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Situation Assessment 19 September, 2019

Knesset Elections: Is the Netanyahu Era Over?

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 Knesset elections, held on 17 September 2019, have resulted in an almost equal number of seats won by the two major parties. While Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing Likud party won 31 seats, the Blue and White alliance, headed by former chief of staff Benny Gantz led the race with 33 seats.

This result represents a personal defeat for Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has failed to achieve the goal he had in mind when he decided to dissolve the Knesset last June and hold new elections. He had been hoping that his right and extreme right-wing camp would win at least 61 seats (without Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party), so that he can form a government that will continue his mandate, and take the necessary steps to prevent him from being tried on charges of corruption and abuse of power. But the number of seats in the far-right camp ready to ally with Netanyahu has fallen to 55 in the Knesset, after winning 60 seats in the previous April elections. This could mean the end of the decade long Netanyahu era and perhaps the end of his political career, by removing obstacles to his trial in three corruption cases that could lead to his conviction and imprisonment.

These elections were characterized by a prolonged election campaign, intense competition and an epidemic of fake news. There was no discussion of party manifestos and instead Netanyahu himself led a personal campaign of systematic racist incitement against Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. Unlike previous elections, Netanyahu's personality and the issue of his continued rule after indictments against him in corruption cases, was a major theme in these elections. This election served as a referendum on the continuation of Netanyahu's rule among large sections of Israeli society.

Contrary to some projections that indicated a possible drop in turnout, the turnout increased by about 0.5% on the previous election to about 69% of the electorate, with Arab participation increasing by 10% to reach about 60%. In light of the weakness of parties on the Zionist left and their fading presence on the Israeli party map, the main competition was between the extreme right-wing camp led by Netanyahu, (both secular and religious) and the secular right led by Benny Gantz.

Electoral Alignments and their Results

The current elections have played host to new alliances — most notably the attempt of the right-wing and fascist parties to organize themselves to avoid the losses suffered in the previous Knesset elections where three extreme right-wing parties failed to pass the threshold; losing them 7 seats.

Netanyahu made huge efforts to reorganize the far-right camp. He finalized an agreement between Likud and the Kulanu party led by Moshe Kahlon, under which Kulanu ran in the Likud electoral list, and four members were given secured places in the Knesset under the Likud list. Netanyahu also secured the withdrawal of the Zehut Party led by Moshe Feiglin from the elections in order to increase votes for Likud, in exchange for Netanyahu's promise to Feiglin to appoint him as a minister in his government if he could form one after the elections.

However, in this election, Likud won 31 seats in the Knesset, against 39 in the previous elections (35 seats for the Likud Party and 4 seats for the Kulanu Party), along with the votes that supported the Zehut party, which is estimated at 3 seats. The Kulanu and Zehut parties lost more than 10 seats altogether.

Of the far-right and fascist parties, the New Right and the Union of Right-Wing Parties (Jewish Home and Tkuma) formed a unified electoral list called Yamina, which has 7 seats. Jewish Home, the Union of Right-Wing Parties and the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit ran in the previous Knesset elections as the Union of Right-wing Parties and won five seats. The New Right party was unable to pass the threshold in the previous elections, losing 4 seats. Efforts to include the fascist Otzma Yehudit party on the Yamina list have failed because of a row over the seats. The party ran on a separate list and did not manage to cross the threshold while he representation of the extreme settler right rose from 5 to 7 seats.

Yisrael Beitenu, led by Avigdor Lieberman made a huge splash in these elections. He won 8 seats compared to 5 in the previous Knesset elections. Although Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu is on the far-right, in his election campaign he stressed his continued refusal to join a coalition led by Netanyahu, with whom he could together form a comfortable majority in parliament. But he refuses to ally with ultra-Orthodox religious parties on issues of religion and society. During his election campaign, he called for the establishment of a secular right-wing national unity government based on the Likud, Blue and White alliance and Yisrael Beiteinu parties, which excludes Jewish religious parties.

The Labor Party, whose chairman, Amir Peretz, refused to form a joint list between Labor and Meretz and rejected the return of Ehud Barak to the front ranks of the Labor leadership, made an agreement on the eve of the elections with "Gesher" led by Orly Levy, which failed to pass the threshold in the previous elections. The Labor-Gesher party retained the six seats it won in previous elections without alliances. Meretz agreed with the Democratic Party, which was founded by Ehud Barak recently, and with former Labor MK Stav Shaffir, who split from the Labor Party, to establish the Democratic Union list which won five seats in these elections, while Meretz won four seats in the previous elections.

