After two inconclusive elections in 2019 in which no party could form a governing coalition a third election was scheduled for March 2, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressured Naftali Bennett to form a union with the far right parties to increase the chance they would exceed the electoral threshold in March 2020. Bennett, however, decided to run a joint slate – Yamina – with his Hayamin Hehadash Party and the National Union Party without the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit Party.
Labor-Gesher and Meretz announced they would run together in the March 2, 2020, election. Peretz and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz agreed that Peretz would lead the joint slate and Levi-Abekasis would be placed in the second spot on the roster. Horowitz will be placed third on the joint ticket.
The Mishpat Tzedek (Just Trial) Party, dedicated to the release of Rabin assassin Yigal Amir, was disqualified from running in the March Israeli election by the Central Elections Committee. That decision was reversed by Israel’s High Court. The court also overturned the decision to ban Arab MK and United Arab List candidate Heba Yazbak from the election for lauding Arab terrorists, which it said constituted support for terrorism, one of the criteria for disqualification.
1 Aryeh Deri
United Arab List
1 Amir Peretz
% of Vote
|United Arab List||577,355||12.61%||15|
|United Torah Judaism||273,900||5.98%||7|
|Labor - Gesher - Meretz||267,362||5.84%||7|
|United Right (Yamina)||240,162||5.25%||6|
The outcome of the election, as in the two previous ones, did not result in any party winning a majority of the votes or having an obvious coalition that would allow the formation of a government. After trailing for much of the campaign, Netanyahu rallied in the latter days and Likud gained four seats over its September showing while Gantz and Kahol Lavan won the same number. The Joint List will have 15 seats in the next Knesset, two more than it had in the last government. The
Still, the Right-religious bloc (Likud, Shas, UTJ and Yamina) fell three short of the 61 needed to form a government. The Center-Left bloc (Blue and White and Labor-Gesher-Meretz) won only 40 seats. Avigdor Lieberman was again positioned to be a kingmaker by throwing Yisrael Beiteinu’s support to Netanyahu but, in the immediate aftermath of the election, he retained his previous position of rejecting participation in a Netanyahu-led coalition. As in the previous election, unless Gantz is willing to join the Likud coalition, which he too has said he would not do as long as Netanyahu headed the party, he would have to try to lure the Joint List and Lieberman to join his government. In the last election, Gantz said he would not accept the Joint List as a coalition partner and is unlikely to do so now. Further complicating the negotiations is the upcoming trial of Netanyahu on charges of fraud and breach of trust which is scheduled to begin on March 17, 2020.
Overall turnout was about 71.32%, of the 6,453,255 eligible voters, an increase over the prior two elections, confounding predictions that Israeli voters would be more apathetic the third time around. Israeli Arab turnout increased dramatically from 49% in April to 59% in September to an estimated 65% in 2020. The Joint List won 88% of the Arab vote and a record 17 Arabs will serve in the 23rd Knesset: 14 from the Joint List and one Druze from Likud, Kahol Lavan and Yisrael Beiteinu. The Joint List has four women who should win seats and Kahol Lavan has one female Druze member. If the Joint List does win 15 seats in the final tally, Iman Khatib would become the first hijab-wearing woman to serve in the Knesset.
The new Knesset has 30 female MKs, 25 percent of the total, down from the peak of 37 in the 20th Knesset (2015-19), but similar to the total in the previous two elections.
Parties needed at least 149,004 votes to win parliamentary representation, with each of the 120 Knesset seats worth around 38,000 votes. The following parties failed to reach the 3.25% threshold needed to win a seat:
Otzma Yehudit: 19,334 votes, 0.42%
Otzma Liberalit: 3,783 votes, 0.08%
Kol Hanashim: 2,777 votes, 0.06%
Pirate Party: 1,466, 0.03%
Fair Trial: 1,371, 0.03%
Yisraelist: 976 votes, 0.02%
Ani VeAta: 811 votes, 0.02%
HaKoach L’Hashpia: 694, 0.02%
Ichud HaBrit: 675 votes, 0.01%
Seder Hadash: 675 votes, 0.01%
Mitkademet: 626 votes, 0.01%
Da’am: 612 votes, 0.01%
HaLev Hayehudi: 511 votes, 0.01%
Shema: 441 votes, 0.01%
HaGush Hatanachi: 388 votes, 0.01%
Kama:354 votes, 0.01%
Adom Lavan: 341 votes, 0.01%
HaHazon: 331 votes, 0.01%
Manhigut Hevratit: 271 votes, 0.01%
Peula L’Yisrael: 270 votes, 0.01%
Kavod HaAdam: 220 votes, 0.01%
Tzomet: 43 votes , 0.01%
President Reuven Rivlin gave Gantz the first shot at forming the next government after he received the recommendations of 61 members. Gantz has 28 days to build a coalition government.
