The Editor’s Desk: Why Israel Might Have A National Unity Government


Tuesday marks the official day for Israel’s national elections.

In truth, though, the real election begins as soon as the polls close.

That’s when the jockeying starts among the candidates still standing as they scramble to find a place for themselves in the governing coalition that eventually will emerge. But it could take weeks or months for the backroom horse-trading to conclude before the new government takes shape.

The chances for a national unity government have gone, in a very short time, from highly improbable to quite possible, with both Benjamin Netanyahu of the center/right Likud and Isaac Herzog (and to a lesser degree Tzipi Livni) of the center/left Zionist Union benefiting from such a political partnership, as unlikely as that may seem.

“Bibi and Bougie” (Herzog’s nickname, pronounced with a soft “g”) has a nice ring to it, though the two men hardly make for a natural pairing. Netanyahu’s persona projects strength and certainty, and he sees his role as protecting Israelis from an increasingly hostile world. Herzog is mild of manner, conciliatory by nature (he surprised many by offering to rotate the premiership with Livni should they win) and bent on repairing Israel’s relationship in the international community, starting with Washington.

Netanyahu, on falling behind in the polls, said publicly and bluntly that he wouldn’t join a unity government and share the top spot. “It must be prevented,” he asserted on the eve of the election. But politicians in general, and Bibi in particular, can have a short memory when it serves their interests.

Though the polls indicate that the Zionist Union will garner the most Knesset seats on Tuesday, it probably won’t be able to form a coalition — a majority of at least 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset — in the allotted 45 days because its potential partners of hard left and charedi right parties have such strong differences.

At that point, Israeli President Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin could offer Netanyahu, whose Likud presumably will finish second in the election, the chance to put together a government. But Rivlin, whose dislike of Netanyahu is well known, has said that he would prefer to see a national unity government, and he has the option to act on that preference. Herzog would be eager to answer the call; it would thrust him into the top echelon of national leadership. As for Netanyahu, it would be difficult for him to reject the president’s plea for the Zionist Union and Likud to join forces for the good of the nation. Netanyahu may even be relieved with the compromise, freeing him of pressure from the hard-core rightists who limited his options in the current coalition.

At that point the question would be whether Netanyahu and Herzog rotate in the top spot, each serving two years as prime minister. And if so, who goes first. (That would be critical, given how rare it is for an Israeli coalition to last a full four-year term.)

However they divide the premiership, it would seem logical for Herzog to focus on the Palestinian front, putting a more positive face on the Israeli effort to improve the situation with the Palestinian Authority, if not resolve it. And Netanyahu would maintain the Iran portfolio, keeping the pressure on the U.S. and its allies in their dealings with Tehran. 

Kingmakers: Lapid And Kahlon

Much has been written about the change in election laws this year that raised the threshold for parties to gain Knesset seats, from two percent of the votes cast to 3.25 percent. That’s a welcome change, eliminating the situation where parties with one, two or three seats can play an inordinately important role in determining the makeup of the coalition. Now, parties in the Knesset will have at least four seats.

Assuming the polls are fairly accurate, this would mean that Yair Lapid, the former popular media figure whose new Yesh Atid party was the surprising success of the last election, and Moshe Kahlon, who broke with Likud to start his own party, Kulanu, last December, are the potential kingmakers now. Both have focused on economic and cost-of-living issues — a sore point for Netanyahu, which may cost him dearly — and they would be wooed by both Herzog and Netanyahu. Indeed, Netanyahu already offered the finance ministry to Kahlon if he would join Likud prior to the election. But Kahlon, who is popular with the public for his role in reducing the cost of cellphone service, declined. (Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren is No. 4 on Kahlon’s ticket and should win a Knesset seat.)

Lapid and Kahlon together have the will and potential to insist on a coalition that keeps out Naftali Bennett, whose Jewish Home party champions the settlement movement; Meretz, on the far left; the consolidated Arab parties; and the haredi parties, with whom Lapid has vowed not to sit.

(After the last election it was Bennett and Lapid who made a pact to stick together in joining the Netanyahu government. In an interview with The Jewish Week last year Bennett described the relationship as “a Thelma and Louise” deal, since they were prepared to go over the edge together rather than be split up, he said. It worked. At least for awhile, until their differing ideologies trumped their partnership.)

Raising the election threshold prompted Israel’s four Arab political parties to join forces for the first time rather than see none of them win Knesset seats. The new Joint List could emerge as the third largest party, sympathetic at times if Herzog led the government and in full opposition if Netanyahu had the top spot. If Likud and the Zionist Union form a national unity government, the Joint List could become the official opposition party in Israel, giving it a high profile and underscoring the reality of Arabs comprising about 20 percent of the country’s population.

Until now most Israeli Arabs have chosen not to vote in parliamentary elections, feeling marginalized. The Joint List will not be invited to join a coalition government and would refuse if invited, viewing all the other parties as Zionist and therefore ideological adversaries. But it could play an important role from the sidelines and is sure to highlight the concerns and complaints of Israeli Arab citizens.

 Fewer Party Favors

Another new election law has received little attention, but will emerge as significant now. It calls for a reduction in the number of ministers and deputy ministers in the next government. No more than 18 ministers and four deputy ministers will be allowed, and there will be no ministers-without-portfolio.

This, too, is a welcome improvement in a democratic system that is still dysfunctional because it gives relatively little power to the prime minister. He or she must spend far too much time politicking within the coalition to keep the differing party personalities and ideologies at bay.

The practical result of the new law is that it cuts down on the number of ministerial positions that can be given out as incentives for joining the coalition. The outgoing Netanyahu coalition had 22 ministers and eight deputy ministers at one point; the 2009 government, the largest ever, had 30 ministers and 10 deputy ministers.

With fewer party favors (literally, and pun intended) to distribute, the promises made and broken on joining the coalition may reach new levels.

Asked about how constraining the new law will be, Yossi Klein Halevi, the thoughtful Israeli journalist and author told me, with a laugh, “The thing about an Israeli law is that there can always be a new one.” He added: “Israeli politicians are endlessly resourceful.”

They will have to be especially imaginative this time because the stakes are so high — Iran, rocky relations with the White House, Palestinian stalemate — and the level of respect among the competing political parties so low.

Hold on, it’s going to be a bumpy road from now until the new government is formed.

was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at