For the second time in five months, Israelis headed to the polls for a general election on September 17. The previous round in April proved inconclusive after Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to form a governing coalition — a first in Israeli history. Will this time prove any different? We asked six experts to weigh in on the results and where things might be headed from here.
Israelis decide not to decide
The second Israeli elections in a little over five months ended even less decisively than the previous elections in April. Although the center-left Blue and White Party edged out Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud by a slim margin — 33 to 31 seats in the Knesset — this was hardly a resounding endorsement of an alternative to the beleaguered prime minister’s 10-year rule.
Although the two big parties crossed the finish line about even, several smaller parties did remarkably well. The Joint List — a coalition uniting several Arab parties — received 13 seats, two Orthodox parties combined for 17 seats in the new Knesset, and the party of Avigdor Lieberman, a Russian-born center-rightist determined to unseat Netanyahu, ended up with 8 seats, possibly critical for the formation of any winning coalition. On the other hand, two left-of-center parties ended the race with a mere 11 seats, demonstrating again the weakness of the Israeli left, the ideological camp that established modern Israel in 1948.
The critical question now becomes the following: Who can form a governmental coalition of at least 61 Knesset members, the majority of the Israeli parliament? The scenarios are many, diverse, and complex, but two are more likely than the others. The first and most likely of all scenarios is that the two largest parties will join together in a coalition, even though Gen. Benny Gantz, the mild-mannered leader of Blue and White, promised not to sit in a government with Netanyahu, given that the prime minister is facing serious allegations of corruption. If Netanyahu is ousted by the Likud, such a scenario becomes significantly more likely, but there is little likelihood that this will happen, given his popularity among the party’s supporters. The second possible scenario is that the country will drift into a lengthy political deadlock without the ability to establish a coalition, possibly leading to yet another election, a uniquely unattractive prospect. All other scenarios are less likely, including a coalition between the center-left and the ultra-Orthodox parties and Lieberman joining an all-right bloc.
The bottom line might be that post-election Israel will stick to the regional status quo that has been the essence of the Netanyahu regime for the last decade. Do not expect the revival of the so-called peace process, although if the center-left joins the coalition, the formal annexationist moves that Netanyahu promised on the eve of the elections are also unlikely.
Ilan Peleg is a non-resident scholar at MEI, the former President of the Association for Israel Studies, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Government & Law at Lafayette College, and the author or editor of 12 books and numerous articles.
Cracks in the right-wing wall?
Israel might well emerge from the September elections with a different governing coalition or even a different prime minister. If so, the change will come from political elites, not the Israeli public.
The September elections were nearly a replica of the April elections. If not for a few small shifts — three percent of right-wingers who moved to support Avigdor Lieberman’s party, and a ten percent rise in Arab turnout (to 59%) — nothing would have changed. But Lieberman’s three-seat gain helped deny the right-wing and religious parties a 61-seat majority on its own. The Joint List of Arab parties gained two or three seats from April, which elevated the opposition bloc to 57 seats (from 55 in April), also contributing to the insufficient right-religious showing. Nothing changed for the embattled center and left segments of Israeli society: Blue and White, the main challenger, actually lost two seats. Hardly anyone defected blocs; if small numbers did, they were replaced by reverse bloc-switchers.
But in 21st century Israel, the drama lies on the right.
Likud should have done better. In April, the Likud breakaway party formed in 2015 by Moshe Kachlon rejoined the fold. He held four seats from April, so Likud, which won 35 seats, actually began the current race with 39. But about three-quarters of Kachlon’s voters — mostly right-leaning centrists — told pollsters days before the election that they would go elsewhere. Lieberman’s additional seats drew from them, and other secular right-wingers. Likud won only 31 seats.
Firm right wingers, meanwhile, also drifted away. Yemina, representing the religious-nationalist right, rose two seats from April (when it won five under a slightly different constellation). The ultra-orthodox party Shas gained one.
This is how eight seats vanished for Likud: three went to the secular right and three to the far or religious right. The fate of two more remaining lost seats will become clearer after the final tallies and certification of the results.
Likud, which literally means “bringing together,” has rallied large portions of the right under Benjamin Netanyahu. But he may have hit his ceiling. If the right wing splinters, its political hold on Israeli society could eventually wane.
Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin is a public opinion expert and political consultant with 20 years of experience. An academic and writer, Dahlia conducts extensive research and policy analysis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, democracy, human and civil rights, minorities, religion and state for a range of political and civil society figures in Israel.
The center has held
With the election over, Israeli politics now moves into its more interesting and critical phase with the two “blocs” each unable to form a government and Avigdor Lieberman, controlling eight votes, in the kingmaker position. While the options at this point are probably too numerous to count, it is worth looking at what the election has told us about the current mood and possible trajectory of the Israeli electorate.
Benjamin Netanyahu pulled out all the stops in the final days of the campaign, warning against “murderous” Arab parties entering the government, vowing to annex a large part of the West Bank, and generally running a fear campaign, obviously seeking to attract voters who might have felt he was insufficiently hawkish. That campaign failed. Likud has fewer seats than in April, and the great hope of the extreme right wing, Ayelet Shaked, won only 7 seats, while her party broke into its constituent parts even before the vote count was completed. The assumption that the Israeli electorate has an infinite capacity for moving rightwards was dispelled.
Not that the left benefitted. Meretz, comprising the Zionist left, barely made it past the threshold, retaining a meager 5 seats. Labor, for decades the proud flagship of liberal Zionism, did scarcely better with 6 seats, even with a platform strongly emphasizing bread-and-butter economic issues.
