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Israeli Elections: Netanyahu’s last stand?

Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu (ECR) has painted himself as an incredibly talented politician. Sandwiched between a dissolving right-wing coalition and the expected indictment on three charges of corruption, he called an election. But this time, the political landscape is different and he must navigate carefully to continue his ten-year reign as Prime Minister.

Netanyahu looms large over Israeli politics. In November 2016, he became the longest continuously serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history, in power since March 2009. He’s ridden the wave of popular opinion as Israel’s population moved to the right of the political spectrum.  Centre-left and far-left groups formed and reformed parties in unsuccessful attempts to unseat him. The current constellation and Bibi-fatigue are combining to create the most likely environment for removing him from power.

Key to understanding the Israeli political landscape is understanding that the Israeli electoral system relies on proportional representation. Governments are only formed as coalitions of parties, the largest party usually receiving around 25% of the total vote. The horse-trading involved in building this coalition can last for several months after the election and gives some very small parties power out of proportion to the number of votes they receive. Promises, ministerial positions and policy changes are made, unmade and remade in order to attract enough parties to form a majority. It continues to cause instability throughout the term of the government as parties promise, threaten and actually leave the coalition.

To keep this under control, the government introduced a 3.25% threshold in 2014. If a party fails to receive enough votes to meet this threshold, it is unable to convert its votes into Knesset (parliament) seats and the votes are lost. This has led to even more negotiations before the election as smaller parties with somewhat differing views are forced to combine their electoral lists to ensure they meet the threshold. This was powerfully shown in the last election when various Arab parties combined to become the third biggest party in the Knesset. The current coalition government, led by Netanyahu, contained five or six parties at different times. Netanyahu’s Likud (ECR) was the largest party with only 30 seats; half of what is required to form a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

There are many cleavages within Israeli society: religious and secular, Jews from Europe (Ashkenazim) and Jews from the Middle East (Sefardim), capitalist and liberal, Arab and Jew, and, what is broadly being referred to as politically “Left” and “Right”. This latter division is the most significant and turns on one’s attitude towards the Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.

Nearly every group mentioned above has its own party battling for a place in the Knesset but this fractious environment is causing a very curious phenomenon. A record 47 parties registered to contest this election, almost double the 24 parties that ran in 2015 but most are not likely to reach the electoral threshold. We’ve seen 19 likely parties merge into 14 and even some of those aren’t expected to pass the threshold.

The party with the most votes is invited to form the next Government. This is done by demonstrating that it has the support of more than half of the members of the Knesset. However, for the first time in Israeli history, there’s a fear that even if Blue and White (Yesh Atid-ALDE) is the biggest party, they will not be able to form a government. That’s because they will suck up all the votes from the centre and left, not leaving enough other like-minded parties in the Knesset to join a coalition and push them over 60 seats.

While fringe elements among parties in the UK and US are threatening to fracture long-standing two-party systems, in Israel, the major blocks are coming together. Some are formally uniting, especially on the centre-left but even on the Right, in an attempt to ensure it will be best placed to form Israel’s 35th government. They are coalescing around pro- and anti- Netanyahu camps with both groupings containing a diverse range of views which are certain to make governing a challenge no matter which grouping forms the government.

Parties and Groups to Watch

Coverage from Europe Elects’ sister organisation, Asia Elects

Likud (ECR): Netanyahu’s Likud party is the largest party in the current government and has led Israel for the last ten years. It holds right-wing views on Arab-Israeli issues such as the creation of a limited Palestinian state. It is both economically and socially conservative.

Labour (S&D): As part of the Zionist Union in 2015, it came close to beating Likud but has since fallen apart with most polls predicting that support will drop from 24 seats to only five or six. As the name implies, it is a centre-left party on both political, social and economic matters.

Blue & White (ALDE): Israel has a fascination with new parties and when it started in 2013, Yesh Atid won the second-largest number of seats, 19. In 2015, it dropped to 11 seats and was on course to decline further this time around. However, the emergence of Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience party has attracted a lot of attention. It rocketed him to becoming Netanyahu’s most likely challenger. Impressively, he and Lapid put their egos aside and entered into a leadership-rotation arrangement enabling their parties to merge (i.e. Gantz would be Prime Minister for the first two and a half years and Lapid would lead for the remaining 18 months). Given that few Israeli governments last a full term, Gantz is firmly in the primary leadership role. This merger only happened recently so it’s too early to know the impact but current polling puts Blue and White as the largest party. It is traditionally liberal on political, social and economic matters and would be more palatable to European leaders. However, to date, the alliance has been light on policy announcements and owes its popularity to Ganz’s military experience and no one on the list being named Netanyahu.

