16 May 2019

Israel’s parliamentary elections: an undercover referendum

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Why were these elections so different? • 65 to 55, minus 10 • An unmatched electoral campaign • The Trump Effect over elections and post-electoral period • Next is president Rivlin’s designation for the prime-minister position

Image source: Mediafax

 Why were these elections so different?

When you have a prime-minister that is going to be the first one to be prosecuted for corruption, by the general attorney, who is also the one calling on early elections and the one to become the most longevous politician in Israel’s 70 years of history, if he wins the prime-minister mandate, well, then the electoral and political scene is definitely dealing with a supplementary stake. When the name of the prime-minister distributed in the key role is Benjamin Netanyahu, the audience should not be surprised if he will be also the director, screenwriter and, eventually, the one to have a word in audience’s selection.

As for the other actors, they have, from the very start, a disadvantage: Netanyahu uses the same political lines that have been used for more than 40 years to Jerusalem. Most of the competitors have barely learned them: some, years ago, others few months back.

The 9th of April elections, from Israel, were different not only because they had a personal touch for the Israeli prime-minister, but also because justice was coming to an unpleasant meeting with Netanyahu, at a time when there was an exceptional political career envisioned ahead. There were also a series of political evolutions and premieres that have added a supplementary political and social significance, which has disturbed the electoral campaign:

  • for the first time ever, three former chiefs of the Israeli army have joined forces to create a political alliance aiming at making the youngest of the team, Benny Gantz, prime-minister. Because none of the Israeli politicians can claim an important political status if he has no military career or has not led or executed any major military operation, their mobilization (Gantz and the former generals Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Yaalon) was quite impressive;
  • it was for the first time when the only goal was to win the right side of political stage. After the Israeli state was, for decades, ruled by the left side, which conducted wars, signed the most important peace treaties, lately the leftist part witnessed an increased destabilization due to Netanyahu’s rightist policies. Lacking important figures, the Israeli left side got to a point wherein it is not even sure about passing the electoral minimum barrier;
  • more than in any previous electoral campaign, the political fight was extremely personal this time, being less focused on programs (both political forces supporting the same values and having the same perspectives on Israel’s security) and more on people, especially on the special relation between the Israeli electorate and Netanyahu.

These elections were seen as a referendum for prime-minister’s policies. During his mandates, country’s security, economic power and international position have increased a lot, however, in the detriment of some social and economic gaps dividing, now, the Israeli society.

65 to 55, minus 10

Elections result, yet partial (97% of the votes), got resumed as presented above. Benjamin Netanyahu’s possible new coalition will have 65 mandates / comparing to the necessary 61, the minimum to get parliamentary majority. The main competitor, “Blue and White” Alliance, belonging to Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, together with the other parties that entered Knesset, have 55 mandates. 10 will go to the Israeli Arab groups, and no one will join them for a coalition, even if they could actually take advantage on their implicit support. Hence, the score is actually 65 to 45, different from what was expected by those hoping to see Gantz’s victory. The final results are due to appear on Friday, but few of the polling stations left to vote, the army’s districts, diplomatic missions or prisons, cannot change these numbers too much:

  • Likud (HaLikud) / 35 mandates / 26.83% of the votes;
  • Blue and White Alliance (Kahol Lavan) / 35 mandates / 26.47% of the votes;
  • Shas (Shomeri Tarah Sfaradim) / 8 mandates / 6. 08% of the votes;
  • Yahadut / United Torah Judaism (Yahadut HaTora HaMeuhedet) / 8 mandate / 5.85% of the votes;
  • Hadash - Ta’al (HaHazit HaDemokratit LeShalom uLeShivion ) / 6 mandates / 4.54% of the votes;
  • Israeli Labor Party (Mifleget HaAvoda HaYisrelit) / 6 mandates / 4.53% of the votes;
  • Israel Beitenu / Israel Our Home / 5 mandates / 4.08% of the votes;
  • United Right (Ihud Miflagot HaYamin) / 5 mandates / 3. 76% of the votes;
  • Meretz / Vigour / 4 mandates / 3. 68% of the votes;
  • Kulanu/ All of Us / 4 mandates / 3.59% of the votes;
  • Ra’am- Balad (Brit Le’umit Demokratit) / 4 mandates / 3.38% of the votes.

The right side of the political spectrum is composed of the parties and alliances 1, 3, 4, 7, 8 and 10. The center, still with rightist policies, 2, being supported by 6 and 9. 5 and 11 are represented by parties of Israeli Arabs’ community (5 in cooperation with the Israeli Communist Party).

Things are quite clear, the alliances are clear, the right owns the numbers and Netanyahu’s persuasion power and the opposition only got the 2-3 hours victory given by the polls on elections night. They also still hope that, until summer, things will be different, as the general attorney will continue the investigation and maybe one of the five parties, from the possible Likud coalition, will pass on this collaboration (at least one of them have already announced their withdrawal from it if the prime-minister will be on charges).

How did they get here?

An unmatched electoral campaign

According to Israel’s political analysts, this was one of the ugliest electoral campaign ever, as it was more about people than ideologies. They have used psychological strategies, put video tapes and released phone records in the spotlights and revealed confidential information to denigrate the opposition. Netanyahu was the one to use the most these kind of methods, to show that he is the only one to ensure Israel’s security, any other option being a disaster for the country. 