The Arab parties that ran in previous elections with two electoral lists reshaped the joint list, including the Balad, Hadash, Ta'al and the United Arab List. The joint list received 12-13 seats in these elections, compared to the 10 won in previous elections.

Netanyahu Enforces the Agenda

Netanyahu dominated the election agenda not only because of the decisions he made as prime minister and security minister, but also because of the tactics he used during the election campaign. These included incitement against Arabs and the "left", security issues, the fate of the occupied Palestinian territories, the status of Arabs in Israel, and the rule of law, key issues in the election.

Netanyahu stressed three major dangers that Israel claimed to have dealt with under his leadership: Iranian nuclear ambitions, the Iranian military presence in Syria and Iraq, and the issue of Lebanese Hezbollah manufacturing long-range missiles. Although the election results were largely unaffected by Netanyahu's attempts to invest in (aggressive) Israeli military operations in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, his abandonment of Israel's policy of ambiguity and highlighting his role in making these decisions made these issues central to the election campaign. He also failed to benefit domestically from the normalization processes with Gulf countries.

Because these attempts did not lead to the results he intended, at the end of his campaign Netanyahu resorted to announcing his intention to annex all Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank along with the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea, if he wins the elections. This is an attempt to attract the extreme right, the fascist right and the settlers more generally and has provoked Palestinian, Arab and international condemnation.

Netanyahu has launched an unprecedented racist campaign of incitement against Arab citizens and parties, not only to delegitimize the Arab electorate, an important goal in its own right, but also to block the possibility the Blue and White Alliance gaining support from the Arab List in the Knesset, whether by naming their pick for prime minister or by granting confidence in the government that Gantz may form. Netanyahu accused Gantz of allying with Arab parties to form an anti-Knesset bloc aimed at preventing him from forming a government. Netanyahu, after accusing Arabs of fraud in previous elections, tried to enact a law in the Knesset to install cameras at polling stations in Arab towns, hoping that would deter Arabs from participating in the elections, and to mobilize the largest possible participation of his public. Netanyahu also accused Arabs of seeking to destroy Israel and to kill its Jewish children, elderly people and men. This incitement turned against him however and was one contributing factor in increasing Arab participation in the elections and cementing their vote in favor of the Arab Joint List.

Likely Scenarios

Netanyahu's failure to win 61 Knesset seats for his far-right camp may have ended his chances of forming a coalition government. Following the decision of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to indict Netanyahu in three corruption cases, the opposition parties committed to boycott a coalition led by him. Lieberman, who prevented the formation of a Netanyahu-led government after the previous elections, is unlikely to change his position after reiterating his refusal to sit in one government with ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.

On the other hand, the chances of Benny Gantz forming a government are slim, though not impossible. He is seeking to establish a government coalition based on his own party, Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and other parties. Netanyahu is expected to refuse to respond to Gantz’ request. Netanyahu knows very well that Mandelblit is scheduled to hold a hearing on 2 and 3 October. Mandelblit is expected to decide to indict Netanyahu days or weeks after the hearing, which prevents Netanyahu from being a cabinet minister. A cabinet minister is not granted immunity in corruption cases. Netanyahu is expected to try to impose tough conditions in return for agreeing to form a coalition government headed by Gantz between the Bluen and White Alliance and Likud, such as demanding a rotation of its presidency between him and Gantz. Netanyahu's interest is to thwart the formation of a government headed by Gantz so that elections will have to be repeated.

Indeed, Netanyahu has begun to counter his opponent's bid to form a coalition government. It is difficult for Gantz to succeed in forming a coalition government between his party, Likud and other parties, without the participation of Netanyahu. At least at this stage, no Likud leader is likely to dare to ask Netanyahu to step down in order to facilitate the process of forming a government without him.

Gantz is likely to seek a minority government if the Likud and the ultra right-wing parties insist on refusing to participate in a coalition led by Blue and White, Labor, the Democratic Camp, Yisrael Beiteinu and the Arab Joint list. At this stage, however, this possibility is unlikely. The final possibility is holding fresh elections if none of the political parties manage to form a government within the 84-day grace period granted by Israeli law.

Conclusion

Israel's political landscape has entered a state of uncertainty as Netanyahu's chances of forming a government coalition under his presidency have diminished, while Gantz’ chances do not look much better. The success of either will depend on many circumstantial factors such as Likud and Netanyahu's camp continuing to rally around him, especially if the attorney general indicted him in the coming weeks. This could mean the end of the Netanyahu era and could at the same time facilitate the process of forming a government.