Joint (Arab) List (GUE/NGL): The Joint List has fractured into two alliances each made up of two smaller parties. Space does not permit analysis of these parties fully but the two alliances were expected to win around 13 seats. Since lists were submitted, the less moderate grouping (UAL-Ba’ad) has been disqualified from standing in the election although this may be over-turned by Israel’s Supreme Court. This ban boosts the chances of the more moderate alliance (Hadash-Ta’al) led by Member of the Knesset (MK) Ayman Odeh. It’s possible that it would be asked to join a future Knesset although no Israeli government has ever been formed which included Arab parties. Netanyahu is already raising this possibility as a red flag to criticize Blue & White. While they would only be asked to join a Center-Left government, there is doubt about whether they would accept and whether any acceptance would repel other parties from such a coalition.

Shas ([Religious]): Shas was established to represent religious and traditional Jews of Middle Eastern and African origin. Its platform focuses on social issues rather than Arab-Israeli politics and it has joined both right and left governments in the past.

United Torah Judaism ([Religious]): UTJ is an Ultra-Orthodox party that would not join a left coalition because of the latter’s social policies (e.g. with regard to LGBTQ matters) which it sees as breaking religious moral laws. 

Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit (URWP-[Right]): This group of the Modern-Orthodox, right-wing Jews is likely to reach the threshold due to their last-minute merge, encouraged by the promise of two ministerial appointments in any future Netanyahu government. Netanyahu has been widely criticized within Israel and global Jewish communities – even from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – for helping clear the path for racist parties to enter the Knesset.

There are many more parties contesting the election.  Most significant are Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Betaynu ([Right]), Naphtali Bennett’s New Right ([Right]) and Moshe Kachlon’s Kulanu ([Centrist]). These have been longtime partners of Netanyahu although, alongside centre-left Meretz (S&D), they are also possible partners for a Blue & White government. They may well determine whether a successful Blue & White could form a majority and their pre-election declarations should not be considered binding on their post-election behaviour.

Key Policy Issues

In the Israeli-Arab conflict, the Right/Left divide is based around a broad concept of security. Few people outside Israel appreciate why security is such a significant issue for Israelis. Israel is much stronger than its neighbours and the rockets, terror tunnels and incendiary balloons that enter Israel are no match for Israel’s incredible arsenal. However, if your house is the one targeted by Hamas’ “homemade rockets” or your children are at risk of a car ramming attack while serving in the army, security is a real and personal issue. While fewer than two dozen Israelis have been killed per year in the last three years, the attacks have a terrifying effect on Israeli society and memories are long. Even if the greater balance of fear is amongst Israel’s enemies, it is essential to recognize that Israelis consider their security to be at risk. Each party promises that it knows best how to ensure greater short and long-term security.

On a second issue, the Israeli-Palestinian situation, the Left-Right divide turns on whether one believes that there should or should not be a Palestinian state roughly along the lines of pre-1967 Israel. All sides understand the broad outline of the solution although questions remain on details about the militarization of a future Palestinian state and sharing Jerusalem as the capital city. These principles are expected to be embodied within the “Deal of the Century” peace plan of the Trump administration. Whether the Israeli or Palestinian sides will or should agree to its terms is a key debating point amongst the candidates, despite neither an outline or the details of the plan having been released. In an attempt to avoid alienating right-wing voters, Blue & White have endorsed speaking with the Palestinians but have stopped short of promising to pursue a Palestinian state. Likud is maintaining a very strong stance against a Palestinian state but, as Netanyahu has shown in the past, he may walk back from this position somewhat if he is elected.

Security is the battleground that has won Netanyahu multiple elections in the past. But he’s never faced opposition with the same kind of military experience as he faces today. The campaign is getting personal but there is a feeling that after ten years as Prime Minister, Netanyahu is too comfortable in the job. People point to the corruption allegations and chants of “King Bibi” by his supporters.

There is also pressure building with the Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank which may lead to conflict. The fifth attempt by Fatah and Hamas to reconcile have recently failed, international funding has dropped and living conditions are deteriorating. This usually leads to a violent reaction from Hamas in an attempt to elicit a response from Israel that brings negative international attention and pressure on the Israelis. Iran and Hezbollah have repeatedly threatened Israel in response to Israel’s attacks in Syria and they may use any conflict between Israel and the Palestinians to make good on those threats.

Flare-ups may impact the image of ‘Mr. Security’ but no one can predict whether they would hurt or help. Gantz’s military background is a strength but his political inexperience has become apparent over the last few months of campaigning. Having Lapid at his side may help but the focus will be on whether he can appear sufficiently Prime Ministerial during campaigning to answer the central question of whether there is an alternative to Netanyahu. The political platform from Blue & White, released last week, was neutral and kept the party ‘on track’. It will be imperative for Gantz to maintain this over the coming weeks of scrutiny.

Despite the challenges he faces, Netanyahu has won ‘un-winnable’ elections before. His recent cajoling of extreme-right parties into an uneasy partnership to ensure they meet the electoral threshold is just one recent example. Politics is never boring in Israel and factors outside politics, such as Netanyahu’s indictment for bribery or possible conflict with the Palestinians or Iran make the outcome completely uncertain.

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Adam is a guest writer for Europe Elects. A registered lawyer, he lives and works in Israel, where he is an expert in political issues.