After more than a year of uncertainty about the future of the Israeli government, several factors became crystal clear after the March 2 elections, the third elections held since last April.
First, Israeli voters weren’t tired of voting; turnout rose to 71 percent. Second, Israeli voters weren’t afraid of the coronavirus, although several separate voting booths were established for as many as 3,000 voters who were under quarantine.
Unfortunately, after the final votes were counted – including the ballots of diplomats abroad, soldiers and the quarantined – neither the right-leaning nor the left-leaning blocs mustered a majority 61 Knesset seats to form a viable government. That’s the same result for the third straight election.
And it didn’t stop Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from immediately launching negotiations with the religious right-wing parties – Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yemina – with whom his Likud party inched closer to the magical majority number. Indeed, Likud scored better in this election than in the elections of April and September last year when rival party Blue and White either tied or slightly beat Likud in vote counts. This time around, Likud captured roughly 36 seats to Blue and White’s 33, equal to its number after the September election.
After all the votes had been counted, however, the right-wing bloc captured 58 of the 61 Knesset seats it needed to form a majority government, but that’s two less than after the April 2019 election when Netanyahu was still unable to cobble together a viable government.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has until March 17 to decide which party he will assign the task of forming a government. While it’s expected that he will ask Netanyahu to form a government, given the strength of both Likud and the right-wing bloc, it is not clear whether he can legally do so. That is also the date when Netanyahu’s trial on several criminal indictments is scheduled to open in Jerusalem District Court.
Immediately following the March 2 election, The Movement for Quality Government in Israel filed a petition with Israel’s High Court of Justice arguing that Netanyahu cannot form a government because of his indictments. The court had been faced with this question in January, but it punted because, at that point, it was a theoretical question.Reuven Rivlin
One High Court justice, Noam Sohlberg, immediately stated that until Rivlin decides who will be tasked with forming a government, the petition cannot be accepted.
“A person accused of criminal charges, in particular serious charges such as bribery, fraud and breach of trust, cannot be seen as fit to take upon himself the role of forming a government,” stated The Movement for Quality Government.
Not willing to rely on the courts to act, leaders of the left and center parties are reported to be considering legislation that would prevent a prime minister from serving under indictment. Once the new Knesset is sworn in March 16, it appears to have a majority to support this legislation. According to the Hebrew press, a
similar law that would have ejected Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert from his seat in 2008 was supported by Netanyahu at the time. Olmert resigned before he was indicted, and the law never passed.
While initially noting that Netanyahu appeared to win a “significant political mandate from the Israeli people,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, contended that “the country is heading towards constitutional uncertainty. On March 17, the prime minister’s trial will begin, and the country will find itself in the unprecedented situation in which the man in charge of institutions of law and order will begin his fight to clear his name.”
According to Richard S. Walter, vice president of curriculum and outreach at the Center for Israel Education, aside from the increase in Netanyahu’s party size in the election, the big winners, states, are the Arab parties. The combined Arab list captured 15 seats, “up from only 10 after the first election in April. While I don’t think anything will change regarding their possible inclusion in the government, they do need to be taken seriously as a political faction.”
Walter added that from the perspective of American Jews, this election isn’t different from the last two. “Namely, will these elections produce a government and how will that government proceed on the issues that are important to American Jews – or at least large segments of them – namely religion and public life, including recognition of non-Orthodox forms of Judaism?”
According to Atlantan Shai Robkin, who holds dual American and Israeli citizenship, “the results of the election clearly show that the division between the majority of American Jewry and Israel is now as wide as perhaps they have ever been. The majority of Israel’s Jewish population has voted for a government that will advance policies favorable to religious and national extremism, policies that are miles apart from the views of the majority of American Jews,” Robkin observed.
“I can only hope that American Jews do not abandon Israel, but instead seek out the many Israelis who are working tirelessly on behalf of democracy, civil society and social justice.”