Faculty and Student Insight Series: The Future of Israeli Politics

The CJC is pleased to launch its new blog series featuring insights from CJC professors and students. Our first piece was written by our very own Maddox Angerhofer (SFS ’22) and Professor Moran Stern. Their article below explores the current state of Israeli politics and offers insight into the future of both domestic Israeli politics and Israeli-U.S relations, at large.

The State of Affairs

In the 120-member Israeli Parliament (the Knesset), a 61 seat majority is the minimum number of seats required to form a government.  As of today, neither Benjamin Netnayahu’s Likud party nor Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party have reached this threshold after two rounds of elections this year.  Israel has been governed by a transitional government since the first round of elections this past April. In the September elections, Gantz’s Blue and White party won with 33 seats while Likud came second with 32.  At midnight on Wednesday, November 20, however, Gantz will see his mandate to form a government expire. This leaves the composition of the future government up in the air, with major implications for Israeli domestic politics and the relationship with the U.S.

The Forecast

There are four potential outcomes from this situation.  In the first and perhaps least likely, Gantz could successfully form a minority government between now and Wednesday night. This means that Blue and White and the left wing parties will form a coalition, while the Arab Joint List and Lieberman’s secular-nationalist party, Israel Beiteinu, will remain outside the coalition but will cast their support through vote or abstention. This would be the first time in Israeli history that a minority government was newly established.

In a second scenario, Gantz and Netanyahu will successfully bridge their differences and form a wide national unity government with Blue and White, Likud, and Israel Beiteinu as its anchors. This is the scenario that, at least rhetorically, all sides support.

In a third scenario, like Netanyahu before him, Gantz fails to form a government before the deadline.  At midnight on Wednesday, the mandate would be turned over to the Knesset to negotiate. A 61 member majority would still be required to form the government. While Gantz or Netanyahu would be the most likely choices for prime minister, Israeli law stipulates that any member of parliament could be selected, not the leaders of the largest parties. If the Knesset does agree on a candidate, they will have two weeks to announce their government.  

Should the members of parliament fail to obtain the necessary majority consensus, another unprecedented scenario would unfold: Israel would conduct its third round of elections since April 2019. Such a situation would only extend the time spent under a transitional government, continuing the paralysis of Israeli policy making.

What (or Who) to Watch

The fates of two men will play a significant role in determining the outcome of the current political turbulence. Netanyahu awaits a decision from the attorney general on his pending indictment, which is likely to be released sometime in the next few weeks. His personal freedom and political survivability have become the central driving force in Israeli politics over the last year and a half, and the decision from the attorney general is certain to create a political tsunami.  

The second man to watch is Avigdor Lieberman.  With neither Likud nor Blue and White commanding a majority, Lieberman’s small party has taken on an outsized role in determining who can reach the threshold to assemble a government. He has said he would only be willing to join a liberal national unity government with Likud, Blue and White, and Israel Beiteinu, at the exclusion of right-wing religious and ultra-Orthodox parties.  The eight seats won by Israel Beiteinu in the September election have become the focal point of coalition building, putting Lieberman in the position of kingmaker.

Implications for the U.S.

President Trump had hoped close ties with Netanyahu could boost his efforts to win a second presidential term by mobilizing American conservative Jews and Evangelicals.  The recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian-occupied Golan Heights and Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, along with the subsequent relocation of the American embassy in late 2017, represented strong goodwill gestures toward Netanyahu. Even more significant was Trump’s decertification of the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) and the classification of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization.  Since Netanyahu’s two consecutive failures to win elections, Trump has altered his tactics to be less explicitly focused on supporting Netanyahu, and more amicable toward Israel as a whole. This change comes as the future of Israeli leadership remains uncertain. Finally, the release of the “deal of the century” on the Israeli-Palestinian issue will likely be delayed until such a time as Israel can produce an elected government. This timeline may keep the contents of the deal undisclosed until after the U.S. presidential election.

Maddox Angerhofer is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service majoring in international politics, studying Jewish Civilization and Persian. She is also a member of the Georgetown lightweight women’s rowing team. Maddox is from Durham, New Hampshire. Moran Stern is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Maryland, College Park and a Graduate Fellow in Advanced Israel Studies. Since 2012, Stern has been teaching courses at the Center for Jewish Civilization on Israel and the contemporary Middle East.