Benjamin Netanyahu has once again emerged as the man destined to lead Israel into the near future, but he wasn’t the biggest winner as the votes for the 21st Knesset were counted overnight.
One of the major criticisms leveled against Netanyahu going into Tuesday’s election was that he routinely acquiesced to too many demands from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties in his quest to cobble together majority coalitions.
Well, if Netanyahu’s tapped to form the next government, and he’s all but certain to be called upon to do so, the demands from the two Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), are likely to be exceptional in scope.
In other words, all those Christians and Messianic Jews who were hoping, for example, that Shas wouldn’t again be handed control of the Interior Ministry or that the Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage in the Holy Land might finally be weakened can forget about it.
Netanyahu is going to again support the draconian policies of these parties, because he can’t forge a ruling coalition otherwise.
In fact, neither side can.
The ultra-Orthodox parties again find themselves the true kingmakers.
The right-wing bloc on Tuesday won an estimated 65 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset (with 94 percent of the votes counted). Of that, 49 seats (75 percent) belong to the secular and moderate religious parties of Likud, the Union of Right-Wing Parties, Yisrael Beiteinu and Kulanu. Sixteen seats (nearly 25 percent) belong to Shas and UTJ.
If Netanyahu rejects the demands of the Orthodox, he won’t be able to put together a majority coalition. This was also true in the last Knesset, but to a lesser degree. Following the 2015 election, Netanyahu and his secular/moderate religious coalition partners controlled 53 seats (80 percent), while the Orthodox brought another 13 seats (19 percent) to the government.
It’s not just Bibi
All those Israelis who voted for the center-left “Blue and White” faction are wrong if they think this is solely a Bibi problem, to use the prime minister’s nickname. Netanyahu might be more amenable to ultra-Orthodox demands, but he’s not alone in being compelled to accept them.
Were Netanyahu to take the unprecedented step of refusing part or all of the Orthodox conditions and therefore finding himself without enough seats to form a majority coalition, Blue and White would be tasked with trying to do so. But they, too, would need to court Shas and UTJ, without whom, like Netanyahu, Blue and White wouldn’t be able to present a stable government.
Together, Blue and White, Labor and the far-left Meretz have 45 seats (at the time of writing). Perhaps they could convince Kulanu to join, giving them 49 seats. But the bottom line is that without the ultra-Orthodox, Blue and White would fail to form a government.
Whether it’s Netanyahu or Benny Gantz (leader of Blue and White), either potential prime minister is going to rely on the ultra-Orthodox to make up at least 25 percent of his coalition, meaning Shas and UTJ have the leverage to demand pretty much whatever they want.
The only conceivable way to avoid a scenario in which the ultra-Orthodox wield so much power would be for Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White to form a national unity government.
A unity government is highly unlikely given the vitriol both parties slung at one another during the election campaign. On top of that, it seems both factions will control the same number of Knesset seats, setting the stage for serious dispute over which party’s leader would take the reins as prime minister.
But, this is the land of miracles, so we’ll wait and see.