The answer as to who will govern Israel now seems to rest in the hands of a few politicians playing a game of “chicken” with each other. After a second election within five months that failed to provide a decisive result, the only way to avoid a third trip to the polls is for the two leading parties to join together in a national unity government. That appears to be what President Reuven Rivlin is encouraging and negotiations to achieve such a compromise have already started between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his principal opponent, Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz.
The defection of Avigdor Lieberman’s rightist but secular Yisrael Beiteinu Party from Netanyahu’s coalition after the April vote because he refused to serve any longer with the haredi parties made such a cross-party coalition the only logical outcome. Lieberman said he would serve only in a government of secular parties, and since neither Netanyahu’s Likud and its right-wing and religious allies nor Gantz’s Blue and White and its left-wing allies can muster a majority in the Knesset, he may get his way.
However, it would also probably mean the end of Netanyahu’s career, as it’s hard to imagine Blue and White serving under the man it was organized to unseat. Similarly, Netanyahu could not accept serving as a minister under Gantz, as that would mean he would be forced to resign if he is indicted on corruption charges hanging over him.
But while most of the commentary about this possibility has centered purely on the personalities and the politics behind these maneuvers, the viability of such a scheme rests on something more fundamental about Israeli society.
A national unity government would mean an acknowledgement that the organizing principle around which Israeli politics has been conducted since its birth—the left-right divide over security and territorial issues—is an obsolete paradigm.
The fact that the main obstacle to a unity government is a matter of how offices are to be divided, rather than policies, illustrates that this is true. Israelis are no longer fundamentally divided on questions of war and peace. The ideological gap between the two leading parties has narrowed to the point where the differences between them are minimal. That was made clear when the reaction of the Blue and White to Netanyahu’s pre-election declaration that he would annex the Jordan Valley and never abandon settlements—a statement that angered liberal American Jews—was not outrage, but a claim that he was trying to steal their platform.
Likud, and Blue and White, are part of a national consensus that there is no Palestinian peace partner, and that further territorial concessions would only be possible in a theoretical future where this was no longer the case.
If so, that reflects how Netanyahu’s worldview has not merely prevailed, but has essentially marginalized the views of his left-wing opponents. In a stroke of bitter irony for the prime minister, it’s also bad news for him since his claim to be the only person who can be trusted with Israel’s security would also be undermined.
It would also be calamitous for the religious sector since it would mean those who represent these communities in the Knesset have lost their leverage over the major parties, and that measures that would restrain their power—Lieberman’s declared objective—would become possible.
Indeed, many Israelis who voted for either Likud or Blue and White might be perfectly happy with a secular coalition dedicated to marginalizing the haredim. It’s also true that the religious parties know that they can’t trust the Likud to stick with them since Netanyahu dumped them in favor of Yair Lapid (now part of Blue and White) and his secular Yesh Atid Party in 2015.
Though it all sounds logical, it’s still just as likely that the negotiations will fail. Netanyahu may be cornered, but as long as he maintains his grip on his party, he isn’t going anywhere, and his fate is the only roadblock to unity that cannot be finessed or overcome with political bargains.
Were Israel narrowly divided as it was in 1984 between two great camps that were far more split on ideology, a government of “national paralysis”—as the unity government formed that year was often called—might be viable since the consensus was that the nation was prepared for a virtual truce until one side gained an advantage.
While Lieberman fought the election on the secular-religious divide, the most potent issue hampering Israeli voters in the second round was Netanyahu himself. Even as threats still loom from Hamas to the south, Hezbollah to the north and Iran generally, the results last week can be seen as not a defeat for the prime minister’s ideology, but a blow to the idea that he is the country’s one indispensable man.
Seen from that perspective, a third election seems more an inevitability than a nightmare scenario. That’s especially true since both Netanyahu and Gantz think they will do better next time (though I think the latter has far more reason for his faith in the voters).
That the divisions between Israelis on the one issue that has always counted the most have narrowed so much ought to make national unity an imperative is remarkable. But as long as the question is not so much how to pursue peace, but whether or not Netanyahu should remain in office, unity may be more a figment of Rivlin’s imagination than a realistic plan.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.