Thursday, June 17, 2021

Knesset Elections Fails To Resolve Israeli Stalemate

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Israel went to polls for the 23rd Knesset on 2nd March. The third parliamentary elections within one year, did not prove to be manna from heaven that many Israelis were hoping for. Despite his claims of victory, hours after polling ended, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, still fell short of the magic number of 61 in the 120-member Parliament (Knesset).

With almost 99 percent of the over six million votes were counted, the Likud remains the largest party with 36 seats and the religious bloc comprising of Shas and United Torah Judaism secured nine and seven seats, respectively. The rightist Yamina has got six seats. This makes the right-religious bloc led by Netanyahu securing 58 seats, falling three seats short of a simple majority. While the final number could change once all votes are counted, Netanyahu getting a simple majority looks unlikely. The economic growth and closer ties with US proved insufficient to secure a landslide victory the Likud had hoped for.

The opposition which has 62 seats on paper is equally unlikely to form a government. While the Centrist Blue and White party led by former general Benny Gantz fell short of pre-election hopes and secured 33 seats, the leftwing Labour-Gesher-Meretz bloc got seven seats. The real winner in the election is the Joint List that secured 15 seats, the highest representation for Israeli Arabs since 1948.

However, with seven seats, Yisrael Beiteinu led by Avigdor Liberman has once again emerged as the kingmaker. His support is vital for Netanyahu as well as Gantz to form the next government; but, this will not be easy. Lieberman has been opposed to any government that would include Arab parties. Differences between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Lieberman had precipitated the dissolution of the Knesset in December 2018 resulting in three inconclusive elections in April and September 2019 and the third one this month.

While Netanyahu, who is also heading the longest caretaker government in Israel’s history, has already started negotiations with his allies, the formal process of government formation is likely to begin only early next week. Once the results are formally communicated to President Reuven Rivlin, the Israeli President is likely to consult all political parties and decide about who could form a stable government. Normally the government formation takes at least four weeks after elections, and this time should not be different, especially given the inconclusive verdict.

Lieberman’s refusal to endorse the Likud leader was mostly responsible for no governments being formed after the two elections last year. If Lieberman does not change his position,Netanyahu’s government formation rests on engineering defection from the Blue and White party, and there are indications that negotiations towards this is on.

There is where the catch lies. On 17 March, Mr. Netanyahu will become the first serving Israeli Prime Minister to appear in court on charges of corruption and abuse of power. For the past few months, Netanyahu has been unsuccessful in bringing a law that would preclude an incumbent Prime Minister from being tried. The Blue & White party has planned to promote a bill barring indicted officials to serve as Prime Minister.

While Unity government has been an attractive option, Blue and White has been insisting on Likud changing its leader, a proposition unacceptable not only to Netanyahu but also to a vast majority of the party, as it fears selecting a new leader would pose unforeseen challenges and undermines its strength.

The political uncertainty in Israel does not affect India’s relations with it. Even if Israel elects a new leader, the relationships are unlikely to change. India-Israel ties have been elevated to a strategic partnership. The two countries are working together on many fronts including defence, security and counter-terrorism. Thus, the political discourse would not affect the fundamentals contours of the strong bilateral relations.

Script: Prof. P R Kumaraswamy, Centre For West Asian Studies, JNU

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