Neither Likud nor the Blue and White Party succeeded in gaining a majority in this week’s Israeli election, and now the fates of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Benny Gantz rest in the hands of potential coalition partners. Because of this election’s outcome, all the leaders of parties that succeeded in securing representation in the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) are due to begin consultations with the country’s President, Reuven Rivlin, on Sunday. This process normally endures for a few days before the President appoints the leader he believes has the best chance of forming a coalition government.
The Prime Minister has one factor against him in discussions with potential coalition partners: his lingering corruption charges. A final pre-indictment hearing is scheduled for the first week of October. Netanyahu has denied all charges against him, but any party willing to govern alongside him is taking a risk if he is found guilty as it could cause the government to collapse. Considering none of the main parties have a majority, the next few weeks, possibly months, could be characterised by behind-the-scenes deals.
Former Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, could play a substantial role in these negotiations. His party is on track to win nine seats and he ruined the Prime Minister’s chances of forming a religious coalition after April’s vote, demonstrating the influence he has. Liberman has demanded he intends to form a national unity government consisting of Likud and the Blue and White Party.
However, this outcome is dependent upon two factors. Currently, the Blue and White Party are maintaining their position that Netanyahu must not be leading this national unity government Liberman favours. Yet the Prime Minister’s speech on Wednesday night indicated that he has no intention of resigning his post. Either the opposition alter their stance to ensure a coalition can be formed, or Netanyahu resigns. This compromise is dependent upon one of the main parties having to make sacrifices.
As Israeli publication Haaretz argues, Netanyahu has two factors going in his favour: Donald Trump and Iran. Since becoming US President, Trump has been the staunchest ally Israel has had in recent years. In 2017, he relocated the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This year, he tweeted that he recognises Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
But Israel is stuck between China and the US. In May 2019, the Israeli Finance Ministry published a controversial tender to build a new water desalination plant dubbed Soreq B. The Chinese Hutchinson Company appears close to winning the contract despite pressure from the US to halt large infrastructure projects with the Chinese for fear that it could lead to the exposure of Israeli intelligence. With the ongoing trade war between the US and China, Netanyahu could use this to his advantage in coalition talks. He can claim he knows how to negotiate with Trump whilst ensuring Israel does not get involved in the US-China trade war to ensure Israel continues to receive Chinese investments.
Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister should maintain a close relationship with Trump because Iran remains a threat to Jerusalem. The US President has ordered an increase of sanctions against Tehran following the recent drone attack on Saudi oil. With the Islamic Republic continuing to sponsor Hezbollah, an Israeli Prime Minister close to Trump can remind him that any peace settlement must ensure Iran ends its sponsorship of terrorist groups.
Foreign policy experience is the one factor that can rescue Netanyahu’s premiership, especially when Israel faces an uncertain future. The question is: will his potential coalition partners realise that and allow him to retain his premiership?