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Examining Alliances and Splits That Could Determine Israel's Future

6 MINS READAug 2, 2019 | 21:51 GMT
This photo shows a woman walking past election banners in Tel Aviv during Israel's elections on April 9, 2019.
(RONEN TIVONY/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A woman walks past election banners near a polling station in Tel Aviv, Israel. Israel will hold a national election after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to build a coalition government with former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

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The Big Picture

Israel's myriad political parties must now sink or swim in a diverse society increasingly facing deep questions of identity, national security, prosperity and rule of law. The broad outlines of the upcoming contest — a rerun of the April 9 vote that failed to produce a governing coalition — are clear: the main parties on the center-right portion of the political spectrum have been unable to resolve several big issues dividing them, and look weaker going into the Sept. 17 election than the one earlier in the year. Because the parties on the center-left look no more unified, however, it's unclear whether they can take advantage of this.

Israel's political parties have finalized their electoral forms, setting up the official lines for the country's national election on Sept. 17 that will determine the composition of the Knesset — and likely decide whether embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will return to office. Last-minute mergers between smaller parties on the right and the left now give the bigger parties on both sides of the spectrum, Likud and Blue and White, a clear idea of who they might ally with — from the United Right led by Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett to the Democratic Camp of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Yet these alliances have done little to close the fundamental splits on each side of Israel's political spectrum — leaving Avigdor Lieberman as a possible kingmaker.

Whoever ends up on top, the outcome is certain to be narrow. In Israel's shifting political climate, the election will challenge old paradigms of center-left and center-right; force hard questions about the country's future; and elevate the temptation of compromise between the country's entrenched forces. While the election will surely test the limits of Israeli politicians' capabilities, for the country as a whole, it will signal the turn its evolving identity will take during the next government. Yet as national security threats loom, Israel's factions will likely put aside their differences and find a solution — only to bring them back up again once the threat passes. 

The Source of the Center-Right's Fractures

The center-right is led by Israel's venerable Likud, which under Netanyahu has negotiated coalitions with small margins twice since taking power in 2009. But though Likud itself remains a potent party, frequent squabbles divide the allies it depends on. The ambitions and objectives of Lieberman, who wields outsized influence through his small Yisrael Beiteinu party, lie at the center of many of these disagreements. Lieberman has skillfully wielded his party's handful of seats to great effect in the close politics of Israel's Knesset to press for secular-nationalist policies heavy on national security — often at odds not only with Likud but also with its center-right allies.

Lieberman fatally weakened the government in 2018 when he withdrew from Netanyahu's coalition over what he saw as a compromised Gaza peace deal — and then in June 2019, he killed the premier's chances of forming a government when he demanded that the incoming Knesset reverse decadeslong policy and strip the exemption to compulsory military service accorded to Israel's ultra-Orthodox.

The right suffers from other political divides. In the final days before the alliance list closed, Ayelet Shaked, former justice minister, put together a new United Right list designed to bolster the settler-nationalist right wing. However, she resisted pressure by Likud to include the extremist Jewish Power party and its thousands of voters. Despite attracting the support of the key constituency of nationalist settlers, the party's prospects for even entering the Knesset now appear dim, an outcome that could tip the legislative balance toward the center-left.

The same questions that dogged Likud before the April election again hold true: Can the party rally enough right-wing voters to hold off Benny Gantz and his Blue and White party? If so, can Netanyahu then cobble together a viable coalition? And can the prime minister hold off ambitious right-wing rivals like Shaked and Bennett, who may back a new premier free of the cloud of impending corruption charges that hangs over Netanyahu?

The Center-Left's Malaise

Like the parties on the right, a pattern of differences hobbles the center-left of the Israeli political spectrum. In Gantz, the former Israel Defense Forces chief, the center-left has found a champion able to rally voters on the same scale as Netanyahu. But that alone will not be enough to vault him into the premiership: He, too, needs partners. Yet the unity of the center-left's parties is weakened by poor leadership, demoralized party loyalists and, on the Arab left, a fatalistic belief that the next Israeli government, whether led by Gantz, Netanyahu or someone else, will barely address their concerns. 

Thus, for Gantz, the game will be to find partners he can work with that are also strong enough to overcome the center-right's advantage. That is a tall order: The old steward of Israel's center-left, the Labor Party, is so fractured that even its former prime minister, Ehud Barak, split off to form his own party and avoid its incoherence. The Arab vote, meanwhile, is unpredictable, with a low turnout in April and a possibly still-lower one in September. Even if the Arab parties do survive the electoral threshold, they may scoff at the idea of supporting a government headed by Gantz, who oversaw the 2014 Gaza War. 

Hello, Unity Government

Lieberman has a solution for all this, however — a unity government led by a Blue and White-Likud partnership, which with the participation of Lieberman's party would be strong enough to exclude the parties on their ideological fringes. After all, Israel followed this course in 1967 and 1984 — both times of national security crisis. In 1967, the unity government gave Israel the political clout to carry out its lightning Six-Day War; in 1984, Israel was beginning its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon.

But the biggest obstacle to Lieberman's dream is the fundamental differences between the larger parties: Not only has Blue and White ruled out a unity government with Netanyahu, but Netanyahu has staked his political future on the success of a center-right government that could shield him from prosecution for corruption — something Blue and White simply won't countenance. As unlikely as such an alliance appears at present, history has shown that Israeli politics can produce unlikely results. After all, despite finishing behind Kadima in Knesset voting in 2009, Likud managed to form a governing coalition after Kadima failed to.

The conditions are ripe for an event that could knit Israel's rival parties together. Any number of conflicts on Israel's periphery, including tensions between the United States and Iran, or Israel's own rivalry with the Islamic republic, could trigger a national security crisis that foments the formation of a unity government.

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