Polls show opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu either eking out a victory in Tuesday’s election or falling just short of a majority. Final surveys released last week said he will come up short. If his “natural coalition” misses the mark, can he still form a government?
It will be difficult for Netanyahu if he ends up with 60 seats in the incoming Knesset, just one short shy of the 61-seat majority he needs, Jonathan Rynhold, head of the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, said.
“The natural thing for him to do would be to try and do what he did in times past, which is nab one [Knesset member] here or there by offering them whatever they want,” Rynhold told JNS. “But a lot of those people have been burned so that if he doesn’t get 61, I think it’ll be very difficult for him. His big problem is that if nobody can form a government, then [Yair] Lapid continues to be [caretaker] prime minister.”
Rynhold believes that could spell the end of Netanyahu’s career. “I’m not saying he’ll disappear straight away, but people don’t support him because they like him, they support them because he wins,” he said.
Netanyahu’s future might then depend on what his long-time allies, the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, decide: “The haredim will start to think that maybe they should just cut their losses and go with Benny Gantz.”
In that case, the Blue and White Party leader, who has joined with Minister of Justice Gideon Sa’ar to form the National Unity alliance, “could easily be able to form a government,” Rynhold said.
If Netanyahu is in trouble, could he turn to the Islamist Ra’am Party?
“Ra’am would do it, but I don’t believe Bezalel Smotrich would,” Rynhold said, referring to the head of the Religious Zionism Party, who categorically refused to serve in a coalition that included Ra’am following the last election in March 2021.
Despite recent polls, Rynhold said Netanyahu’s prospects actually appear favorable. “My sense is that the polls always tend to underestimate the right wing, the haredi vote,” he said. “When you add to that Meretz and two Arab parties [Ra’am and Hadash-Ta’al] being on the borderline [of making it into the Knesset], I think Bibi has a reasonable chance.”
Ilana Shpaizman, also from the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University, agrees that the outlook for Netanyahu is good. Indeed, even with 60 Knesset seats, Netanyahu likely will secure victory, she told JNS. “He can work with 60. He will find someone who will back him.”
She acknowledged that Netanyahu’s options have shrunk in terms of which Knesset members he could pluck from other parties to get to 61, but offered the possibility that he could find a defector from Gantz’s party.
Another option is that Netanyahu forms a minority government, meaning a party would agree to support his government without joining it. “This is something that is possible and we’ve had it before with [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin in 1995 and in some periods with [Premier Ehud] Barak. It’s not very stable in Israel, but it is possible,” Shpaizman said.
Like Rynhold, she brought up the possibility that this election could mark the end for Netanyahu if he doesn’t come out victorious. Netanyahu will face pressure to retire as a Likud-led government would form quickly without him. (The objection of most political leaders to joining with the Likud is the presence of Netanyahu at its head. They cite his corruption cases as the reason.)
Shpaizman said the key to this election is the turnout—who is voting and from which areas. Knowing where people are voting tells you more about who will win than asking individuals for whom they will vote, she said.
Rynhold agrees, saying the turnout in the Arab sector will be the most important factor this cycle. It is possible that two of the three Arab parties (some say all three) could fail to pass the 3.25 percent electoral threshold. Polls predict the Arab turnout will be low, and the lower it is, the better for Netanyahu. “If the Arab turnout is around 45 percent, Netanyahu will get 61 seats, but if they turn out at 55 percent or 60 percent, he’ll get only 60 seats,” he said.
One factor that’s gone underreported, Rynhold said, is the influx of 45,000 immigrants from Russia and Ukraine since the war there began.
“In an election where 10,000 votes here or 10,000 votes there could swing the whole thing, it’ll be interesting to see how they vote,” he said. A strong Russian vote could help Avigdor Liberman of the Israel Beiteinu Party, a bitter foe of Netanyahu. “It is something to watch,” he said.