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Situation Assessment 15 April, 2019

Netanyahu Victory a Final Blow to the Israeli Left

The Unit for Policy Studies

The Unit for Policy Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


The 21st Knesset elections, which took place on 9 April 2019, resulted in a clear victory for the right-wing "nationalist camp", with the leader of the Likud party, Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm. The parties allied in this camp won 65 out of 120 seats in parliament; a victory that will enable Netanyahu to form a coalition government within weeks.

The Elections

These elections were characterized by a number of key features, most notably:

  • Netanyahu's personality and the question of his fate were a major issue in this election. Political forces have been divided into two streams: one that sought to topple Netanyahu and another that sought to keep him in office. The dispute was further exacerbated by the fact that this was the first time that the head of the elected government had been confronted with an indictment for bribery, fraud and defamation in three different criminal cases.
  • The primary competition in these elections was between the far-right religious camp, led by Netanyahu, which also includes fascist groups, and the far-right secular camp, led by Benny Gantz, which also includes extreme right-wing groups. Considering the weakness of opposition parties, especially the Labor Party, on the eve of the elections, a “Blue and White” political alliance, led by three former IDF chiefs of staff, was formed, along with Yair Lapid, chairman of the Yesh Atid party in an attempt to topple Netanyahu. [1]
  • The number of right-wing parties that ran in the elections, which indicates dynamism on the right, contrasts the Zionist Left (the Labor Party and Meretz), which is shrinking and losing power. Several extremist parties competed in the elections: the Jewish Home Party, Likud, the Likud Party, Yisrael Beiteinu, Kulanu, Shas and United Torah Judaism as well as a right-wing alliance made up of of three fascist parties the Jewish Home party, Gaumee Itthihaad and Otzma Yehudit as well as the New Right Party, and the Zehut Party, and Tzomet Party. Three extreme right-wing parties failed to pass the threshold; The New Right Party led by Naftali Bennett, the Zehut party led by Moshe Feiglin and the Tzomet party led by Oren Hazan leading to the loss of 262,000 votes for the Netanyahu camp. This means that the true power of the far right is greater than the 65 seats it actually won. It was lost by the small right-wing parties that failed to pass the parliamentary threshold of six or seven seats.
  • The Labor Party ended its alliance with the party led by Tzipi Livni on the eve of the elections, and ran alone. Despite Labor's efforts, they was unable to persuade Benny Gantz to lead the Labor Party to run for office. The Labor Party was also unable to engage in the Blue and White alliance because of the Blue and White leadership’s desire to move away from the "Zionist Left" "Which has become “extinct” in the vast majority of Israeli society. The Zionist left already lost its social importance long ago, but it retained bases that rely on it, within the framework of the so-called "peace process". With the end of this process and as Arab normalization manifests without peace, the Labor Party and its allies lost any importance or role.
  • The joint Arab list - which included four parties in the previous elections and made an important achievement by increasing the percentage of Arab voters and winning 13 seats – underwent a huge division. The Arab parties entered the elections on two lists; Ahmad Tibi, head of the Ta’al party, withdrew from the joint Arab list on the eve of the elections, with clear public support from the Israeli establishment. This led to the formation of two alliances instead of one. This led to a reduced Arab participation rate from 63.2 % of total Arab voters in the previous elections to just 50%, and a subsequent decrease in Arab party representation from 13 seats in the previous elections to only 10 seats. There have been worrying signs of a process in which Arab citizens of Israel are becoming accustomed to political marginalization and politically apathetic, with Arab votes decreasing on the one hand, and Arab votes for the Zionist parties increasing on the other, in addition to a decline in the national organizational and political strength.
  • Contrary to expectations, these elections saw a significant decrease in voter turnout compared to previous elections. The participation rate was 67.9 percent of the total number of eligible voters of 6 million and 335,000 (520,000 of whom were abroad), compared to 72.2 percent in the previous elections.

Reasons for Netanyahu’s Success

A number of factors contributed to Netanyahu's victory in the elections, most notably the continued pivot of Israeli society towards the extreme right. The greater part of Israeli society has accepted Netanyahu's military-security vision, both in terms of Palestine and The Iranian nuclear issue, or the Iranian presence in Syria. It has also come to accept the expanded right-wing and far right control over the centers of power and influence in the state and Israeli society, long term mandates to govern, and the failure of the Gantz camp to offer an ideological political alternative to Netanyahu's policy and ideas. In addition to economic and political stability, the waves of Arab normalization on the one hand and the rejection of the Palestinian Authority on the other hand, send the message that rather than costing Israel, the settlement and annexation policies are actually rewarding it.

In addition to the great support that Netanyahu received from the US administration, through its recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the occupying state, its decision to transfer the US embassy to Jerusalem, its recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan, Netanyahu established strong relations with Russian President Putin, allowing Israel to bomb Iranian (or Iranian allied) targets in Syria. On the eve of the elections, Netanyahu also managed to recover the body of an Israeli soldier who was buried in Syrian territory after he was killed in the 1982 Battle of Sultan Yacoub and strengthened Israel's relations with many countries in the world, such as China, India and Brazil.

