Given the vagaries of Israeli politics, it’s too early to predict whether Israel is headed toward a functioning government or a fourth election following the March 2 contests. After a relentless and often underhanded campaign, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded in mobilizing Likud and other right-wing voters to win his coalition fifty-eight seats in the Knesset. But he’s still three seats shy of the magic number (sixty-one) needed to form a government, and his first court appearance, on March 17, on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust is looming.
Netanyahu’s chief opponent, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White alliance, ran a listless, directionless campaign and wound up further from a governing coalition than in either of the previous elections. Perhaps the biggest surprise this time around was the surge in support for the Joint Arab List, which earned fifteen seats to emerge as the third-largest party in the Knesset. Gantz could form a minority government with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, the left, and the Arab Joint List, but that would be a bold and risky venture.
However the current stalemate shakes out, it’s revealing trend lines that will continue to have an impact on Israel’s turbulent politics.
Israel’s Long Shift to the Right
Netanyahu both reflects and exploits the rightward evolution of Israeli politics that’s been under way for decades. Of the fourteen elections since 1977 that have produced governments, Likud has won ten, lost three, and tied one. This shift—buoyed by the demographics of a growing Orthodox community, Jews from the former Soviet states, and an existing conservative community of Mizrachi Jews from other Middle Eastern countries—accelerated in the wake of the Palestinian suicide terror attacks of the second intifada, which began in September 2000. And the right has never looked back.
Since the 1999–2001 term of Ehud Barak, Israel’s shortest-tenured prime minister, right-wing governments have dominated the country’s politics. In a February 2019 survey, the Israel Democracy Institute found that almost 63 percent of Jewish Israelis saw themselves as right or center-right. A bare 14 percent considered themselves left or left of center, with 18 percent self-identifying as centrists.
That Netanyahu lacks a full mandate to form a government should not obscure what he accomplished in this election. He decisively squashed a challenge to his party leadership in Likud’s December primary and went on to hammer Gantz’s party—bringing out 175,000 more voters than in last September’s election, many from the highly contested soft right
Nobody should have been surprised. Netanyahu enjoys stunning popularity, campaigned relentlessly against the elites his base despises, and made a particular point of pushing for annexation of the Jordan Valley and West Bank settlements. He even managed to improve his numbers after his indictments were formalized in January. Indeed, despite the scurrilous and vicious campaign he ran against Gantz, Israelis consider him more suited to be prime minister than his chief rival, by a margin of 45 percent to 34 percent. And while it’s painful for his detractors to admit, Netanyahu—now the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history—has presided over a strong economy, avoided reckless or unwinnable wars, established relationships with both U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and expanded Israel’s diplomatic reach into the Arab world, Africa, and Latin America.
It’s ironic that Gantz heads a party of ex-generals, some of whom identify as representatives of the old right—a more pragmatic, less polarizing Likud that was still tough on security issues. If there’s a security debate in Israel today, it’s less between left and right than between right and center-right. The Israeli left, especially the Labor Party that guided Israel through its formative years, has been decimated by its elitist image and the collapse of the peace process.
Netanyahu’s Stay-Out-of-Jail Card
Israel is a deeply divided country whose political system reflected structural dysfunction long before the rise of Netanyahu and the past year’s three consecutive electoral stalemates. Since the 1990s, its governments have lasted an average of 2.3 years.
Yet the primary reason for Israel’s recent quagmires is Netanyahu’s determination to manipulate the political system to deal with his legal travails. To have any chance of avoiding a trial, not to mention potential jail time, he must remain both head of Likud and prime minister. He knows all too well that one of his predecessors, Ehud Olmert, served time in prison for lesser offenses.
After the April 2019 election in which he first failed to form a government (and long before his November 2019 indictment by the attorney general), Netanyahu took the drastic step of dissolving the Knesset to deny Gantz a chance to do so. Calling a second election in September backfired—Blue and White received more votes than Likud—but Netanyahu still managed to prevent anyone else from forming a government.
Many in Likud privately wanted him to step aside, pull the Israeli political system out of the doldrums, and allow a national unity government with Blue and White to form. Yet Netanyahu instead followed the dictates of self-preservation over those of the national interest. The prospect of a trial this year has made him even more determined to stay in power. If Netanyahu can’t form a government in the wake of the March 2 elections, the next best outcome for him would be a fourth election, likely in September 2020. Until then, he’d remain prime minister in a caretaker capacity.
The Fate of Benny Gantz
The parties that fared best in the March elections were those with the clearest ideological messages. Unlike Likud and the Joint Arab List, both of which made unambiguous calls for change, Gantz’s message was muddied and inconsistent. The essence of his campaign—anybody but Netanyahu—clearly was not enough to move voters, particularly those on the soft right. In contrast with Netanyahu, Gantz conveyed ambivalence about the Trump administration’s peace plan, trying at first to reach out to the Arab Joint List but later distancing himself. Moreover, Gantz has never been a strong campaigner. To his credit, he refused to stoop to Netanyahu’s gutter-level attacks, but he lacked both the fire and enthusiasm of the right and the bragging rights that came with Netanyahu’s relationships with world leaders, especially Trump and Putin.
While Gantz may be down, he’s not out. His party is considering whether to introduce a bill that would make it illegal for an indicted prime minister to form a government. That effort is likely a long shot, but, given the collapse of the left, Gantz represents the only credible alternative to Netanyahu, or perhaps a potential partner in a national unity government should Netanyahu leave the scene.
The Rise of the Joint Arab List
International media has underappreciated the success of the Joint Arab List—a loose alignment of four parties representing some 20 percent of the Israeli population. More than 575,000 supporters, including 20,000 Jewish Israelis, powered the group to fifteen Knesset seats.
At least two factors explain this success: higher turnout and fewer Arab voters backing the Israeli leftist parties. One major draw to the polls was a provision in Trump’s peace plan proposing redrawn borders that would strip approximately 350,000 Arabs of their Israeli citizenship and move them into the putative state of Palestine.
It’s clear that Israel’s Arab citizens want to retain their citizenship and play a larger role in Israeli politics. No Israeli government has ever formally included them in a coalition; in fact, most mainstream Israeli politicians have expressly ruled it out. Netanyahu went as far as to deploy anti-Arab racism to rally his own supporters. Whether Gantz is prepared to form a minority government with Arab parties is doubtful, in part because at least one is openly anti-Zionist and he would need the agreement of Lieberman, who has long opposed such an arrangement. But the influence of the Arabs in Israel is growing and will increasingly remind Jewish Israelis that, unless Israel’s Arab citizens are treated as equals, the country will remain a preferential democracy.
Breaking the Groundhog Day Loop
Whether this frustrating series of standoffs can be broken remains unclear. As frustrated as Israeli citizens must be, a full 71 percent of eligible voters turned out in the most recent election—a high not seen since 2015. As recently as April 2019, 54 percent of Israelis felt optimistic about the future of Israeli democracy, though that figure fell to 32 percent following Netanyahu’s indictment.
Nevertheless, a string of elections that end in stalemates cannot help but strain the faith of citizens in the Middle East’s only democracy. Efforts by Netanyahu and much of the right to erode the independence of the judiciary and the Supreme Court further undermine the rule of law, civil society, and liberal democratic institutions. As important as it is to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the crises afflicting Israel’s democratic institutions grow more urgent by the day. A new direction will ultimately require new leadership in a political system that today seems unable to provide it.