MENASource March 4, 2020

Israel’s latest election is kind to Netanyahu

By Daniel J. Samet

“If you will it, it is no dream,” penned the world’s foremost Zionist over a century ago. Yet after the Israeli election on March 2, even Theodor Herzl would be hard-pressed to find the willpower to muscle the Jewish state out of its political impasse.

This election—the third time voters have cast their ballots in under a year—seems to hand Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a victory. Exit polling, though unofficial, indicates the prime minister’s strong position. Netanyahu’s Likud party won 36 seats, five more than when Israelis voted last in September 2019. Altogether the right-religious bloc took 59 mandates, leaving it two seats shy of a legislative majority. Contrast this with the 32 seats won by the Blue and White party, headed by opposition leader Benny Gantz, and the seven won by the left-wing Labor-Gesher-Meretz faction. The remaining 22 mandates went to the Arab Joint List (15) and the anti-clerical nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party (7). Netanyahu dubbed the result the “biggest win” of his career, having allegedly proved the naysayers wrong.  

This campaign was brutal. So much so that President Reuven Rivlin felt compelled to voice his “deep shame” on election day. The dominant issue was Netanyahu himself, who made the election a referendum on his leadership. He railed nonstop against purportedly hostile forces: the media, the Arab minority, and his opponents in the Blue and White. Netanyahu’s adversaries did not refrain from impugning his character as they framed the election as a struggle between democratic and one-man rule. The prime minister largely won that argument on the basis of his indispensability as Israel’s leader.     

Despite his apparent triumph, Netanyahu has a way to go before forming a government. Recall that the press prematurely crowned him eleven months ago only to see two more elections unfold. As has been the case previously, kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu holds the balance of power. Lieberman, who until last year had served as a reliable partner in the Likud government, has demanded that neither Netanyahu nor the ultra-Orthodox be part of any coalition he joins. Left unsaid by Lieberman is that there’s scant appetite for yet another election and that he does not want the blame of forcing a fourth. The Machiavellian Netanyahu knows this well and may make the Yisrael Beiteinu leader an offer he can’t refuse. 

Yet bringing Lieberman back into the fold is not the sole tactic at Netanyahu’s disposal. For one, the prime minister could convince disaffected legislators from rival parties to switch sides. Winning over two of them, albeit a challenging task, is well within his political savvy. The “magician” could also pull a rabbit out of a hat in enticing the left-wing faction into the coalition—look no further than the deal Netanyahu offered the Labor party last year. 

As for the Blue and White, its mood is far from sanguine. To have any chance of becoming a ruling party, it first would need Netanyahu to fail to build a workable coalition. The Blue and White would then depend on the support of not only Yisrael Beiteinu but also the Joint List. Bringing one of the two into the government would be a tall order. Getting both to serve alongside the other would be a fool’s errand. Perhaps a politician of greater skill would have a modicum of a chance, but all indications are that Gantz does not have the goods. The anemic ex-general orchestrated a feeble campaign that belied his recent tenure as chief of the general staff and in which Netanyahu set the terms of engagement. That Gantz could not win more votes for his party—buttressed by two other ex-generals and a popular TV personality—against a prime minister under indictment speaks to his weakness as a politician.      

Making the inevitable political jockeying all the more dramatic is the prime minister’s court hearing. Scheduled for March 17, the hearing will kick off Netanyahu’s corruption trial in what promises to be a media firestorm in Israel. Netanyahu denies the allegations, and if he remains prime minister could reintroduce his bid for parliamentary immunity. Elsewhere, doubts remain about whether Netanyahu can legally form a government in light of the criminal charges against him. Assuming Netanyahu keeps the premiership, his ensuing trial will cloud Israeli public life as long as it lasts. It’s hard to imagine someone governing effectively under those circumstances.     

Major decisions will fall to whoever controls the next Knesset. One of these is the Palestinian issue. Days before the election, Netanyahu vowed to annex swaths of the West Bank in line with the Trump administration’s peace plan. Some may dismiss the pledge as a pre-election ploy, but odds are that Netanyahu would follow through. The same cannot be said of a Gantz-led government, which almost surely would rely on a Joint List adamantly opposed to annexation.    

In any event, Netanyahu is in better shape than he was previously. Observers should be wary of prognostications given the past year’s political saga, but things are looking up for him and the Likud. Gantz, on the other hand, emerges from this election in a weaker position and must be ruing the way he ran his campaign. Going forward, the main question is whether Netanyahu can retain the premiership. Will the third time be the charm for the Israeli magician? Or will his compatriots be heading to the polls for a fourth time?     

Daniel J. Samet is program assistant for Middle East Programs. 

Image: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands next to his wife Sara as he waves to supporters following the announcement of exit polls (Reuters)