A "major setback" was the recurring theme in many news headlines reporting on the outcome of Israel's General Election last week. While this referred specifically to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's failure to secure a decisive victory in the country's fourth election in two years, it is only part of the narrative.
It certainly was a setback for Netanyahu, who has resorted repeatedly to Israeli voters as a final lifeline in the hope of escaping his growing list of problems: splits within his Likud Party; the constant plotting of his former right-wing coalition partners; his own trials on corruption and fraud charges; and his lack of political vision that does not cater to his and his family's interests.
Yet, the outcome of this one was the same as the preceding three elections, with no party having an absolute majority. A coalition has to be formed. Netanyahu's right-wing camp — his potential coalition partners — consists of even more ardently right-wing parties. Aside from the Likud, which won thirty Knesset seats, they include Shas with nine seats; United Torah Judaism with seven; and Religious Zionism with six. With just 52 seats at his potential disposal, Netanyahu's base is more vulnerable and more extreme than ever before.
Yamina, on the other hand, emerged with seven seats and is a logical partner in Netanyahu's possible coalition. It is headed by staunchly right-wing Naftali Bennett, who assumed the role of minister in various Netanyahu-led right-wing coalitions, and who sits — ideologically speaking — to the right of Netanyahu. A keen politician, Bennett has, for years, tried to escape Netanyahu's dominance and claim the leadership of the right-wing. While joining another coalition headed by the Likud leader is hardly his best-case scenario, Bennett might return reluctantly to the Netanyahu camp for now, because he has no other real option.
He could, however, opt for another radical path, like that taken by former Likudite, Gideon Sa'ar of New Hope and Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu, by trying to oust Netanyahu, even if this means forming a shaky, short-lived coalition.
The anti-Netanyahu camp does not seem to have much in common in terms of politics, ideology or ethnicity — a crucial component in Israeli politics — other than the collective wish to get rid of the prime minister. If an anti-Netanyahu coalition is somehow cobbled together — uniting Yesh Atid (seventeen seats), Kahol Lavan (eight), Yisrael Beiteinu (seven), Labor (seven), New Hope (six), the Arab Joint List (six) and Meretz (six) — the coalition would still fail to reach the required threshold of 61 seats for a simple majority.
To avoid returning to the polls for the fifth time in under three years, the anti-Netanyahu coalition would be forced to cross many political red lines. For example, Netanyahu's former anti-Arab allies, namely Lieberman and Sa'ar, would have to accept joining a coalition that includes the Arab Joint List. The latter would have to make a similar ideological leap into the dark and cooperate with political parties which have avowedly racist, chauvinistic and anti-peace agendas. To secure the much-sought majority, though, they would still need a push either from Bennet's Yamina or Mansour Abbas's United Arab List (Ra'am).
Bennett is known for his ideological rigidity, and he understands that a coalition with the Arabs and the left could jeopardise his position with his ideological base on the right and the far-right. If he is to join an anti-Netanyahu coalition, it would be for the sole purpose of passing legislation in the Knesset that prevents politicians on trial from participating in elections. This has been Lieberman's main strategy for quite some time. Once this mission is achieved, these odd political bedfellows would pounce on each other to claim Netanyahu's position at the helm of the right.
For Abbas's United Arab List, however, the story is quite different. Not only did he betray desperately needed Arab unity in the face of an existential threat posed by Israel's growing anti-Arab politics, but he also went on to suggest his willingness to join a Netanyahu-led coalition.
However, even for an opportunist like Abbas, joining a right-wing coalition with groups that champion such slogans as "Death to the Arabs" could be extremely dangerous. From the perspective of the Arab citizens of Israel — 20 per cent of the population — Abbas's politics already border on treason. Joining the chauvinistic, violent Kahanists — who ran as part of the Religious Zionism list — to form a government that aims to save Netanyahu's political career, would place this inexperienced and foolhardy politician in direct confrontation with his own Palestinian Arab community.
Alternatively, Abbas may wish to vote in favour of the anti-Netanyahu coalition as a direct partner, or from the outside. As with Bennett, both options would make Abbas a potential kingmaker, an ideal scenario from his point of view and less than ideal from the point of view of a coalition that, if formed, would be unstable.
Consequently, it is inadequate to categorise the outcome of the latest Israeli election as a "setback" for Netanyahu alone; it is also a setback for everyone else. Netanyahu failed to achieve a clear majority, but his enemies failed to make a case to Israeli voters for Netanyahu to be shunted out of politics altogether. He remains the uncontested leader of the Israeli right and his Likud party still holds thirteen seats more than its closest rival.
Though the centre parties unified temporarily in previous elections in the form of Kahol Lavan (Blue and White), it quickly disintegrated; and this is equally true for the once unified Arab parties. Disuniting just before last week's election, these parties squandered Arab votes and, with it, any hope that racist, militaristic, and religiously zealous Israeli politics could possibly be fixed from within.
This means that, whether Netanyahu goes or stays, the next Israeli government is likely to remain firmly to the right. Moreover, with or without Israel's longest-serving prime minister, Israel is unlikely to produce a politically unifying figure, one who is capable of redefining the country beyond the Netanyahu personality cult.
As for ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine, dismantling apartheid and, with it, the illegal Jewish settlements, it remains a distant dream. These issues were hardly mentioned at all during the election campaign, let alone discussed. Israel's Kafkaesque politics are starting to look permanent.