Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts It Looks Like Netanyahu Has Done It Again
It Looks Like Netanyahu Has Done It Again

It Looks Like Netanyahu Has Done It Again

Israelis have gone to the polls, and it appears that Benjamin Netanyahu will continue, for the fifth time, as Prime Minister. The preliminary results show a majority for the Right and Ultra-orthodox (Haredi, in Hebrew) coalition, which has been governing for the past four years and is responsible for the rightward lurch in Israeli policy. The composition of the parliament (Knesset) could change on the margins, as around 300,000 votes (over five percent of the total) are totaled from soldiers, prisoners, diplomats, and the infirm in the coming days. However, the basic composition of the Knesset is now more or less settled: Netanyahu’s Likud party won 35 seats, and so did the main opposition party, Blue-White, headed by retired General Benny Gantz. Netanyahu’s “natural coalition” comprises 65 out of 120 seats in the new Knesset.

Voter turnout was 68 percent, “low-ish” by Israeli standards, and affected by relatively low Arab-Israeli turnout, amidst calls for a boycott over what many Arab citizens see as racist legislation. Likud did well in Jerusalem and in the north and south of the country, its traditional strongholds, while the Center-Left did well in Tel Aviv city and the surrounding suburbs, as well as in Haifa. This election continues a recent trend in Israeli politics: the strengthening of two big parties through “cannibalization” of smaller parties on the left and right. Blue-White surged at the expense of the Center parties, particularly Yesh Atid, Kulanu, and Labor. On the other side, Likud competed with four parties to its right, which all strive to ensure that Netanyahu and Likud will pursue an activist, right-wing domestic and foreign policy. Very few voters seem to have crossed the Right-Center/Left divide in Israeli politics, which has remained fairly constant over the years, with only small changes.

The “electoral threshold” played a major role in yesterday’s election results. Since 2014, a party is required to achieve at least 3.25 percent of the vote in order to enter the Knesset (this works out to 3.9 seats); this rule is aimed at ensuring against the proliferation of micro-parties, which deviled Israeli politics in the past. Two parties expected to enter the Knesset, both on the right, have currently not passed the threshold, and another three—Meretz and Raam-Balad on the Left, and Kulanu on the Center-Right—passed the threshold by a slim margin. This may lead to changes at the bottom of the table with the counting of the remaining votes. Notably, it may cause a further diminution of Arab representation since Raam-Balad is hovering near the electoral threshold, which would bring the number of Members of the Knesset (MKs) from Arab parties to its lowest level since 1992.

Noteworthy Election Developments

There have been several major surprises in these elections. The first, and least remarked, surprise is Blue-White itself. The meteoric rise of Benny Gantz, who was not even a candidate a few months ago, and his party, Blue-White, which also is brand-new, is chiefly an expression of the desire on the part of many Israelis to replace Netanyahu, who they see as having overstayed his welcome and having brought dishonor on the office. In addition, it owes its relative success to the feeling of Center-Left voters that the parties and candidates available four months ago—Yesh Atid (which was subsumed into Blue-White), Labor and Meretz—would not be able to remove Netanyahu from office.

Blue-White’s credible showing came at the expense of its potential coalition partners, specifically the Labor party. Labor’s unexpectedly poor showing of 6 seats—the polls predicted 10—as opposed to 24 in the previous Knesset, was due to the shift of votes from the Left to the Center. This has been an ongoing process in Israeli politics, as the midpoint of the Israeli political constellation has been moving rightward steadily since the beginning of the century. This is due to disappointment of the Israeli public from the stalled peace process with the Palestinians and increased skepticism of the possibility of reaching an agreement with them in the near to medium term, especially after the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007; disappointment with the results of unilateral withdrawals from Southern Lebanon (2000) and the Gaza Strip (2005); and demographic trends (the growing Haredi sector and the inclination of new immigrants to the Right).

One the Right, there were two surprises. First is the poor showing of the “New Right” party, headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennet and popular Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Bennet and Shaked announced in December 2018 that they were leaving their “Jewish Home” party to form a new party which would appeal to non-religious as well as religious-Zionist voters, the core of Jewish Home support. Their rationale was reportedly to position themselves better for the struggle for the leadership of the Right in the post-Netanyahu era. At one point, polls predicted that the New Right would get as many as 14 seats. In the end, Bennet and Shaked’s gamble failed as their party is below the electoral threshold, though the soldiers’ votes may lift them over it. Second, the failure of the New Right may be attributable to the Zehut (Identity) Party, led by Moshe Feiglin, whose book-long platform was a heady combination of libertarian economic and social policies (most popularly, legalization of cannabis), with ultra-right-wing policies such as annexation of the West Bank, re-conquest and resettlement of the Gaza Strip, loyalty tests for Arab citizens, and building the Third Temple in Jerusalem. Zehut surged in recent weeks, mostly due to support of young (often first-time) voters, who liked its idiosyncrasy and its abandonment of the paradigms of Israeli politics. It does not, however, seem to have passed the electoral threshold.

