Mark Mellman: It’s not about the Benjamins

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Commentators quickly declared Benjamin “Benny” Gantz the winner in Israel’s election over incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu.

While it seemed likely some Benjamin would emerge victorious, the race wasn’t really about the Benjamins (more about that next week), and Israel’s political system means there won’t be a clear “winner” for weeks.

{mosads}Understanding where we are today requires a bit of background. 

Israel has a parliamentary system like the U.K.

But, while the British Parliament, like our Congress, is comprised of members who got the most votes in their geographic district, in Israel the public votes for a single national party list. 

Each party gets about the same percentage of seats in the 120-member Parliament as it gets votes in the country as a whole.

Controlling the Knesset (parliament) and establishing a government, however, requires controlling a majority (at least 61) of its seats.

Political scientists have long recognized that systems like ours and the U.K.’s tend to produce two large parties with occasional 3rd and 4th parties, while systems like Israel’s tend to produce many parties.

Indeed, 30 parties registered to field lists in last week’s election and nine are actually represented in the new Knesset. 

No party in Israel’s history has ever won a majority. Every Israeli government has been a multiparty coalition. 

Forging that coalition is at least as important as the election results themselves. Potential members of the government must craft a “coalition agreement,” a policy platform, that all of the parties in the putative government agree to abide by. 

Thus, even the largest party has to compromise with their partners on basic principles, even before legislating starts.

Which brings us to today.

Neither of the two largest parties has a clear path to the 61 Knesset votes it takes to form a government and name a prime minister.

It’s the same position Israel was in after the April elections in which Netanyahu was quickly declared the “winner,” though he proved to have “lost” by being unable to form a government.

The proximate cause of the impasse on both occasions is Avigdor Liberman, whose party won five seats in April and eight in September.

On the right-left security spectrum, Liberman is decidedly to the right.

Had Liberman been willing to join a right-wing Netanyahu government after April’s election, as he had before, Bibi would have had a 65-seat Knesset majority. But without Liberman, Netanyahu was one seat short.

Now again, with Liberman’s party, Netanyahu would have a majority. Without them, he doesn’t.

Out of a combination of personal pique (Netanyahu fired him) and his more principled opposition to the ultra-Orthodox parties extorting particularistic benefits from past governments, Liberman has refused to serve in a government with his otherwise natural partners on the right. 

While flexible on issues other than their own benefits, the ultra-Orthodox are more comfortable on the right and their 16 seats are an absolute necessity for any right-wing government.

Liberman’s campaign promised a secular national unity government comprised of Gantz’s Blue and White, Netanyahu’s Likud and himself. 

Indeed, he’s promised to support only a secular unity government.

But birthing such a compromise isn’t easy, because Gantz promised not to serve in any government headed by a prime minister facing indictment.

Israel’s attorney general recommended that Netanyahu be indicted (incidentally on matters that some argue are criminal under Israeli, but not American, law). The final decision on that indictment will be made after a hearing slated for the beginning of October.

Assuming the indictment goes forward, Gantz would be violating a major campaign promise were he to sit in a unity government headed by Netanyahu. 

That problem could be solved by Likud removing Netanyahu as leader, but they’ve promised not to do that. Moreover, none of them want to be Michael Heseltine, whose name you don’t know, because, by being the first Tory to call on Margaret Thatcher to step down, he never became prime minister. 

In short, forming a government requires at least one political actor to break a major promise. Politicians have been known to do that, but it’s not any easy step, especially when the promises are central to their political identities. 

Now that the election is over, the real politicking begins, and it’s these politics that will decide who really wins.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.


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