Israeli Election Deadlock Could Mean No New Government for Months

Netanyahu vows to fight on after failing to secure a majority.

Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Ramat Gan, Israel, on Sept. 10.
Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Ramat Gan, Israel, on Sept. 10. Amir Levy/Getty Images

Israel appears to be headed for weeks or months of political uncertainty after an election Tuesday—the second in six months—that ended with no clear winner.

With most of the votes counted, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party was in a dead heat with the opposition Blue and White party, headed by the former army chief Benny Gantz—with a small edge for Blue and White.

Blue and White stood at 32 seats in the 120-member parliament, with Likud capturing 31 seats. The results meant neither party is in a position to form a governing coalition with its like-minded allies in parliament.

The outcome was a clear setback for Netanyahu and a boon for his ally-turned-rival, Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, which captured nine seats in parliament, is now in a position to determine who will be the next prime minister.

To understand the significance of the numbers, we spoke to Dahlia Scheindlin, a political consultant who has worked on campaigns in Israel and around the world. She spent several months advising the left-wing Democratic Union party in the run-up to today’s vote. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Foreign Policy: Let’s start with Netanyahu. If the numbers hold, what do they mean for him?

Dahlia Scheindlin: If the numbers hold, Netanyahu has not managed to put together a majority block of 61 seats for the right wing. He did not triumph over Gantz. There’s no stunning victory. Netanyahu had a coalition of 60 seats in the election six months ago. All he needed was one more seat, but he didn’t manage to get it in this campaign. I think it undermines his standing as the unrivaled king of Israeli politics.

FP: Why do you think Netanyahu failed to get the extra support?

DS: It’s hard to say. When his coalition talks collapsed after the previous election in May, Lieberman’s numbers doubled right away. And he’s been rock solid in the polls since then. He always got nine to 11 seats. Some portion of the right-wing block changed parties and went to Lieberman and stayed there.

FP: What about the left side of the map?

DS: There’s not much change there compared to April. The two main left-wing parties, the Democratic Union and Labor, traded some votes between them. But their combined number is basically the same. Labor merged with a faction that emphasized social issues, but it doesn’t seem to have made a big impact. The Democratic Union added [former Prime Minister] Ehud Barak to its list but didn’t get much for it.  

FP: So it looks like Lieberman is the kingmaker. He has been saying he wants a secular, centrist coalition—a national unity government—made up of the two big parties and his party, Yisrael Beiteinu. But Netanyahu will certainly offer him the world to join a Likud-led coalition. What are the chances he would go for it? 

DS: He has been saying so publicly and so consistently that he supports a secular unity government, he made it the centerpiece of his campaign. It would be shocking for him to renege on that now, though not unheard of in Israeli politics. The way the numbers are looking, he has leverage. He will certainly retain his credibility if he follows through on his demands. And there’s a rapidly accelerating zeitgeist in favor of a unity government. You see it in the most recent public polls. You hear anecdotally among Israelis.

FP: But who would lead that national unity government?

DS: It will be a very tough negotiation. Blue and White has promised not to enter a government led by Netanyahu. Either they renege on that and destroy their credibility, or they stand their ground. Likud lawmakers have taken a loyalty oath not to turn on Netanyahu and oust him. One side or the other will have to make some painful concessions, or possibly we’ll see a rotation of prime ministers. In any case, it’s going to be a very difficult negotiation.

Dan Ephron is the executive editor for news and podcasts at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @danephron

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