‘If We Have a Major Conflagration, Then All Bets Are Off’
How long the current violence with the Palestinians lasts could shape the formation of Israel’s next government
The rise in violence between Israeli police and Arab rioters at and near the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and the Gazan rocket fire on Israel that began on Monday come less than a week after MK Yair Lapid received the mandate to form a government. How long the violence endures will likely determine the character of Israel’s next government.
The shorter the escalation, political analysts say, the better it will be for Yesh Atid party head Lapid, while prolonged unrest looks likely to benefit incumbent caretaker prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose best bet to remain head of government appears to be a fifth election in two and a half years.
There are three probable scenarios for how Israel’s next government will be established.
In the first, Lapid succeeds in his quest to form a coalition, in partnership with Yamina’s Naftali Bennett, before the June 2 deadline. President Reuven Rivlin assigned Lapid the task after Netanyahu failed to form a government in the same 28-day time frame.
The second scenario is the formation by any MK able to secure the backing of 61 lawmakers within 28 days of the president turning to the legislature, of an even more right-wing government. This would likely require some sort of compromise over Netanyahu’s position as prime minister.
The third scenario, if the Knesset fails, would see Israel go to an unprecedented fifth election since 2019.
Lapid and Bennett had been planning to go to the President’s Residence on Monday to inform him that they were able to establish a government based on the backing of the Islamist United Arab List party.
But in light of the violence, United Arab List Chairman Mansour Abbas froze negotiations with Lapid and Bennett that day.
Yehuda Ben Meir, a senior research fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, says Lapid forming a government appears more plausible if the current round of violence is brief.
“The question is, when things will calm down?” he told The Media Line. “If we are speaking about a few days, I don’t think it will affect anything in a substantial way. I imagine that Abbas is very interested in being part of the coalition. … It’s part of his ideology that Arabs should become involved in Israeli political life, [and] being able to show his electorate that he achieved many important things for the Arab citizens of Israel.”
Bennett, Lapid and Mansour “were in the very advanced stages of concluding this agreement, which wouldn’t pose any problems because his [Mansour’s] conditions for the coalition agreement are entirely based on civilian issues in terms of the conditions of the Arab Israeli citizens, mainly the problem of violence [crime] in the Arab sector and housing,” Ben Meir said.
The Lapid-Bennett alliance does not, however, view Arab parties’ explicit support as the linchpin to the formation of a government, he added.
“As far as Bennett and Lapid are concerned, they do not need the support of Abbas or the other Arab party,” he continued, adding that all they need is for them to abstain on important votes in the legislature.
Ben Meir said they could form a minority government based on a vote of confidence, which only requires a simple majority.
In this scenario, Lapid’s 58-member government would beat Netanyahu’s 52-person coalition in the 120-MK Knesset.
“The seven parties involved in forming the unity government: Yesh Atid, Yamina, New Hope, Blue and White, Yisrael Beitenu, Labor and Meretz, that coalition agreement is all set, including even the division of portfolios,” Ben Meir said, noting that Abbas is not seeking a ministerial post.
However, Dr. Gayil Talshir, an expert on democracies in crisis, Israeli politics and political ideology from the Political Science Department at the Hebrew University, disagrees about Lapid’s chances of forming a government.
“He can’t form a government without the Arab Joint List and United Arab List,” she told The Media Line. “Numerically, it’s possible on paper, but this is very unlikely given that the Joint List basically joined the riots against the state, so I don’t think this is a viable option.
“Lapid’s only option is to go with Bennett on the one hand and Sa’ar [and his New Hope party] on the other, but the right wing [i.e., Netanyahu and his allies] is trying to delegitimize the connection with Abbas, which the Right itself invented [by courting the United Arab List’s support for its own coalition-building efforts], due to this cycle of violence,” Talshir added.
When it comes to the second option, the formation of a government by the Knesset, that is by any MK backed by 61 legislators, she said this is more likely if the violence is prolonged.
“If the violence is going to escalate, then I think there will be a lot of pressure to join the current government, which is a traditional government, to fight together against this violence, and that means Netanyahu would get another chance of manipulating or negotiating, however you want to call it,” Talshir said. “… He would put a lot of pressure on Bennett to join.”
If Bennett joined forces with Netanyahu, Lapid’s ability to assemble a coalition would be severely diminished, allowing Netanyahu to run out the clock until June 2 so that the Knesset would have the last chance to form a government.
“If Lapid is not able to form a government in that time it [the mandate] goes back to Knesset, and that’s what Netanyahu prefers,” Talshir said.
Even if Bennett joins Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition, Netanyahu would still be short of the 61 lawmakers needed to form a majority government.
“Yamina isn’t enough so he needs Sa’ar, too,” Talshir said, “It is unlikely that Sa’ar and New Hope are going to cave in.”
Sa’ar joining such a government would likely involve some sort of negotiation surrounding Netanyahu’s role as premier, which is doubtful given all indications from the incumbent.
If Sa’ar still declines to join forces with Netanyahu, the third scenario of a fifth election is more likely.
Talshir said the escalation with the Palestinians could work in Netanyahu’s favor in the next electoral contest.
“He’s already thinking about the next campaign,” she said. “On the one hand, Netanyahu is very strong on security issues and with the international arena, and on the other hand, he is also thought of as responsible for not letting wars break out, so I think Netanyahu is hoping to get a fifth round of elections out of this violent escalation.”
While no one knows how long the violence will last, Talshir thinks it will be short-lived.
“My estimation is that it’s going to wind down over the next two or three days and negotiations will resume next week, but again the situation is very explosive,” she said.
“It takes only one rocket to fall on an empty house instead of in an empty field and we will see escalation,” Talshir added.
Ben Meir agrees. “At the moment, we are talking about a postponement of a few days, maybe a week or two,” he said. “If the situation calms down, then I think a government will be presented to the Knesset [for approval]. If we have a major conflagration then all bets are off.”