Last week, Israelis went to the polls once more—the second Knesset election in fewer than six months. The reported voter turnout of 69.4% was higher than in the country’s April 9 elections, and exceeded American turnout in our last presidential election by about 10 points.
In fact, the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy may even exceed that of the United States’—with all the positives and shortcomings that may imply. Indeed, the shortcomings of the U.S. electoral college system are dwarfed by the agonizing machinations that Israel has been going through—and will continue to experience in the coming months.
When Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said a few months ago that, for Jews, “It’s all about the Benjamins,” she was widely excoriated for the remark, that conjures images of Jews caring only about money—a “Benjamin” being slang for a $100 bill.
But the congresswoman’s remark is a surprisingly good description of the current status of election politics in the Jewish state. Voters there produced a near-tie between Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and Benjamin “Benny” Gantz. Israel’s future may depend on which Benjamin emerges on top.
With the polls barely closed, the various parties began their elaborate coalition dances, which can consume weeks of high-pressure and high-stakes political and ideological horse-trading among the numerous parties and their leaderships.
According to the most current figures, Gantz’ Blue and White Party won 33 seats and Netanyahu’s Likud 32 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
In Israel’s political system, the party leader tasked by the president with forming a government must strike coalition agreements with minority parties in order to reach the magic number of 61 seats—and this is where things often get interesting.
Having spent weeks or months vilifying one another in the invariably overheated campaigns, some assortment of parties must come up with a working alliance to reach a 61-vote majority. After the April election, the incumbent Netanyahu and his Likud Party were unable to reach a governing coalition, resulting in a sort of do-over election last week.
There are certain overriding taboos that intrude into the possible coalition deal-making—and those complicate the situation in dramatic ways. Some secularist parties refuse to sit in a coalition with ultra-Orthodox parties … and the feeling is mutual. Since the two ultra-Orthodox parties usually wind up with around 20 seats, that can be a killer in forming a majority coalition.
But it gets worse: Arab Israelis usually vote for Arab parties, all of which are fundamentally anti-Zionist. In the recent election, the Arab Joint List won 13 seats. No Arab party has ever been asked to participate in a ruling coalition, for fairly obvious reasons.
This means that the acceptable Knesset pool from which to form a 61-vote majority is really about 107 “Jewish party” seats.
When you toss in the parties’ often diametrically opposed views on how to address the elephant in the Knesset chamber—the “peace” issue—several parties in the past would refuse to join in coalition with others.
All of this is then augmented by the vivid, profoundly personal dislike of party leaders for each other.
In the recent election, the continuation of the decade-long rule of Netanyahu-led, Likud-dominated coalitions was a central issue. With a tenure exceeding even that of the beloved David Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu’s continued leadership was a major point of contention, regardless of whether voters generally agreed with his politics and policies. Looming over Netanyahu is also a prospective indictment in three different corruption scandals.
Right now, it seems that the largest obvious Knesset bloc that Gantz could muster is about 57 seats—but that number includes the 13-member Joint List (only 10 of whom are prepared to support him). Most observers think it highly unlikely, however, that Gantz could or would create a government whose stability would hinge on anti-Zionist legislators, and if they are excluded, Gantz only has 44 of the 61 votes needed.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has a clear path to only a 55-vote plurality—insufficient to continue his control of the government.
The only way this election wasn’t “all about the Benjamins” is Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu Party, the supporters of which are primarily the hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews who immigrated to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
Lieberman and his quite secular party hold just eight seats—but that’s enough to position him as the king-maker. He refuses to go along with Netanyahu’s religious-party-based coalition, and so he is demanding a unity government of both Benjamins—and no Arab parties—to neutralize the power of the religious parties. He hopes he can then force through anti-religious legislation regarding things like ultra-Orthodox draft deferments, the power of the Chief Rabbinate and public restrictions on Shabbat activities.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that both Benjamins and Lieberman substantially agree on that “peace” elephant in this election. Each is in favor of a muscular policy towards Israel’s foes, holding on to the Jordan River valley, and acting militarily to control security threats and violence from Iran and its terror proxies—Hamas to the south and Hezbollah to the north.
Whoever is tasked to form a ruling coalition will have six weeks to do so. It should be a tumultuous and fascinating period in Israeli politics.
If chaos is a key feature of democracy, Israel’s may be the most democratic government on earth. The horse-trading and intricate maneuvering towards forming a new government are likely to yield stunning compromises in Jerusalem, of a type that, sadly, are in short supply in Washington, D.C., these days. We should soon see if it’s really “all about the Benjamins.”
Ken Cohen is editor of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.