The first, and preferred option of Rivlin and most Israelis, is the creation of a unity government with the Likud. Netanyahu has called for an emergency coalition due to the coronavirus; however, as is the case with the general unity talks, the main obstacle is Netanyahu’s insistence that he remain prime minister for the first two years after which Gantz would take over for the following two. This was a dealbreaker after the past two elections as Gantz has insisted on serving first or has rejected the idea of any government that includes Netanyahu following his indictment.
Gantz has held open the possibility of forming a minority government that would include the Arab List, which told Rivlin it would support him to start coalition talks. The idea is that the Arab List would give Gantz the 61 votes he needs to form a government but would not be required to vote with the government on other issues. The move would not be unprecedented; in 1992, Hadash supported, but did not join, Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor-led coalition.
In addition to denying Netanyahu the immediate opportunity to remain prime minister, the gambit is aimed at preventing him from becoming prime minister in the future by replacing Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein with MK Meir Cohen to pass legislation barring a prime minister under indictment from receiving a mandate to form a government. Edelstein blocked a vote; however, citing Knesset bylaws that require him to conduct one only once a new government is sworn in.
The notion of including the Arab List in the government is very controversial in Israel and within the Blue and White Party. During the campaign, under constant criticism from Netanyahu, Gantz had pledged not to rely on the Joint List to form a government. Some now see it as a desperate move to keep Netanyahu out of power. Many object to the idea of including Arabs who have supported terrorism and would seek “to abolish the laws annexing Jerusalem and the Golan [Heights]” in the government. The chance of forming such a minority government seemed less likely after two members of the party said it would oppose a minority government. Still, the desire to avoid a fourth election has led even some hardliners, such as Liberman, to accept the idea.
One additional wrinkle in the coalition discussions is the delay of Netanyahu’s corruption trial from March 17, 2020, for at least two months due to the coronavirus.
The 23rd Knesset was sworn in On March 16, 2020, in groups of three out of caution prompted by the coronavirus. Rivlin opened the parliament session with an adress attended only by Netanyahu, Gantz and Edelstein during which he urged the political leaders to compromise for the good of the nation and form a unity government.
The opposition parties wasted no time in introducing legislation targeting Netanyahu. Blue and White proposed bills to impose a two-term limit on a prime minister, to end the tenure of any minister or prime minister who is indicted, and to prohibit the president from asking an MK who is under indictment from forming a government. Yisrael Beiteinu introduced its own bill to allow the removal of an indicted prime minister leading a transitional government by secret ballot with a simple majority. It appears there are enough votes to pass one or more of the bills, which the Likud called “malicious and irresponsible” while the country is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gantz suddenly and unexpectedly reversed his pledge not to serve under a prime minister charged with crimes on March 26, 2020, announcing he would “explore the formation of a national emergency government” under Netanyahu. He told the Knesset, “These are unusual times and they call for unusual decisions.” Referring to the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Gantz said, “This is the time for responsible, committed, patriotic leadership. Let’s join hands and get Israel out of this crisis.”
The announcement led to the breakup of the Blue and White Party.
Gantz’s decision came after a constitutional crisis was created when Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein dismissed the parliament to avoid being voted out of office and to prevent Gantz and his allies to take over any committees. It was also a gambit to prevent Gantz from forming a minority government that would threaten Netanyahu’s political future.
The Supreme Court subsequently ordered him to hold the vote. Some of his supporters called on him to ignore the ruling, which prompted an outcry over the possibility the rule of law in Israel would be undermined. Instead, Edelstein resigned in hopes of delaying the vote for several days. The Court stepped in again, further angering Netanyahu and his supporters, ordering a vote to be held.
