Israeli Elections: The Countdown Begins—Again

February 19, 2020

by: Ilse Strauss

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Israeli ballot box

Wednesday, 19 February 2020 | Some 5,200 Israeli diplomats serving in 96 embassies and consulates around the world will cast their votes today as the first to the polls in the Jewish state’s third national elections in less than a year. The remainder of Israel’s 6.3 million eligible voters will wait until March 2 to cast their votes for the composition of the next Knesset (government)—and ultimately the prime minister to stand at its head.

Next month’s round will be Israel’s third attempt to break the political deadlock that has left the country without a fully functioning government for almost a year after both the April and September 2019 elections yielded no clear winner, no majority government, no Knesset and no prime minister. While Israelis hope the March 2 results will bring an end to the impasse, the past four months have seen no decisive changes or dramatic moves to shift voter decisions for an altered outcome. As a result, the March 2 elections may be a near repeat of the two previous polls with incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party facing off against main rival, former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, in a neck-to-neck race—with a very real possibility of nobody emerging from the vote as the winner.

Why a Third Election?

The Israeli parliamentary system has three distinct phases. The first is the general election, where citizens vote for the party of their choice rather than an individual candidate. Parties that receive 3.25% or more of the total vote are given seats within the Knesset, with every 3.25% equating to four seats. The Knesset is comprised of 120 seats, which means the ruling party must hold a majority of 61 seats. Because no single party ever achieves this, a number of parties must join forces to form a coalition of at least 61 seats.

The second phase comes once the national votes have been tallied. It entails the president appointing a candidate for prime minister. This is usually—but not always—the leader of the party that won the most seats. In the third and final phase, the presidential appointee has four weeks (with the possibility of a two-week extension) to make a coalition and form a majority government of at least 61 seats. If the party leader fails, the president appoints a second party leader to form a coalition government. Should the second party leader also fail, another election is called and the process starts all over again.

In the elections held in April this year, Netanyahu’s Likud party achieved a one-seat victory over Gantz’s Blue and White party, at 36–35. Days later, President Reuven Rivlin nominated Netanyahu to form a majority coalition, a task that seemed like a mere formality. Yet in what Israeli media called a “shocking turn of events,” Netanyahu could not secure the support he needed, sending Israel back to the polls for a second round of national elections.

The September elections unfolded in much the same way. This time, Gantz’s Blue and White party won 33 seats, with Netanyahu’s Likud following hot on its heels with 32 seats. While Gantz’s party technically emerged as the winner, Rivlin tasked Netanyahu with what the Israeli media hailed as “mission impossible”: the responsibility of forming Israel’s next government, claiming he had a slightly better chance than Gantz to scrape together the required 61 seats. Yet Netanyahu proved unable to fulfill mission impossible, and Rivlin passed the task to Gantz, who also failed, triggering the third round of national elections for the first time in Israel’s history.

Will We Have a Winner this Time?

As the first Israelis cast their votes, the question on everybody’s lips is: will the third elections break the deadlock and produce a winner able to rally the required 61 seats to form—and lead—Israel’s next Knesset?

The most recent polls are not optimistic, predicting little change and more importantly, no possible combination of alliances between parties to form a 61-seat coalition.

Apart from Likud and Blue and White, Israelis also have nearly 30 more parties and factions to vote for—from right- to left-wing and everything else in between. The main contenders are the Joint List, a union of mostly Arab Israeli parties, ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, former Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman’s secular Yisrael Beytenu, the nationalist alliance Yamina, the center-left Labor-Gesher and the leftist Democratic Camp.

Right-wing and religious parties—Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina—have all pledged to throw their support behind Netanyahu’s Likud to form a coalition. However, as in the previous two elections, the total number of seats in such a coalition will fall short of the required 61.

Gantz’s Blue and White party once again has the backing of Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Camp, yielding a coalition with nowhere near the required 61 seats. The Arab Joint List has made it clear that it will sit with neither Netanyahu nor Gantz in a bloc.

Once again, Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu may very well be the kingmaker, holding the seats required to form a majority government. However, Liberman has made it clear during the previous two elections that he will only back a unity government where Likud and Blue and White join forces, something that neither Netanyahu nor Gantz has been able to agree to during the previous two rounds.

The bottom line? With less than two weeks to go until Israel heads to the polls, not much seems to have changed. And if the political stalemate remains, a fourth election might be looming.

Posted on February 19, 2020

Source: (Bridges for Peace, February 19, 2020)

Photo Credit: יעקב/

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