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Israeli Election Outcome: Despite the Noise, Not Much Change

Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is an incredibly talented politician. I started my last article with the same sentence and I’m forced to do so again. In the face of three criminal cases for corruption, a new high-profile opponent and an electorate begging for change after ten years, he strengthened his hold with some political masterstrokes. The outcome of this election is that the new government will likely look very much like the old government with only a few tweaks.

The election saw the two main parties claiming 59% of the seats, 14% higher than the 2015 election. Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue & White alliance both won 35 seats but the electorate in general voted for right-wing parties. This assures that Netanyahu will continue as Prime Minister even though his national-conservative Likud did not win the most seats. For an introduction to the Israeli electoral system, read my previous article. After ten years in power, Netanyahu dominates the political scene.  He was at once the Prime Minister, Defence Minister and Foreign Minister after stepping down as Communications Minister. He gives very few interviews but uses Twitter and the occasional press conference (without questions) to attack the police, the Attorney General and the media as well as to defend himself against a host of corruption allegations. A polarizing figure who has increased divides within Israel between religious-secular and Arab-Jewish Israelis, many voters pushed aside ideological and political distaste and picked who they viewed to be the least bad candidate between him and Gantz. 

The size of Netanyahu’s victory should be judged by the seats secured by the Religious and right-wing as a whole; that is 65 seats compared to the center-left with 45. Four religious and right-wing parties control 30 seats. They flatly refused to consider a coalition with Blue & White and nominated Netanyahu to be Prime Minister. Another ten seats are controlled by the Arab parties that refuse to sit in any coalition and were unlikely to be invited to do so in any case. The centre-left Labor Party (six seats) and Socialist “Meretz” party (four seats) were the only parties on the political left that would sit with Blue & White and refuse to sit with Likud.

The future of Blue & White is uncertain despite its strong result. Its leadership is comprised of four strong politicians that merged three parties into a single alliance with the express intention of ousting Netanyahu. They have claimed that they will hold together for “the next ten years” but it is doubtful whether this can happen. Each leader has a strong personality and there were leaks and murmurs of mistrust during the campaign. Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid party, is more center-left while Moshe Ya’alon is an ex-Likud Defence Minister with a right leaning. Benny Gantz, who led the alliance, did not outline a clear ideological position which made it easier to maintain support. In the end, this strategy failed because voters were uncertain about the policies he would pursue once in power. This lack of a unifying ideology helped sustain the alliance during the campaign but it may not be sufficient to hold it together during a period in opposition.

Benny Gantz led many polls leading up to the election. The failure of Blue & White can be seen, in big part, to be his failure. He was unable to differentiate himself on policy and is simply less charismatic than Netanyahu. His political inexperience worried voters and he appeared uncomfortable in the limelight. This was a sharp contrast to Netanyahu who ran a campaign that included visits to the presidents of the United States and Russia as well as hosting the President of Brazil in the days before the election. Netanyahu’s international profile and apparent friendships were a key asset for many voters who harbor a personal dislike for Netanyahu.

For a country where people often burst into political arguments while waiting in line at the supermarket, it’s surprising there was no formal debate between the political leaders. Gantz’ main promise was that he would maintain the high quality of life Netanyahu has delivered without being Netanyahu. Many Israelis criticize Netanyau’s alleged corruption and expressed a desire to remove him from power but they were not convinced that Gantz’s Blue & White was a viable alternative. They wanted a strong, international statesman to receive the peace plan long-promised by US President Donald Trump, amongst other pending international issues.

The new Knesset will look like the old one in many respects. Likud is the largest party but it still needs to build a coalition with five other parties to reach a majority of 61 seats. Netanyahu is starting in a stronger position after this election, having gained five seats from the 30 won in 2015. Likud, with its likely coalition partners (Shas, Israel Beiteinu, Kulanu, United Right and United Torah Judaism), will hold only 65 seats altogether.  That means that any of these coalition partners has the power to bring down the government (except Kulanu with only four seats). This gives these groups tremendous sway over government policy and they have already started flexing their muscles during the coalition building process. For example, Israel Beiteinu and the Ultra-Orthodox parties have threatened to refuse to join the coalition – even at the risk of causing another election – if Netanyahu doesn’t promise to support their contrasting positions on military exemptions for Ultra-Orthodox men.