Blue and White had planned to nominate Meir Cohen, but Netanyahu said this would torpedo any chance for a unity government. Gantz decided instead to nominate himself for Speaker and was elected 74-18 with the right-wing parties voting for him and most of the center-left bloc boycotting the vote.
By this time Gantz had apparently decided it would be untenable to form a government depending on the support of the Arab Joint List, particularly after two members of the party said they would not vote for such an alliance. Without joining a unity government with Likud, a fourth election was likely, an outcome he wanted to avoid.
Gantz’s two partners, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, remained opposed to serving in a Netanyahu-led government, considering it a betrayal of their supporters. Lapid’s Yesh Atid faction and Ya’alon’s Telem faction subsequently decided to split from Blue and White.
Gantz was reportedly negotiating with Netanyahu to serve as either Foreign or Defense Minister for the first 18 months and then become prime minister for the remainder of the term. Gantz’s party would be given key positions in the government and he would resign as speaker to allow a Likud MK to take the position. Another possibility is the formation of an emergency government for six months under Netanyahu, which would be followed either by a new deal for a unity government or a fourth election.
Analysts debated whether breaking his campaign promise would hurt his political future or enhance it by giving him the opportunity to serve as prime minister in a rotation agreement.
In another surprise development, the Labor Party submitted a request to dissolve its union with Meretz reportedly to clear the way to join a unity government in which Peretz would be appointed economy and industry minister. As in the case of Blue and White, his former partners accused him of betraying the voters of the alliance.
Netanyahu and Gantz engaged in roller coaster negotiations with it appearing at one point to have reached an agreement only to see it unravel. Three main sticking points emerged during the talks:
- The division of ministerial posts between Blue and White and its allies and the Likud and its allies. After agreeing to apportioning then equally that appeared resolved.
- The far-right parties demanded the application of sovereignty to settlements in the West Bank immediately as promised by Netanyahu in the campaign; however, Gantz objected to moving forward with annexation without the approval of the Trump administration. A compromise may have been reached whereby the annexation would be applied sometime after July 20 if given a green light by the Americans.
- The issue that arose at the last minute after it appeared an agreement had been reached before Passover related to the appointment of judges. According to the Times of Israel, the Likud was concerned that Shai Nitzan, the former state prosecutor who oversaw the investigations of Netanyahu, could be appointed to the Supreme Court and wanted to make changes to the Judicial Appointments Committee. After first dropping the demand, the Likud reversed its position.
After negotiations broke down, President Rivlin initially denied Gantz’s request for additional time to continue negotiations. After Netanyahu also made the request, and suggested an agreement was near, Rivlin agreed to give them 48-hours to finalize a coalition agreement.
The talks failed, and no extension was granted, so the mandate to form a government reverted to the Knesset plenum for 21 days, after which any Member of Knesset who garners 61 signatures could be taked with forming a government. That individual would then have 14 days to form a government. If that time lapses without formation of a coalition, the Knesset would be dissolved and a fourth election would be necessitated.
Netanyahu and Gantz signed a deal on April 20, 2020, to form a “national emergency government” and avert the need for another election. Netanyahu apparently felt pressure to reach an agreement after Gantz, who currently serves as Knesset speaker, threatened to introduce legislation that would have prevented Netanyahu from serving as prime minister during his corruption trial, which is scheduled to start on May 24. If the Supreme Court disqualifies Netanyahu from acting as prime minister, new elections would be held.
According to the agreement, Netanyahu will remain prime minister for 18 months and Gantz will be prime minister-designate and deputy prime minister. In October 2021, if the government lasts that long, Gantz would become prime minister. If Netanyahu dissolves the Knesset, Gantz will serve as prime minister for six months before new elections. Netanyahu also was given a reprieve by the agreement to allow a deputy prime minister, which would be Netanyahu when Gantz become prime minister, to serve under indictment. He also will get an official residence, which may allow him to stay in his present home. Gantz will also be allowed to veto the Likud’s choice of a Knesset speaker to replace him. Yariv Levin is reportedly Netanyahu’s choice for the position.
