The Middle East’s most democratic state has been out to prove how democratic it truly is. A little less than two weeks ago, Israel held its second election in five months after Israel’s longest serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, failed to form a government in the initial round of elections in April.
Although Netanyahu was granted another chance this week to form a governing coalition, it seems increasingly likely that Israel will be forced to hold yet another round of elections, its third in less than a year and something entirely unprecedented in Israeli history. The uncertainty of Netanyahu’s continued tenure, while placing Israeli politics in limbo, may also place Trump’s much-awaited Middle East Peace Plan in limbo, too.
Netanyahu’s ‘Second Chance’
Before attempting to predict Trump’s imprint on the Middle East, it’s important to understand how Israeli politics entered their current state of volatility, and why Netanyahu’s second chance to form a coalition will likely fail. In Israel, though there are more than 30 political parties. Nine tend to be the primary “movers and shakers” in terms of capturing seats in Israel’s 120-seat Parliament. Given this, to “form a government” in Israel is to create a coalition of like-minded parties that constitutes a majority—or at least 61—of the seats in the Parliament.
The results of the most recent election were essentially a tie between Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party and Israel’s centrist party, Blue and White, led by former military chief Benny Gantz. When no clear coalition emerges, the leaders of the two vying parties can attempt to form an uneasy coalition known as a “unity government,” although the success of this arrangement has been mixed. Netanyahu and Gantz did meet earlier this week to discuss the possibility of such a government, but Gantz has refused to form a party with a leader facing indictment, and currently, Netanyahu is facing the possibility of indictment in three corruption cases.
On Wednesday, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin selected between the two leaders, nominating Netanyahu to try to form a government, given Netanyahu received one additional endorsement from members of the Knesset. Netanyahu has 28 days to shore up a coalition, with the opportunity to request a 14-day extension. If Netanyahu is unable to secure the minimum 61 seats, the opportunity then passes to Gantz, who faces the same time constraints to form a sufficient coalition.
As it stands, there is little indication that the original number of seats will change over the course of the next four weeks, meaning that the likelihood of either Netanyahu or Gantz being able to form a government is slim to none, even after each is giving a second shot at forming a coalition.
At the current moment, it seems unlikely that Gantz will form a unity government with Netanyahu at the helm as PM because, as one former Israeli political advisor expressed, Gantz would fear losing “political credibility,” should he agree to playing second-fiddle in a Netanyahu-led coalition, especially since the entirety of Blue and White is precipitated upon being the “anti-Netanyahu” party.
According to one Israeli political advisor, the other outcome that has been floated in political circles is that Likud may chase Netanyahu out of his own party, while the remaining members attempt to form a coalition with Gantz. This arrangement, however, seems doubtful given the fact that Netanyahu has become synonymous with Likud to such a degree that his removal would likely spark tremendous backlash.
Thus, as noted to me by Israeli journalist Ruthie Blum of The Jerusalem Post, it seems the least desirable outcome is the most likely: Israel probably will hold what would be its third election less than a year.
A Third Election May Postpone Trump’s ‘Peace Plan’
For Trump, yet another election invites uncertainty in terms of both when, how, and if his Middle East Peace Plan–enthusiastically named “Deal of the Century”—might take shape. While the economic portion of the plan has been released (and discussed here), the political portion has yet to be revealed. However, between elections, Israel operates as a transitional government that is limited in its capacity to make long-term decisions, making the postponing of Trump’s Middle East Plan in the interim probable.
And if the plan is delayed, for how long? Trump and Netanyahu have enjoyed a unique friendship arguably based not just upon the historic tradition of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, but also upon the distinct personalities of the two leaders, which seemed to “mesh” in a way that might be difficult to recreate, should Gantz or another official become prime minister.
However, there is some indication that Trump would be willing to work with Netanyahu’s successor, if Netanyahu were to lose in a hypothetical third round of elections. Trump has referred to Gantz as a good person and has stated explicitly that the United States’ relationship is with Israel and not with any one particular person.
As Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Gantz’ foreign policy mimics that of his predecessor, although given Gantz’ desire to distance himself from Netanyahu, it’s unclear how that much that desire might affect his willingness to engage more closely with Trump. Gantz has expressed an interest in appealing more readily to American Jewry, which he feels became increasingly distant from Israel as a result of the Netanyahu-Trump friendship.
One Arab Israeli lawmaker, Ahmad Tibi, claimed that Netanyahu’s inaility to form a coalition was a mutual rejection of both Netanyahu and President Trump: “The result is a slap in the face not [just] of Netanyahu but also President Trump, who supports all the racism, all the atrocities and is preparing the most anti-Palestinian plan that has even been presented by the US.”
While it’s possible that a change in the Israeli prime minister will shift foreign policy ever-so-slightly, it’s unlikely to have a huge effect, if any, on the Israeli-U.S. dynamic, despite those who claim Trump’s Peace Plan may be dead in the water. As President Trump stated, the relationship between the two countries has always been just that—between two countries.
Personalities may come and go. Although it was undoubtedly bruised by Obama’s coddling of Iran, the U.S.-Israeli dynamic largely and thankfully has transcended the political squabbles of the past. It is looking as if it will transcend multiple elections, too.