Election-maker, not kingmaker

Liberman himself had publicly promised to support Netanyahu before the elections.  By reneging on his pledge, Liberman single-handedly forced the September 17 election upon the electorate. 

Howard Smigel, | updated: 13:26

OpEds H. Smigel
H. Smigel

Almost all analyses and op-eds regarding the prospects of the formation of a coalition government in Israel in the aftermath of the September 17 election assert with confidence, and often undisguised schadenfreude, that Avigdor Liberman has become the triumphant kingmaker. Such an assertion, however, is belied by the numbers and the circumstances.

The intricacies of the Israeli political system are multiple and complex.  The numerous parties reflect ethnic, religious, ideological, social, economic and even personal differences.  Some merge only for the purpose of elections and either break up right afterwards or remain divided into conflicting factions. There is a long history of broken promises, betrayals and personal humiliations.  Looming above it all are allegations of corruption and impending indictments.  In addition, since the establishment of the Jewish State, the Arab parties have been both unwilling and unable to join a government coalition.

But, thankfully, the math is fairly straightforward.  The Knesset (Israeli parliament) has 120 members, and a prospective prime minister has to somehow cobble together a minimum of 61 in order to form a government.  Neither of the Benjamins that head the two major opposing parties (Netanyahu of the Likud, and Gantz of Blue & White) can bring enough members of Knesset (MKs) into their blocs:  55 and 44 respectively (10 of the 13 Arab MKs recommended Gantz as prime minister but would not be part of his government).

Liberman's party received 8 seats in the latest election.  Were they to join Gantz, he would still be unable to reach the bare minimum of 61 MKs.  Which means that the only "king" that Liberman can make is Netanyahu, who would then count with a majority of 63 MKs.  In reality, he wouldn't be actually "making the king" but rather ratifying the choice of 51.4% [= 55/(55 + 44 + 8)] of the non-Arab Israelis that cast their votes for parties that had committed to backing Netanyahu as prime minister.

In the previous election of April 9, that percentage had been even higher.  Moreover, Liberman himself had publicly promised to support Netanyahu.  By reneging on his pledge, Liberman single-handedly forced the September 17 election upon the electorate.  As a matter of fact, he had arguably forced the first round of elections too, by withdrawing his party's then 5 mandates from the Netanyahu-led coalition, reducing it to the unstable minimum of 61 and rendering it subject to the whims of even a single MK.

Liberman has expressed his desire that Likud and Blue & White form a "unity government," with or without the inclusion of his party, but thus far the negotiations for such a government have failed and have virtually no chance of succeeding.  Gantz has rejected a coalition proposed by President Rivlin that would include religious, as well as other parties, and would be led first by Netanyahu and later by Gantz.  Netanyahu has rejected a coalition proposed by Gantz that would exclude the religious, as well as other parties, and would be led first by Gantz and later by Netanyahu (or his successor in the Likud).

Prior to the most recent election, Liberman had promised voters he would only sit in a government that excluded the religious parties. 

  • No such government can be formed, unless it is dependent on the outside support of the Arab parties, something that he adamantly rejects.
  • He can't make Gantz the "king" for four years. 
  • He can't make Gantz the "king" for two years either (with Netanyahu in charge for the other two years).

Therefore, he is left only with a momentous binary choice. He can compromise on his pre-election promise by perhaps extracting some concession from the religious parties, join the Netanyahu-led bloc and stop preventing the "king" chosen twice in a row by a majority of the non-Arab Israelis from remaining their prime minister. 

Or he can, for the third consecutive time, make another round of elections a costly and undesirable reality.  In this case, Avigdor Liberman, who has been erroneously declared the kingmaker, will be forever remembered as the infamous Israeli "election-maker."