Netanyahu’s last stand

Results from last week’s Israeli election appear to be final, or as close to it as doesn’t matter. You can read the official version here in Hebrew; Google translate will give you an approximate version of the parties’ names.

I’m away from my desk and I can’t load a spreadsheet to check the seat allocation, so I’ll assume that the totals as reported in the media won’t change (here’s Wikipedia’s version). For reasons that will become clear, a change of a seat here or there wouldn’t actually make a material difference.

The headline result is that the ruling Likud party, in power under prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu since 2009, has lost its plurality. It finished with 25.1% of the vote and 31 of the 120 seats, 0.9% and two seats behind the centre-right Blue & White list. Back in April the two had finished level on seats (35 all), with Likud just 14,500 votes ahead.

In fact the result is worse than that for Likud, because since April it has absorbed Kulanu, which previously won four seats, so in effect it has dropped eight seats.

Nonetheless, Blue & White’s victory is largely symbolic (although symbols, of course, can be very important). The far right parties still have a majority between them, including, in addition to Likud, Shas with 7.4% (up 1.4%) and nine seats (up one), Yisrael Beiteinu with 7.0% (up 3.0%) and eight seats (up three), United Torah Judaism with 6.1% (up 0.3%) and eight seats (unchanged) and Yamina with 5.9% (up 2.2%) and seven seats (up two).

Another far right party – in a crowded field, the most extreme of them – Otzma Yehudit failed to clear the 3.25% threshold, scoring 1.9%. It was the only party of any size to miss out.

So on the numbers this is hardly a defeat for the hard right. Its total of 63 seats is down only two from last time. As I said on Friday, voters don’t change their minds that much in a few months.

Opposing them, in addition to Blue & White, are the non-Zionist Joint List with 10.6% (up 2.8%) and 13 seats (up three), and two smaller centre-left tickets, Labor-Gesher on 4.8% (down 1.4%) and six seats (unchanged) and Democratic Union on 4.3% (up 0.7%) and five seats (up one).

So Netanyahu, while he has lost ground on the symbolic front, is back where he started on the arithmetic front. He has a majority of sorts behind him, but it’s a majority that will not work together: the secular racists of Yisrael Beiteinu are incompatible with the religious fundamentalists of Shas and UTJ. Yet a Likud government needs both of them.

Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beiteinu says that he will support a coalition between Likud and Blue & White (although such a coalition, of course, would not actually need him). Netanyahu would happily accept Blue & White’s support, but only if he stays on top.  Blue & White, however, has no reason at all to come to the party; lacking any strong ideological position, its only coherence comes from being the anti-Netanyahu force.

Blue & White leader Benny Gantz has the support of Labor-Gesher and Democratic Union to form a government, and (much more reluctantly) also the Joint List – a total of 57 seats. Netanyahu, with Yamina and the two fundamentalist parties, has 55, with Liberman and his eight seats holding aloof.

Most likely, it appears, they will both be given a chance to form a government, and both will fail. After that, perhaps, some serious thought will be given to compromise.

It has happened before; in the 1980s Labor and Likud agreed to govern together, alternating the prime ministership and locking out the smaller extremist parties from influence. But much has changed in the last thirty years.

For Netanyahu, this is more than an ordinary political struggle. Facing serious charges of fraud and corruption, staying in power may be his best chance of staying out of jail. Until this point, his hold over Likud has seemed absolute, but if the alternative is being ousted from office, or even (as has been suggested) having to fight a third election, his party may decide it needs a new leader.

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