The two men agreed to divvy up the cabinet portfolios, with Likud choosing those for Internal Security, Health, Education, Interior, Transportation, Housing, Energy and Finance ministries, and the next ambassador to the United Nations. Yisrael Katz is expected to become Finance Minister and Miri Regev will take public security portfolio. Blue and White will oversee the Defense, Justice, Foreign, Media, Sport and Culture, Economy and Welfare ministries. Gantz will become defense minister and Gabi Ashkenazi the Foreign Minister.
The Labor Party is also expected to join the government with Itzik Shmuli taking over the welfare portfolio. Yaakov Litzman and Aryeh Deri will retain their previous positions as Health and Interior Ministers, respectively.
The parties also agreed that as of July 1, legislation could be introduced to annex parts of the West Bank provided Israel has the support of the Trump administration. This appears a concession to Gantz as Netanyahu had previously pledged to immediately annex the Jordan Valley and all the communities in Judea and Samaria.
Gantz agreed to allow the controversial nation-state law unchanged. He also compromised on a key demand of his former partners by agreeing to the position of ultra-Orthodox parties that the cabinet and not parliament will decide if yeshiva students must serve in the Israeli army, which virtually guarantees no changes will be made to draft them.
A compromise was also reached on the issue that prevented an agreement earlier, the appointment of judges. Senior appointments, such as to the Supreme Court, will be frozen for six months and then must be agreed to by both parties. Netanyahu will be able to veto the appointments of the next attorney general and state prosecutor, but not until after the freeze.
The parties also agreed that for the next six months “no legislation unrelated to the battle against coronavirus will be brought in Parliament without consent.”
Source: Jonathan Lis, “Labor Party, Meretz Announce Merger Ahead of Israel Election,” Haaretz, (January 13, 2020);
Jonathan Lis, Josh Breiner and Yossi Verter, “Right-wing Party Ditches Kahanists to Join Broad Union as Israeli Parties Submit Final Rosters,” Haaretz, (January 15, 2020);
“Supreme Court overturns decision to ban Arab MK Heba Yazbak, Yigal Amir party,” Arutz Sheva, (February 9, 2020);
Judy Maltz, “‘An Earthquake’: How Israel’s Arabs Achieved Their Historic Election Win,” Haaretz, (March 4, 2020);
Gil Hoffman, “Netanyahu’s bloc likely to stay at 58 seats,” Jerusalem Post, (March 4, 2020);
Lee Yaron, “On International Women's Day, a Look at Female Representation in Israel's Parliament,” Haaretz, (March 8, 2020);
Raoul Wootliff, “Final results show Likud with 36 seats, Netanyahu bloc short of majority with 58,” Times of Israel, (March 5, 2020);
Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman, “Israel Katz: The Joint List is full of terrorists in suits,” Jerusalem Post, (March 8, 2020);
Gil Hoffman and Jeremy Sharon, “Gantz faces rebellion as coalition options dwindle,” Jerusalem Post, (March 10, 2020);
“In surreal scenes, Knesset sworn in 3 members at a time amid virus crisis,” Times of Israel, (March 16, 2020);
Dov Lipman, “Lawmakers propose bills designed to oust Netanyahu,” JNS, (March 17, 2020);
Isabel Kershner and David M. Halbfinger, “Benny Gantz, Breaking Vows, Says He Would Serve Under Netanyahu,” New York Times, (March 26, 2020);
Chaim Levinson and Jonathan Lis, “Eyeing Positions in Netanyahu's Government, Labor Formally Asks to End Left-wing Alliance,” Haaretz, (April 4, 2020);
Jacob Magid, “Blue and White calls off coalition talks over dispute on judicial appointments,” Times of Israel, (April 6, 2020);
“Netanyahu and Gantz receive extension for talks,” BICOM, (April 14, 2020);
Jeremy Sharon, “Rivlin hands mandate to Knesset, bypassing Netanyahu,” Jerusalem Post, (April 16, 2020);
Marcy Oster, “Netanyahu and Gantz sign agreement for ‘national emergency government’ that keeps Netanyahu as prime minister for now,” JTA, (April 20, 2020);
Chaim Levinson, “Netanyahu, Gantz Sign Coalition Deal to Form Government,” Haaretz, (April 20, 2020).