The coalition will likely be similar to the previous one. Kulanu is a splinter party from Likud with an economic rather than geopolitical focus. Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beiteinu is a secular right-wing party that refers to the Ultra-Orthodox as a national threat alongside Hamas and whose withdrawal from the governing coalition led Netanyahu to call this election. Shas is a traditional religious if not ultra-orthodox party that represents Jews of Middle Eastern and North African heritage. However, it also has a strong social welfare agenda which attracts voters from poorer Jewish and even some Arab communities. Its leader, Aryeh Deri, was in prison for corruption while he was Interior Minister in the 1990s and held the same post in Netanyahu’s most recent government where he again faced corruption allegations. United Torah Judaism is the traditional party for Charedi (Ultra-orthodox) Jews with European heritages. Their view on religious matters is more religiously fundamentalist than Shas although they are less focused on geopolitical issues.

Finally, there is the newly formed United Right Wing Party. This party arose from the combination of the Jewish Home and Jewish Power parties. The high-profile leaders of Jewish Home, the Modern Orthodox Naphtali Bennett and the secular Ayelet Shaked, split from Jewish Home in the hope of capturing their votes and appealing to secular right-wing voters that have traditionally been attracted to Likud. However, in one of the few surprises from the election, they failed to reach the 3.25% threshold to enter parliament. Bennett is a fierce critic of Netanyahu and in the days before the election Netanyahu appeared to deliberately target Bennett’s supporters.  He will see Bennett’s ejection from the Knesset as an achievement that will ease his next term in office.

After Bennet and Shaked’s departure from Jewish Home, Netanyahu orchestrated a successful merger between the remaining Jewish Home and Jewish Power – to form the United Right Wing Party – by promising them two ministerial positions in the new government if they agreed to merge. This aimed to prevent right-wing votes being wasted on parties that failed to meet the threshold. Netanyahu was criticized from many quarters for this move because of Jewish Power’s history of anti-Arab, racist rhetoric and policies. It is difficult to see any positive moves to peace with a coalition that will be even further to the right than the previous right-wing government.

Israel’s Labor party, having governed the country during the first decades of independence, saw its support drop to merely six seats from the 19 won in 2015. Many of these votes went to Blue & White, which is more centrist than Labor. This indicates that Labor’s message has less resonance with an electorate that has moved further to the right since the Second Palestinian Intifada of the early 2000s and as a result of the lack of a clear path to peace with the Palestinians. Labor’s leader Avi Gabbay was also considered uninspiring and even cruel after informing his coalition partner during a press conference that he was dissolving the coalition.

It was interesting to observe that Arab parties dropped from the 13 seats under the Joint Arab List in the 2015 election to ten seats split between Hadash-Ta’al (six) and Ra’am-Balad (four). Consequently, 20% of the population are now represented by only 8% of seats in parliament. This gap in representation could have changed the outcome of the election, although the impact on the lives of Arab voters may not have been significant. Arab voter turnout dropped to 50% from 63% in the 2015 election. With the waning of any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Arab voters were focused on daily issues such as crime, education and social welfare. They expressed frustration that their leaders continued to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue rather than these daily issues. While Arab parties have not caught up with this trend, Likud was antagonistic and Blue & White seemed to entirely ignore Arab voters. Ironically, some Arabs feel that while Likud has made anti-Arab representations during its campaign, it has positively impacted their quality of life and committed unprecedented sums to Arab communities to promote education, security and employment.

The incoming government will need to prepare itself for some major challenges shortly after it comes into power; two from within and two from without. The first is the indictment hearing of Netanyahu on three charges of corruption and the still-lingering fourth charge relating to the purchase of submarines by Israel and Egypt. There has also been talk of legal changes which would grant immunity to a sitting Prime Minister but Kulanu and Israel Beiteinu have said they may not support such a law. Secondly, US President Donald Trump is expected to soon launch his long-awaited peace plan. The Palestinians have already rejected the plan, making it easier for Israel’s right-wing government to avoid being perceived as rejectionist.

Another issue the government may decide to engage with is the possible extension of Israeli law to Jewish settlements in the West Bank. This promise was made by Netanyahu towards the end of the campaign and is considered highly controversial by the Palestinian, Arab and broader international communities. Finally, there is the very slight chance that, with the Peace Plan around the corner, Likud may decide to form a national unity government with Blue & White. Netanyahu’s strong relationship with Trump is well known and it would be difficult for him to reject the Peace Plan. However, the far-right coalition would almost certainly reject it so a Unity Government may give the plan a better hearing. Most commentators think this will be unnecessary as the Palestinians will reject it before Netyanyahu is forced to pass his view on it. National unity is often raised after Israeli elections to get voters excited and threaten possible coalition partners from smaller parties. If the right-wing and religious parties believe that a unity government is a possibility, they may be willing to compromise on their demands for entering the government.

The Middle East is a volatile region. Despite Israel’s obvious and significant challenges, it may be unexpected events in the economic or military arenas that will most tax the government.  While no Israeli government has endured for the full term, I believe that this one will be shorter than most.

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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.