties are fighting for the scraps. In order to enter the Knesset, a party requires 3.75% of the vote, which translates into four seats.
Assuming the numbers are more or less accurate, neither of the large blocs, when allied with their natural political partners, will make it to 61, which is where it all becomes very interesting.
As head of state, President Reuven Rivlin will meet with all party leaders that pass the threshold in the weeks following the election to determine where they might throw their support and on what terms. He then has the duty to invite the party with the greatest likelihood of forming a coalition to give it a go and return to him within six weeks to report on its success or failure.
Following the April election, Likud got the nod from Rivlin. It failed to deliver and, rather than allow its rivals in Blue and White to be given an opportunity to attempt to form a coalition, voted to dissolve the just-elected 21st Knesset and send Israel back to the polls. This was unprecedented.
Depending on who you ask, the coalition failed because of serial kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman or, alternately, the ultra-orthodox political leaders. Lieberman, an immigrant from Russia who leads a party largely made up of fellow Russian Jews, refused to water down the bill he had spent two years negotiating with Haredi parties to address the very low rates of ultra-orthodox service in the Israel Defense Forces. The Haredim dismissed Lieberman for being intransigent and anti-religious. And so a new government could not be formed.
Lieberman barely scraped into the last Knesset with five seats; the Haredi parties had 15. This time, polls suggest Lieberman’s party might double its seat number even as the Haredim drop one to a combined 14.
If so, Lieberman will yet again be holding the crown for the next king-in-waiting. A right-wing secularist, Lieberman is also a canny negotiator. He understands the escalating frustration with what many Israelis perceive to be excessive Haredi power and stood his ground last time. He has reinvented himself many times in the previous decades, but he has always been an uncompromising secularist. His bet is that this time, it won’t just be the Russians who want to keep their corner stores open on Shabbat who’ve noticed.
Lieberman has made it clear that he will sit in a coalition with anyone but the Haredim, and the loathing is mutual. So, if he gets those ten seats, he will be a free and very powerful agent. Should he throw his fortune to Blue and White, they could find their way to a majority. Blue and White’s leader, former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, has hinted strongly that he would not sit with the Haredim. And he has said repeatedly that he will never form a unity government with Likud if Bibi is leader.
A very real possibility being discussed among political insiders in recent days is that President Rivlin may assume a more active role in his discussions with party leaders following the election to ascertain with greater certainty their red lines. Angry declarations in the final days of a campaign intended to motivate voters to cast their ballots one way or another may soften when the choice is a cabinet seat or opposition oblivion.
For the Haredim, in particular, to be shut out of the government would be disastrous, as there are no other parties that will adequately represent their quite singular economic and social agendas and interests.
And then there is Netanyahu, who many believe will do what he usually does: win. While the other parties split hairs over with whom and on what terms they will form a government, Bibi has followed a decidedly different approach, emphasizing the one area in which he has the incumbent’s advantage and is utterly unrivaled: foreign affairs.
He popped off last week to visit UK PM Boris Johnson, and on Thursday paid a quick visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The message is clear, just as he proclaims on a billboard plastered all over the country recently: “I’m in a different league.”
Security is always the top issue at the ballot box in Israel, and Bibi has reminded Israelis in the final days of the campaign that only he has the access and confidence of the key world leaders. Whether the people get the intended message will become clearer on Tuesday.