The “Americanization” of the election was very evident. Bots and “fake news” flourished, especially on the Right. Calls by Netanyahu on his leading rival, Benny Ganz, to “come clean” on what the Iranians learned from hacking his cellphone as well as his accusations that Ganz was guilty of flouting security protocols and therefore caused unknown but severe damage to Israeli national security, and Likud claims that Gantz was unstable or suffered from undisclosed health problems, bear much more than a nodding resemblance to President Trump’s campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2016. This is hardly surprising, since Netanyahu and his closest advisors are extremely close to the Trump team and quite well-acquainted with American, especially Republican, politics and electoral strategy.

Netanyahu put great effort during the campaign on stressing his statesmanship and foreign policy credentials. He visited Moscow twice in the past six weeks, visited the U.S. and received the presidential proclamation regarding the Golan, hosted Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro in Israel (though the guest did not, as anticipated, announce the opening of a Brazilian embassy in Jerusalem). The last coup was the return, after 37 years and with the help of the Russian military, of the remains of a missing Israeli soldier. While government and military spokesman swear up and down that the timing was totally coincidental, it seems strangely auspicious that the emotional event would come to fruition the week before elections in which Netanyahu could use a shot in the arm in the form of an “April Surprise.”

What Happens Now?

In the next week, the head of each party elected to the Knesset will meet with the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, and inform him of their first choice for prime minister. The president (whose relations with Netanyahu are known to be cool) will ask the MK whom he assesses has the best chance to form a government to do so.[1] That individual then has 28 days to carry out coalition talks with potential partners, in which he will try to reach a series of bilateral coalition agreements on policy, legislation, and ministerial portfolios. He may ask the president for an additional 14 days. If at the end of 42 days he is unable to form a coalition of at least 61 MKs (50% + 1), then the president will ask another elected MK to try to form a government—that individual will have a maximum of 28 days to do so. If that does not work, new elections would be in the cards.

While it seems that Netanyahu’s coalition-building mission is simple, this is far from the case, and the process will take some time. His potential partners, almost all of which know that his majority is dependent on them, will bargain hard over policy—especially regarding settlements and annexations in the territories, budgets, and ministerial portfolios.

One development expected directly after the formation of the government by Netanyahu is the legislation of the so-called “French Law.” This law would prevent a serving prime minister from being indicted. Many of the right-wing and Haredi partners support such a law, both because they believe in the importance of “governability” (Israeli shorthand for majoritarianism and limitation of the power of the courts), and because they are uninterested in the possibility of another election in the near future, if the legal processes against Netanyahu continue. But it will also serve as a key bargaining chip in promoting their agendas in the coalition talks, and especially in keeping Netanyahu committed to an activist political agenda.

In the final days before the elections, Netanyahu, as noted, invested in shoring up the support for Likud at the expense of his right-wing rivals, and prospective coalition partners. The most obvious expression of this was his statement in an interview that in his next term, he would begin the process of annexing the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, if re-elected, and that Israel would always retain a security presence in the Jordan Valley. This was a key plank of the platforms of at least three of the smaller right-wing parties, many of whose voters in the end swung to Likud. But it is worth remembering that there are, and have always been, two Netanyahus—the radical campaigner, and the elected chief executive, who is termed “the most left-wing minister in his own government” and who tends to be deliberate and conservative in his actual foreign and defense policies.

There is still a theoretical possibility of Gantz achieving a blocking majority: such an eventuality would depend on Kulanu—which is less staunchly right-wing than the other components of the Netanyahu coalition—and/or on Yisrael Beitenu, whose leader, former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, has poor relations with Netanyahu. However, this is an extremely remote possibility, especially as Arab parties would be a key component of such a bloc, a situation which would not appeal to either party’s electorate or leaders. It is possible that Lieberman will refrain from joining the coalition, but not support Gantz.  

An interesting question is whether Blue-White, an ideological hodge-podge which was united by its leaders’ and voters’ desire to “send Netanyahu home,” will survive the purgatory of parliamentary opposition. Many of its candidates, including its leaders, will be first-time MKs, and it is not at all clear how comfortable and effective they will be with that status.

[1] The President will usually invite the head of the party with the most seats in the elected Knesset to try and form the government first, but this is not required. It has happened (most recently in 2009), that the head of the second largest party was invited to form the coalition first, since after polling the party leaders, the President assessed they had a better chance. He is also not required to invite an MK who is at the top of his party list.