Three Basic Scenarios for Israel’s Upcoming Election: Sweet Dreams, King Lieberman and Your Worst Nightmare

There are only 34 days left before Israelis head to the polls for the second time this year. Despite the critical and possibly fateful importance ascribed to the September 17 ballot, most Israelis seem disengaged, if not apathetic. That may change, however, once the parties launch their campaigns in earnest at the beginning of next month, when summer vacation is over and the school year starts.

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In advance of the expected tumult, here are the three basic scenarios that could emerge from the election. From the point of view of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents, these can be divided into three categories: Sweet Dreams, King Lieberman and Your Worst Nightmare:

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1. Sweet Dreams (aka Pie in the Sky): The center-left improves its performance in the April 9 elections by 5 seats, reaching a blocking majority of 60 or more seats without Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Benjamin Netanyahu’s path to forming a new right-wing government is effectively blocked. 

The surprising outcome is a result of: A. The reconstitution of the Joint List, which takes Arab voter participation from the 49.2 percent registered in the April elections to the 63.5 percent participation level in the 2015 elections; B. Labor’s new centrist posture and focus on social issues under Amir Peretz takes 1-2 seats from the right C. The Kahanist Otzma Yehudit fails to pass the 3.25 percent electoral threshold, wasting 2-3 seats for the right; and possibly D. Likud turnout is depressed, reflecting hitherto undetected disappointment with Netanyahu.

Under these circumstances, and on the assumption that Lieberman does not renege on his pre-election commitments, Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz will be tapped by President Reuven Rivlin to form a new government. His chances of cobbling together a pure center-left coalition, however, are virtually non-existent, given Kahol Lavan’s refusal to countenance an alliance with the Joint List and Lieberman’s veto on a coalition with the Meretz-centered Democratic Union.

Gantz will have two possible paths to forming a broader coalition with the right. The first – albeit fare less likely avenue – is through a coalition with Lieberman and the religious right-wing political union Yamina headed by Ayelet Shaked, who is itching to exact revenge for Netanyahu’s refusal to allow her to join Likud. The second avenue, which Lieberman will initially demand, is a so-called national unity government with Likud, whether it is headed by a defeated Netanyahu, who will have lost any chance to achieve immunity from his impending indictments, or by his replacement, should Netanyahu resign or be deposed by a Likud caucus that finally breaks free of his spell.

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2. King Lieberman: Both political blocs secure around 55 seats each, as the polls indicated all along. The balance of 10 seats is held by Yisrael Beiteinu, effectively anointing Lieberman as the ultimate kingmaker of Israeli politics.

The former defense minister’s endorsement will determine whether Gantz or Netanyahu get the first crack at forming a new government. His options on the makeup of a new coalition include:

A) Digging in on his demand for a secular national unity government comprised of Likud, Kahol Lavan and Yisrael Beiteinu

B) Reneging on his pledge to pursue such a government and striking a deal with Netanyahu on a new ultra-right coalition. In exchange for his coveted immunity, Netanyahu would be willing to give Lieberman the moon, up to and possibly including a rotation agreement that would eventually make him prime minister.

C) A Kahol-Lavan government, if feasible, with Ayelet Shaked’s Yamina.

Even in such a favorable scenario, however, there are dangers and pitfalls for Lieberman that should be taken into account. If Lieberman overplays his hand, Netanyahu could reach out directly to Gantz to form a government without Lieberman’s support. Alternatively, Netanyahu could make good on his current plan to try and split Kahol Lavan by enticing its more centrist and hawkish elements to ditch the union with Yair Lavan’s Yesh Atid and to give Netanyahu a majority without Lieberman.

3. Your Worst Nightmare (aka the Death of Democracy): Arabs stay at home, Labor falls flat and right-wingers come to the polls in droves, giving the right- wing bloc more than 61 seats and enabling Netanyahu to form a religious-right coalition without Lieberman. Such a coalition would exempt Netanyahu from criminal prosecution in exchange for a sweeping upheaval of the judicial system, politicization of the civil service and active measures to annex parts or all of the West Bank.

In terms of the rule of law and the future of Israeli democracy, this seems like a worst-case scenario, but it could get even more appalling. Say Netanyahu’s current right-wing coalition, without Lieberman, garners only 57-58 seats, as current polls indicate, but Otzma Yehudit surprises the experts by passing the electoral threshold and gaining four Knesset seats. The Kahanists’ extra oomph will come from right-wingers disappointed by the merger between Betzalel Smotrich’s far-right National Union and the slightly more moderate Shaked and Naftali Bennett.

Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben Gvir would then hold the key to Netanyahu’s political future and personal fate. The prime minister’s widely condemned courtship of the Kahane disciples would finally pay off, big time.

If you think Netanyahu will recoil from what are expected to be Otzma Yehudit’s extreme and racist demands, you haven’t been paying attention. Even though the specter of a government that relies on Otzma Yehudit might spur other parties, including Lieberman and Kahol Lavan, to block a Likud-Otzma coalition, they would need to promise him the same immunity he would get from the Kahanists. One way or another, the final result would be clear and decisive: Netanyahu 1, Israel 0.