Rather, Israelis flocked toward the center, with the new Blue and White Party apparently beating out the Likud by one or two votes. “Centrism” is always a rather vague concept, and certainly in this case. If Blue and White’s leader, former army chief of staff Benny Gantz, actually does become prime minister, his policies would likely not be very different in substance from Mr. Netanyahu’s, but without the bluster, and cries of victimization we have heard for the last 10 years. Moreover, the Arab population, comprising 20% of the country, seems empowered and will likely be included in any centrist government’s priorities.
Judging from this election, Israel seems in no rush to join the rightist/populist countries Mr. Netanyahu seemed to prefer. It has opted for the status quo, meaning perhaps a lower profile on the world stage, but no great policy changes.
Paul Scham is a non-resident scholar at MEI and the executive director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland.
Regardless of who wins, Palestinians are the ultimate losers
With the results of the Israeli elections producing a close tie and neither Likud nor Blue and White having a path to securing a majority, several scenarios and coalitions are possible, but it will take weeks for a government to shape up. What is already evident, however, is that Palestinians are the ultimate losers.
Regardless of who wins or succeeds in forming a unity government or coalition, the policies of occupation, annexation, and racism are always on the agenda. Major candidates campaigned on the promises of annexation and anti-Palestinian policies, both of which are a violation of international law and universal human rights. Benjamin Netanyahu promised to annex the Jordan Valley (30% of the West Bank) and other settlements, including in Hebron, and continuously used racist incitement against Palestinians. Netanyahu’s chief rival, Benny Gantz, responded by claiming that his party was first to call for annexing the Jordan Valley, and bragged about flattening entire residential areas in Gaza. Needless to say, issues of Palestinian rights, ending the occupation and the siege on Gaza, two states, the Nation-State law, or peace were nowhere to be found. Both options are pro-settler, pro-annexation, and stand accused of war crimes against Palestinians. More so, the Joint List (an alliance of parties led primarily by Palestinian citizens of Israel), which is the third-largest party, is likely out of all calculations in coalition formation, while secular-right Avigdor Lieberman, who lives in an illegal Israeli settlement, emerged as kingmaker. Whether official annexation is just an empty campaign promise or turns into actual policy is irrelevant; it has been a reality for Palestinians living under occupation for decades.
Once again, Israelis voted to deny Palestinians their human rights and further entrench the occupation. Yet, Netanyahu’s departure may prove consequential for the Palestinians: it might either force the world to face the reality that Israeli violations are not a Netanyahu problem or conversely provide an alternative who can wash Israel’s image from Netanyahu’s well-known history of apartheid policies. Whether the international community will finally force Israel to comply with international law remains to be seen.
Tamara Kharroub is the Assistant Executive Director and a Senior Middle East Fellow at Arab Center Washington, DC.
A healthy course correct for Israeli democracy
This election is a sign of the resilience of the Israeli people, who understood that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was abandoning his caution and leading a proud democracy to veer dangerously off its course.
There were too many developments that suggested that Netanyahu was willing to erode institutional norms in order to survive politically and extricate himself from corruption allegations. Taken together, Netanyahu’s legal peril led to him losing the equivalent of seven parliamentary seats, which denied him the ability to cobble together a bare majority. This is a mighty blow for the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history. He is now trying to hold on for a power-sharing arrangement with his main rival and former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Benny Gantz, of the Blue and White Party.
The public does not like to see its leader willing to use the parliament as a vehicle to protect himself from prosecution. The public doesn’t like its prime minister denigrating law enforcement agencies as he faces corruption charges. The public doesn’t want to hear Trumpian-like allegations — without a shred of evidence presented — about rigged elections. Calls by Netanyahu for emergency legislation to install cameras at Arab voting stations were infuriating and failed in a parliamentary vote. (The Netanyahu move boomeranged and boosted Arab turnout.) The public is stunned that Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit had to intervene last week to stop moves toward an incursion into Gaza without proper cabinet procedures.
The Israeli public demonstrated healthy instincts. Israel’s institutions proved to be strong. Netanyahu lost as the public support for democratic institutions proved to have won.
David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he directs the Project on Arab-Israel Relations.
The path to stability will require unity and compromise
After the second round of elections in less than a year, there is no new government in Israel and the road to get there is still long and complex. But for now, the following are clear: The Israeli left wing is shrinking dramatically, Israeli Arabs recognize the need to take part in elections, none of the parties came out with what it wants, and, as always, the path to stability will require everyone to compromise.
The Israeli left — meaning the parties that define themselves as such, namely the Democratic Union and the Labor Party — won a total of just 11 seats. By comparison, in the 2015 elections the Labor Party alone received 19 seats. Several factors have contributed to this decline: the faster natural growth of other groups, a general loss of hope as these parties' messages time and time again clash with reality, and a lack of commitment on the part of their members, who often come and go, either for their own reasons or because they’re pushed out — a result of the parties’ “beheading culture.”
In the last round of elections in April, the Arab parties won ten seats. This time around, however, they got 13, which makes them the third-largest party in the Knesset — a first in the history of Israeli democracy. This increase was in part due to the negative campaign waged by the right-wing parties, but the explanation is probably broader and stems from an understanding among Israel’s Arab citizens that voting and taking an active part in politics serves their best interests.
Even after the second round of elections, none of the major parties has the ability to build a stable coalition. This points to the health of Israeli society, which, of course, exists in disagreements, but disagreements that can be overcome. The hard right-wing and hard left-wing parties did not receive much support and the two major parties, Likud and Blue and White, together won 64 seats in what reflects the general public’s desire for moderation and stability. Such stability can only exist under a unity government to which each party will bring its own experience and capabilities.
Roie Yellinek is a non-resident scholar at MEI, a Ph.D. student at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan (Israel), and a doctoral researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.