A Change in the Political Party Scene

The elections tipped scale of the Israeli party map in favor of right-wing and far-right parties at the expense of the Zionist left, which has become almost obsolete and now faces being wiped off the party map.

Likud achieved a double victory in the elections, with the Netanyahu camp gaining a clear majority and Likud gaining seats in the Knesset. The Likud-led camp won 65 seats, while the Likud party alone won 36 seats, up from 30 in the previous elections. This is due to the Likud's recovery of votes from extreme right-wing parties due to Netanyahu's intensive campaigning in the final days of the campaign; he warned voters in his camp of the danger of an increase in the number of Blue and White MKs to Likud MKs, which could give the president, who has bad relations with Netanyahu, reason to choose Benny Gantz to form a government. He thus appealed to them to vote for the Likud Party also, not only to the Likud camp.

Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party won four seats, compared with 10 seats in the previous elections, while Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, won 5 seats, compared to 6 seats previously. The Fascist right-wing coalition won 5 seats, and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party won 8 seats, compared with 7 seats previously. The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism maintained its position. The new right-wing party led by Naftali Bennett, the Zehut party led by Moshe Feiglin and the Tzomet party led by Oren Hazan failed to pass the threshold. Although the Blue and White alliance (led by Gantz) gained ground with 35 seats, the achievement is not enough for government, nor did it break the Likud monopoly of power.

The Labor Party was the biggest loser in the elections. It won 6 seats, compared to 24 in the previous elections in the coalition with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah (18 seats for the Labor Party and 6 seats for Hatnuah). The Arab parties lost their strength from 13 seats to 10 seats following the disintegration of the joint list. The Hadash and Ta’al alliance won six seats. The Islamic Movement alliance with the Balad party won 4 seats.

Netanyahu's Government Coalition

Netanyahu got the result he wanted in this election. He will be able to form a coalition government of parties from his camp and at the same time he will be able to handle the decision of the attorney general when he is indicted. Netanyahu was afraid that his camp would not get a parliamentary majority that would enable him to form a government, especially since the heads of two parties in his camp (Moshe Kahlon and Naftali Bennett) stated at the time that they would not participate in Netanyahu's government coalition if the attorney general formally issues an indictment against Netanyahu after his hearing.

However, this situation has changed now. Naftali's party failed to pass the threshold. Moshe Kahlon's party won only four seats, which has weakened him. Netanyahu can now form a government without his support. Negotiations between Netanyahu and Kahlon aimed to bring Kahlon and his party back to the Likud camp, with Kahlon holding the Finance Ministry in return for his support for Netanyahu and Likud, measures to ensure that Netanyahu continues to govern even if an indictment is brought against him, as well as support for the proposed laws introduced by the Likud Party to block Netanyahu's trial. Netanyahu and Kahlon are expected to reach agreement on these issues.

Netanyahu’s first goal, before any other, through his informal consultations with members of his camp, is to ensure that the parties remain in his coalition government if an indictment is formally charged against him. His second goal is to keep the door open to enacting a law in Parliament that would prevent the prime minister from being brought to trial while in office. His third objective is to ensure that he is not disqualified if it formally decides to indict him, whether through a simple amendment to the Immunity law or without making such an amendment.

President Reuven Rivlin is expected to appoint Benjamin Netanyahu to form a government. Netanyahu is also expected to form an extreme right-wing coalition government limited to parties in his camp, after resolving many of the contradictions in party demands, particularly between the Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Through statements made by Likud leaders and parties in the nationalist camp, it appears that the coalition will overcome the expected crisis when an indictment against Netanyahu is presented later this year, which means that Netanyahu may remain prime minister even if he is brought to trial. There is no provision in Israeli law forcing him to resign in the event of an indictment against him. But it is not unlikely that the Netanyahu government coalition will be able to enact a law that would prevent or obstruct an indictment against him. It will be difficult to predict how the Supreme Court will respond.

Conclusion

Netanyahu's fifth government will be his most extreme yet. Netanyahu believes that Israel has a surplus of power that will enable it to move ahead with its goals and impose the reality it wants in Palestine. He also believes that the international and regional situation is appropriate not only for Israel to promote settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory and occupied Jerusalem, but also for Israel's annexation of the settlements, or the bulk of them, with US support.

[1] Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies Policy Analysis Unit, "Partisan Alliances ahead of the Israeli Knesset Elections and Netanyahu’s Future", Situation Assessment , 4/3/2019, last accessed 15/4/2019, at: https://www.dohainstitute.org/en/PoliticalStudies/Pages/Partisan-Alliances-ahead-of-the-Israeli-Knesset-Elections-and-Netanyahus-Future.aspx