Winners and Losers in Israel’s Election

Middle East

Winners and Losers in Israel’s Election

Posted on: 12th April 2019
By Multiple Authors
Karen Kaufman
Media and External Relations Adviser (Middle East), Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
Ruti Winterstein
Head of Office (Israel), Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

After a bitterly contested election campaign that at times plummeted to new depths in muck-raking by all sides, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once again achieved victory in Israel’s parliamentary election on 9 April. Under Israel’s system of proportional representation, Netanyahu’s Likud party increased its tally from 30 to 36 seats in the 120-member Knesset (parliament)—its best-ever showing under Netanyahu.

Likud’s main opponent, Blue and White, co-led by former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Benny Gantz and former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, won 35 seats. This party was formed just two months ago, bringing together Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, Gantz’s centrist Israel Resilience Party and former Defence Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon’s moderate-right Telem party. Yesh Atid had just 11 seats in the outgoing Knesset. By coming together to form a party that included three former IDF chiefs of staff, Blue and White received just 15,000 votes fewer than Likud.

But the distribution of the remaining votes among the blocs means that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will probably tap Netanyahu to form Israel’s next government. Rivlin began meetings on 15 April with representatives of the parties that won Knesset seats to ask them to recommend whom he should charge with building a coalition. A party leader can abstain from making a recommendation. Rivlin will ask the leader with the most recommendations to put together a coalition; that person will then have 28 days to form a government of at least 61 members of Knesset (MKs), with the option of a 14-day extension for further negotiations if needed.

Tricky Coalition Talks

In total, the right-religious bloc won 65 seats—but it will not necessarily be plain sailing for Netanyahu as he puts together his coalition. Of his potential coalition partners, only the ultra-Orthodox Shas party saw its position strengthen, from six to eight seats. The other ultra-Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, remained on seven.

Former Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party won five seats, but having run a fierce campaign against the ultra-Orthodox, Liberman may play hardball and could threaten to opt out of the government, leaving Netanyahu without a majority. The secularist Liberman will demand a senior portfolio—possibly a return to the defence ministry. He may also push Netanyahu to form a government of national unity with Blue and White to ensure that the ultra-Orthodox remain outside the government.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party shrank from ten to four seats, the minimum number needed to enter the Knesset. Netanyahu nonetheless needs Kulanu to avoid the narrowest possible coalition of 61, and Kahlon will also demand a senior portfolio—likely the finance ministry. A further complication for Netanyahu is that Kahlon has so far refused to commit to remaining in the coalition if Netanyahu is indicted on allegations of bribery and breach of trust after a hearing. Netanyahu will thus need to make Kahlon a significant offer, possibly including enabling the latter’s return to the Likud party.

Netanyahu’s final potential coalition partner is the most controversial: the Union of Right-Wing Parties (URW), an alliance that brought together the Jewish Home, National Union and extremist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) parties. It won five seats, leaving the Otzma Yehudit candidate Itamar Ben Gvir outside the Knesset, but National Union faction head Bezalel Smotrich has vowed to enable its entry and may yet decide that the URW’s ministerial appointments (including himself) should resign their Knesset seats to allow Ben Gvir to enter.

Deeply ideological and rooted in the settlement enterprise, URW will probably attempt to steer government policy towards annexation of the West Bank settlements. Smotrich is likely to join the cabinet for the first time and, in exchange for promoting the settlement enterprise, has already begun to champion legislation to protect Netanyahu from prosecution, declaring that the prime minister “should not have to spend half his time defending himself” from legal troubles.

Losses on the Left and Right

Despite the right’s success in this election, there were also major losers: Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who early in the campaign split from the Jewish Home party they led to form the New Right, a purportedly mixed religious-secular right-wing party. They missed the electoral threshold by just a handful of votes (0.03 per cent), and their loss shows that Bennett and Shaked miscalculated in thinking that the right-wing bloc had grown to the extent that it could absorb another new party trying to be an alternative to Likud and the national-religious Jewish Home.

They were also adversely affected by the vote for far-right libertarian Moshe Feiglin, who failed to cross the electoral threshold despite flattering polls but managed to cut into New Right’s support base. Most crucially, Bennett and Shaked were hit by Netanyahu’s last-minute campaign to ensure that Likud was the largest party. Likud siphoned off crucial votes from them, just as it did in the 2015 election, this time leaving them outside the Knesset. Their loss also essentially limits Netanyahu’s room for manoeuvre and his options for coalition partners.

For Netanyahu’s opponent, Gantz, the result is a blow, despite Blue and White’s impressive tally of 35 seats. The centre-left bloc (minus the Arab parties) garnered 45 seats in total, five more than in 2015, but the additional seats are likely to have come in part from people who voted for Kahlon’s Kulanu in the last election. Gantz and Lapid have batted off any suggestion that the union will be short lived and that the three parties will split, promising “to make Netanyahu’s life hell”. But the question is whether a party of disparate ideologies can stay united, especially in opposition.

This election and the massive shift in the centre-left to Blue and White has virtually decimated the Labour party, which crashed to its lowest-ever showing of six seats. Labour’s disastrous result has raised questions about the party’s continued viability, with political observers warning that unless the party manages to redefine its raison d’être—including where it places the peace process with the Palestinians and its relationship with Israel’s Arab population—it will struggle to revive its fortunes. Party Chairman Avi Gabbay is already said to be considering resigning.

The left-wing Meretz party barely squeaked through, losing a seat and slipping to four, giving Israel’s Zionist left a total of just ten seats in the next parliament. Meretz was ultimately saved from failure to return to the Knesset by an uptick in votes from the Arab electorate in Israel, further reinforcing calls for a re-examination of the relationship between the Jewish left and the Arab population of Israel.

Low Arab Turnout

Indeed, one of the most striking developments of the 2019 election was the Arab turnout. Throughout most of election day, there were reports of empty polling stations in Arab towns and villages and worryingly low voter turnout. Arab voters appeared to express both their dissatisfaction with the Arab parties and their disenfranchisement from Israeli society in light of the Nation-State Law, which defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

In the final hours of voting, the Arab vote spiked, after calls in mosques and on the streets urging people to participate. It was also reported that Likud observers in polling stations in Arab communities had hidden cameras. In the end, Arab turnout was 56 per cent, down from 63 per cent in 2015 (although not an unprecedented low), and below the national rate of 68.4 per cent. The Arab parties of Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad received six and four seats respectively, down three seats from 2015, when they ran together as the Joint List.

This year’s election was a resounding victory for Netanyahu, who has now equalled the record of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, by winning his fifth election. He is almost certain to surpass Ben Gurion’s time in office and become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. But what Netanyahu’s fifth term brings will depend largely on the make-up of his coalition, the forthcoming publication of the US administration’s peace plan and the pending final indictments against him on allegations of bribery and breach of trust.

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