23 September 2019

The ISRAEL parliamentary ELECTIONS | The difficult part has passed. The hardest is yet to come

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

The parliamentary elections in Israel on September 17 have mostly remade the electoral map already sketched in the April elections. The differences are not numerically significant, but are important because they change the classification on the podium. Although “the winner takes all” is not always an applicable formula in Israeli politics, and that is why the country is considered a resourceful democracy, which also protects the minority, the stage winner’s advantages are significant. This time, the polls showed more votes for the coalition led by Benny Gantz. This time, Netanyahu does not have the kick-off. Will the match go to extra-time? Will we need a decisive third match?

Image source: Mediafax

The opinion polls which guessed the pot

The predictions, both from the electoral campaign and during the election night, were correct. The five-month period which passed from the previous elections could not change the list of “usual suspects” too much, of the parties who were in line for the new electoral cycle.

The several unknown factors which brought uncertainty to these elections were also predicted correctly:

  • the bet made by Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the secularist Yisrael Beytenu party, the one which caused these elections, was a winning one. The party, which is representative for the former immigrants from the Soviet and East European space, deeply secular and intensely aligned to the right, has become, even more obviously than in the past, the political buckle which any coalition must be tied with it. And yes, the party nearly doubled its number of votes and MPs;


  • Benjamin Netanyahu was everywhere again, trying out all the tactics to convince – where he had someone to, or to discourage – where it was needed, in order to position himself as the indispensable leader this country needed. He went even to Putin to take a picture, waiting three hours in an antechamber in Sochi, until the Russian leader solved an urgent problem in Dagestan. He was scheduled to meet President Trump after the elections, during the UN General Assembly session, as a rendezvous two week before would have been too much;


  • Benny Gantz continued to present himself as the alternative and moral solution, especially the latter one, to the ten years spent under PM Netanyahu. The same security vision for Israel, but with another approach. The same partnership with the US, but more institutional and less personal. The same optics regarding relations with the Palestinians, including on the annexation of the West Bank’s Area C, but without the political accents and doubling down on security needs. He positioned the party again on the centre, without excluding the left or closing all doors to the right. The only closed door, at least statement-wise, was towards Netanyahu;


  • the ad-hoc secularist-religious coalition created to pass the threshold for representation in the Knesset, led for the first time by a woman, Ayelet Shaked, managed to achieve this, and also ceased to exist after the vote count showed that the objective was met. Ayelet Shaked became a secularist again, continuing as the chairman of the New Right, with the two provisional religious partner groups, Tkuma and Jewish Home parties, also returning to their faithful electorate. The alliance lasted from July 29 to September 17, plus one hour. That was all that was necessary after the polls closed to dissolve this electoral construction;


  • the Arab-Israeli community stood waiting until the last moment, judging that both a Netanyahu or Gantz victory meant the same for the approximately 20% of Arabs who are currently Israeli citizens. That is why voter turnout seemed to be heading towards a similar level to the April election. Two actions have changed this situations, however: 1) the Arab parties untied in a common list, which was electorally called the United List; this made it more attractive to Arab Israeli voters and 2) Netanyahu tried again to discourage them, through attempts to pass the installation of video cameras in electoral circumscriptions with Arab majorities. The effect was opposite to the expected one, with the Arab voter turnout significantly up from the previous elections, and the United List rebecoming the third power in the Knesset, repeating its 2015 success.

The results after counting 97.6% of votes expressed (the votes of the troops and diplomats are left to count) are as follows:

● Kahol Lavan – The “Blue and White” Generals’ Coalition – 33 seats;

● Likud – PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s party – 31 seats;

● The United List – Arab minority parties, led by Ayman Odeh – 13 seats;

● Shas – The Union of Torah Observers of Sephardi rite – 9 seats;

● Yisrael Beytenu – The party of immigrants from the former Soviet space – 8 seats;

● United Tora – The group of ultra-orthodox Jews/ Haredim – 8 seats

● Yamina – The United Right / Religious conservatives led by Ayeled Shaked – 7 seats;

● The Labour Party – Gesher Alliance – 6 seats;

● The Democratic Union – Barak’s new centre-left alliance and the Meretz party – 5 seats.


A repeated electoral campaign

As in March-April, during the previous electoral campaign, Benjamin Netanyahu tried everything possible to extend a term which already passed a decade in length, which itself is a record, together with the fact that he is the PM with the longest presence at the helm of the Israeli executive, 20% of the country’s 70-year history.

The political monologue was the same: political statements meant to invoke responsibility and commitment, together with leaks from judicial cases, an aggressive and manipulative rhetoric, involving families in political scandals, political games behind closed doors, throwing negative issues in his opponents’ yards.

The effect was to maintain the frontlines between political parties, with a captive and relatively stable numerically electorate, but which was not so disciplined when heeding the leaders’ calls, already feeling the fatigue of this electoral fight and it reaching a limit of tolerance for political messages.

Although the results of these elections were not very different from the previous ones, their message is found in the tendencies they transmit:

- the population was too worn out to take part in another electoral campaign. The new executive’s problem must be solved with what has resulted from this election;

- slowly, Netanyahu is beginning to be indispensable for the Israeli right. The right already has majority in the Israeli political spectre, and a political figure which is seen as conflictual, although genius in extracting dividends from this approach, seems to not be up to the profile of the moment anymore.

What these elections were about

The first answer is easy to provide, as the elections, starting with those in April, as previously shown by the Defence & Security Monitor, were an “undercover referendum”. A referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

  • on whether he will continue to be the dominant figure in Israeli politics;


  • on whether he will manage to obtain, together with an electoral victory, the necessary immunity for the “meetings” promised by the general prosecutor;


  • if he will continue the program to strengthen the right – until it will not only be a majority, but also dominant, in the Israeli society, but also to marginalize the left – until the moment in which this will disappear by irrelevance in contemporaneity, only being a part of the history books about the creation of the Jewish state.

