This week’s Israeli elections proved one thing. Not only is Israel the only democracy in the Middle East, it is also a global democracy on steroids.
The election results showed some benefits, but mainly the faults, of a multi-party electoral system.
The race started with 31 hopeful parties. At the end of the voting process Israel was left with nine political parties winning seats in the 22nd Knesset.
Israel has to change the law by lifting the electoral threshold for allocated seats in a future Knesset from the current low bar of 3.25 percent to 5 percent.
The outcome of a very tight race left the Israeli version of the Siamese twins able to form a narrow majority government but shackled from doing so by preconditions set by Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue & White party, who said he would never sit in a joint government with a leader facing criminal charges. He was referring to the corruption charges faced by Likud leader and perennial Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Unless Gantz climbs down from his moral tree, Israel will remain frozen in a stand-off and could potentially face its third election in under a year.
President Reuven Rivlin said he would not allow this to happen, but he has no constitutional role in deciding the outcome.
The spoiler in the game is the blunt Russian Avigdor Liberman. He’s the tough guy calling the shots, having positioned himself as the leader of a centrist party winning nine decisive seats. This has enabled him to be the pivotal figure in the race to power.
Likud is unable to form a right-wing government. The lack of mandates earned by the small right-wing and religious parties prevent that option without Liberman, and Liberman made issues with the religious parties part of his platform. No right-religious deal is possible without the heavy Liberman climbing down from his political tree.
Gantz is unable to form a center-left coalition even with the Arab party without Liberman because Liberman has said he will not sit in any government with the current Arab politicians, most of whom he sees as anti-Israel antagonists and not part of the Israeli consensus.
With the final votes not yet in, Liberman faced the press the morning after election night to itemize his conditions for joining a 73-seat unity government with the Likud and Blue & White. He insisted the recruitment law that requires every citizen to serve in the Israel Defense Forces must apply to the orthodox religious community in which most of the young men spend their years studying in yeshivot (religious education institutes). He also insisted that all Israelis, including the ultra-orthodox, who have their own strictly religious education, must go through the general state education system. Religious students can, insisted Liberman, continue their religious studies after their regular education, in which they will learn worldly subjects such as mathematics, geography, languages, et cetera.
Liberman’s final condition hit at the strictures placed on Israelis by the religious political parties of the past. He insisted that public transport be allowed to operate on the Sabbath. The religious parties look on this as a desecration of the Jewish holy day of the week. Other Israelis look on the absence of public transportation on Saturdays as a forced imposition. Saturday is the only free day of the week for working Israelis. Lack of transport prevents many Israelis from visiting family or simply enjoying travel wherever they want on their one day of leisure.
The problem with Liberman for the two main parties is that they never know what he will do next. Liberman destroyed a previous Netanyahu coalition because he was unhappy with the way the prime minister handled Hamas in Gaza. He thought Netanyahu did not respond strongly enough against Hamas after one of their rocket bombardments on Israeli civilians.
The Likud and Blue & White have the ability of forming a narrow two-party coalition of 64 seats — if only Gantz will climb down from his tree. But he continues to insist that he will never share a government with Netanyahu.
Then we come to the tricky, ego-charged question of who will be Israel’s next prime minister: Gantz or Netanyahu.
Israel’s political process demands that the leaders of every party elected to the next Knesset will recommend to the president which leader they prefer to be prime minister. Of the nine parties, four will choose Netanyahu, four will choose Gantz, and no one knows what Liberman will whisper in Rivlin’s ear.
This is where President Rivlin has to transform himself into King Solomon. He has to knock heads together and impose a solution to divide up the electoral baby.
It may hurt, but it’s better than Israel facing yet another election in February.
Barry Shaw is the International Public Diplomacy Director at the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.
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