The problem with such an extreme campaign is that, once it is over, it is difficult to recreate the old equilibrium and get the country back on track. Vituperations are not simple political weapons that you get them, use them, and then put them back in storage when the conflict is over. These have an impact on both the political enemies and their voters. The April 2019 elections have showed, once again, Netanyahu’s winning characteristics, but have also revealed his negative effects, in terms of doing politics, over the Israeli society’s cohesion. The call to unity, made one day after the elections, when it was clear that he will get the fifth mandate, shows that he understood the risk and got to healing. Wounds are deep and will need time. The bitterness of Gantz message to his voters does cover only partially his optimistic message: „The skies may look overcast ... but they cannot conceal the sun of hope that we have brought to the Israeli people and society”.

Another method used in this electoral campaign was social media. Voters do not trust anymore the speeches held from public tribunes or across the electoral meetings and campaign articles. They trust their virtual friends, and now their circles are extending, multiplying, and the massage gets to a number of voters that no electoral machine could ever reach.

On elections’ day, a few hours before the ballots got closed, Netanyahu went on Netanya beach to send an alarm message to those enjoying the sun of a beautiful celebration day: “Do you want to wake up with Yair Lapid as chief of the government in the morning (no.2 on opposition’s list)? Then get out and vote for Likud!”. The message was held only in front of a few people, however, the recorded images and call got to thousands on views on social media. Maybe this kind of message actually made the difference between the 8pm surveys and the results revealed at 10pm.

Opposition’s leader, Benny Gantz, also has a media incident that ended having positive effects. After the voting, he stopped to help a motorcyclist that was involved in an accident. A passer-by recorded the moment with his phone and posted it (it only has 38 seconds), getting, also, to thousands of people. Many people saw his human side thanks to those images, rather than to being part of the electoral campaign.

On the other hand, although they were trying to get the Jewish people to go out and vote, across the Israeli Arabs communities’ districts things were the other way around, as they tried to make stop them from voting. Likud’s activists from the polling stations have received 1.200 mini video cameras to “track” the voting process. The information got to the public, the electoral body interfered, they got rid of the cameras, but they faced the smallest presence at the vote from the Israeli Arabs. And the parliamentary representation was decreased with 2 mandates also.

The Trump Effect over elections and post-electoral period

Benjamin Netanyahu used all possible methods to get the fifth prime-minister mandate. However, the key element he was exploiting was his international leader status, one to have close relations not only with the US president, Donald Trump, but also with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. It was a tremendous move for him to make two visits possible, with both leaders wherefrom he got not only political support messages, but also concrete help, in only two weeks and in full electoral campaign.

During his Washington visit, president Trump signed, along with the Israeli prime-minister, the recognition declaration for Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The decision came after many other previous actions, like moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, US’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Agreement with Iran, things that have reinforced the personal relation between president Trump and Israeli prime-minister Netanyahu, whose debut was in the 80’s when we was successfully building relations with the US business representatives while occupying the UN Israeli ambassador position.

Probably no international leader can actually claim to have had 5 meetings with Trump, in 2 years, or 13 meetings with Putin in 4 years. Israeli prime-minister’s critics are seeing this success also as a perfect match between these three who, despite the ideological differences and their distinct positions in some international matters, have the same perspective on power, built on the same type of authority and force principles.

Putin also contributed to Netanyahu’s electoral success, not only by previously granting Israel great freedom in attacking Iranian targets on Syria’s territory, but also has been acting as Israeli prime-minister’s electoral agent by giving, only a few days before the scrutiny, the remains of a Israeli soldier, who disappeared 37 years ago in Lebanon. Given that his political enemy, General Gantz, was the last Israeli military to withdraw from Lebanon, it was definitely a symbolic gesture.

The “Trump effect”, useful to win the elections, can also have some ulterior costs, most likely that will emerge once the White House will be announcing the peace plan. Next year, Trump runs, also, for the presidential elections and the support must be paid back. Because of his policies, Netanyahu managed to estrange some of the US Jewish community, which was anyway closer to the Democratic Party. The American president will, however, need (also) this community’s support to get a second mandate. A peace plan to be discussed with Palestinians’ representatives and also receive Arab states’ support will involve some Israeli concessions. Having such a strong rightist side in the Israeli society, only the Israeli prime-minister can provide and support such concessions in the political representation, as other strong prime-ministers before him did it also, following the synthetic phrase: “The left wins the war, the right proposes the peace”.

The date proposed to launch this plan was, according to media and analysts, 14th of May, Israel’s Independence Day. That’s only one day away from the al-Nabka, the Catastrophe Day, a tragic anniversary for the Palestinian Arab community. It is a peace plan whose provisions to allow a dialogue between both communities, now it looks impossible. The following evolutions will answer the question on whether the 9th of April 2019 vote will have consequences over the Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Next is president Rivlin’s designation for the prime-minister position

At the following consultations - to be transmitted live - the Israeli president will only have one question for the parties’ delegations that have entered Knesset: who do you want for Israel’s prime-minister position? The one to receive most of the votes, gets designated by the president and has 28 days to create a coalition and present a government. Maybe two more weeks, if the missions proves to be complicated.

In 2009, Netanyahu lost the elections, but he still got the mandate because the wining group at that time, Kadima, and its leader, Tzipi Livni, could not create a majoritarian coalition. Back then, Likud had 27 deputies, and now, after all the available data, will not only have 35, but also other 5 rightist parties, its natural allies from the right side.

President Reuven Rivlin could decide anything, being, in fact, the only decision he can make during his “ceremonial” mandate. Friday, the final results will be revealed and the meetings will the parties will be held in the following week.

The 9th of April 2019 referendum, in the form of general elections, have ended. The winner, prime-minister Benjamin Netanyahu, can pick up the prize.