The second answer regards the future of public institutions in Israel, especially those in the area of the judiciary. The executive formed by Likud had numerous disputes with state structures, especially in the judiciary but also in the field of security, on reason regarding the ideological approach to statehood – the right considers that some institutional self-control systems, such as the ombudsman, the media and even intelligence agencies are a brake in the process of taking and enacting decisions. There were also personal reasons, especially those involving the PM with regards to requests from the prosecutor’s office, police, civil right defence or inter-community dialogue groups. And the country’s parliament has felt this pressure. Even the September elections were called after a vote was forced in the Knesset, following the previous elections, in order to prevent the president from nominating another candidate to form the executive.

The third answer regards relations with the Palestinians, those who live in territories designated as “occupied” by a series of international organizations. The problem was approached only tangentially during this electoral campaign, until PM Netanyahu announced the possible  annexation of the West Bank territory near the Dead Sea (approximately 28% of the West Bank, half of Area C, as delimitated by the Oslo Accords), just one week before the elections and with the aim to bring Likud the votes of Jewish colonists in this region. And this announcement was made at the same time with the attempt to reinstate video cameras in voting sections from Arab Israeli circumscriptions, as was done in the previous elections.

The votes of the colonists were not as many as was initially hoped, but the talks on what kind of state will Israel be were restarted, as most of the territory between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea will be within Israeli borders or under its responsibility. And the demographic clock is ticking. For the Israeli democracy, even with its specific character imposed by security needs, this is a challenge for which politicians must find a solution.

A fourth answer regards the role of religion in the Israeli society. And this is not only about the controversy on the (non)recruitment of ultra-orthodox youth in the Israeli army, which blocked the instatement of a new government after the April 2019 elections, neither about Avigdor Lieberman’s attempt to seize the secularist rhetoric. The Israeli society’s right-leaning majority is a result of the ever-increasing influence of religious parties in internal political life. The pact made by Likud/Netanyahu with them weakened and estranged the Israeli left, as it found itself incapable of getting the near the power, turned the secularist centre into an undesirable area (Yair Lapid, co-leader of the Kahol Lavan alliance, the president of the Yesh Atid secularist party was Netanyahu’s main electoral scarecrow), and also changed the nature of relations with the main Jewish diaspora community, in the US. Religious heritage and pragmatism have always been values which balanced each other out in the Israeli community. And this balance probably needs to be reconfirmed at certain historical intervals.

The future sounds complicated

The first official step will be made on Sunday, with the launch of talks with President Reuven Rivlin. Unofficially, he has already requested the two leaders, during the ceremony held on Thursday in the memory of former PM and President Shimon Peres, to find a solution for a new government as quickly as possible.

The solution exists, was imposed by the pre and post-electoral conditions set by Avigdor Lieberman, and is called “the national coalition”. It was immediately embraced by Kahol Lavan leaders and, towards the final phases of the vote count, when the difference between Likud and the general’s coalition had already shifted to two seats, by Benjamin Netanyahu. It is also a solution agreed by the electorate. According to Gantz, 80% of the political stances taken by the two main parties are similar. But… there are a couple of small issues which can overturn this scenario:

  • Gantz stated that he would accept a coalition with Likud, but without Netanyahu. The prime minister has ensured, by signature, the loyalty of his entire list of candidates. Will they continue to support him?;


  • If the principle of rotation at the Government’s leadership is accepted, even with Netanyahu at the helm of Likud, who will go first? For Netanyahu, who has the perspective of the October “meeting” with the prosecutor general, any other option than that of the first part of the term will be a defeat. For Gantz, the potential winner of these elections, every other option than leading the first part of this executive will be a defeat. And, an additional problem, how will the Blue and White Alliance solve this situation, as it already convened on a rotational mechanism between the two leaders, Gantz and Lapid?


  • Netanyahu wants to join the coalition together with the religious parties with which Likud is allied. That is what Avigdor Lieberman stated that he will not accept. Who will be sacrificed on the altar of “national interest”?;


  • If a deal is made between the two big political groups, which together have 64 seats, three more than needed, will “buckles” be needed for the new executive?

The latter is less of a problem, and more of a collateral consequence if the two leaders of Israeli politics will reach an agreement. Another collateral consequence would be the fact that the opposition leader will become Ayman Odeh, the leader of the pro-Arab Israeli United List, which would be a first. Even symbolically, as this group will be the biggest outside of the government.

The scenarios for building a new executive are many more, both they presume that left or right loyalties enter the grey area, of needing “stability in the country’s interest”. Netanyahu led the governments in the past which included parties on the left, and Gantz is leading a centre-right alliance which does not exclude, therefore, cooperation with the parties previously loyal to Likud.

Talks with President Rivlin begin on Sunday. Invites have been sent by the chief of cabinet on Thursday. The parties called to the talks will propose the name of those who they want to receive the first nomination to negotiate. Currently, the only name publicly announced (by Avigdor Lieberman, but not too publicly, through advisors) is Gantz’s. Five nominations for Gantz and four for Netanyahu are predicted.

On Tuesday, the president can announce the nominee proposed to attempt to form a government coalition. The candidate will have six weeks to come before the Knesset with a cabinet proposal.

If he does not succeed, the president can propose another candidate. He will have 28 days necessary to form a cabinet a bring it before the parliament.

If this also fails, we will see what happens in February!


Translated by Ionut Preda