A nearly complete count of the votes in this crucial Israeli election points to the following outcome: Benjamin Netanyahu has failed in his quest to win the elections and form the next government.
However, Netanyahu’s failure does not necessarily signify a victory for his main rival,Benny Ganz. The immediate result of the elections is a stalemate. With 200,000 votes yet to be counted, Ganz’s Blue and White party has 32 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, while Netanyahu’s Likud has 31. The centre-left bloc has 56 seats out of 120, and the Right has 55.Eight seats are held by Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beyteynu party. Liberman is a right-wing nationalist leader: an immigrant from Moldova, who after the April 2019 elections turned against Netanyahu and prevented him from forming a coalition and a government. The magic number in the formation of an Israeli coalition is 61. The support of 60 fellow legislators enables a politician to form a government. Right now, Liberman holds the key: by joining either camp, he can take it over the bar. Liberman’s stated position is that he wants a broad “national liberal” coalition composed of his own party, Blue and White and Likud. It will take a while for this confused landscape to sort itself out and coalesce into a workable formula.
To a large extent, the April and September 2019 elections were a referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu and on the future direction of Israeli politics.
Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister. He was Prime Minister between 1996 and 1999 and has been Prime Minister since 2009. He has a large, solid support base, but also has large camp of opponents who think that he has overstayed his welcome. The issue is compounded by the three criminal cases hanging over Netanyahu’s head. On October 2, a hearing is scheduled, after which the Attorney General will decide whether to indict him on charges of corruption and bribery. Consequently, Netanyahu has been fighting not just in order to stay in power but also in order to stay out of the courtroom. To this end, he was planning, if re-elected, to continue to weaken the legal system and to this end he was willing to ally himself with the most radical right-wing allies and to use hate tactics in order to galvanize his right-wing supporters. His main target has been Israel’s Arab minority, some twenty percent of the country’s population. In a similar vein, he promised the right-wing constituency that he would annex parts of the West Bank if elected.
As a consequence, Israeli society and the country’s body politic were polarised to an unprecedented extent. Netanyahu’s right-wing camp consists of his own Likud party, the ultra-orthodox and Zionist orthodox parties, the West Bank settlers and their political lobby, and some small fringe right-wing groups. The centre-left camp includes Blue and White, two small left-wing parties, and the United Arab Party, which represents the country’s Arab minority. The main issue defining left and right is the future of the West Bank. The Right rejects the notion of a two-state solution, and wants to keep the West Bank, or a large part of it, under Israeli control. Meanwhile, the centre-left wants a political settlement with the Palestinians. On this fundamental dividing line, several other issues have been superimposed, such as religion and state, the future of the legal system, freedom of the media, and the role of gatekeepers in public life. Had Netanyahu won the elections outright, the attack on the country’s democratic institutions would have been dramatically intensified.
Problems associated with the formation of a coalition in the aftermath of this election have been compounded by Ganz’s refusal to participate in a coalition with Netanyahu. He would be happy to form a broad coalition with Likud, but argues that a leader who is facing indictment should leave politics. Netanyahu’s colleagues in Likud, regardless of whatever private reservations they may harbour, have indicated that they stand by him. In the coming days, Liberman and President Rivlin (who plays a crucial constitutional role in such situations) will have a significant impact on the course of affairs.
At this point, it is idle to speculate on the national security and foreign policy repercussions of the elections. A government has to be formed in order for these repercussions to be clarified. President Trump promised to publish his plan for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement immediately after the Israeli elections, but he will probably have to postpone it yet again. Relations with the US and Russia, the conflict with Iran in Syria, and the conflict with Hamas in Gaza will all be on the agenda once a government is formed. The prospect of a lengthy stalemate and a third election cannot be entirely ruled out, but the public mood is violently against it.