by Ofer Zalzberg
Current polls project that the governing Likud party will secure enough seats in the Knesset for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to put together a new right-wing governing coalition, similar to the one he now leads. Netanyahu’s campaign has emphasized his claim to be a strong defender and saviour of Israel and other successes, such as keeping Israel out of new wars and overseeing a period of macroeconomic prosperity and improved standing in the world. Neither the opposition’s charges against him nor the Attorney General’s recommendation to indict him seem to have harmed him much so far.
For Netanyahu to form the next government, he will need the support of right and center-right parties (60 members of parliament must recommend that he form a government). Should current polls hold, he would have it. So far, the following parties have committed to recommend him to form the next coalition: the national-religious Union of Right-Wing Parties, the secular and religious New Right, the two ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, the mostly Russian-speaking Israel Beitenu and economics-focused Kulanu. The Libertarian Zehut, led by a hawkish former Likud member who has proposed plans to incentivize Palestinian emigration from the West Bank, almost certainly will do the same. Along with the Likud, seats won by these parties will probably add up to slightly more than the 61 parliamentarians (out of 120) that Netanyahu needs to form a government.
A different scenario, less likely given current polling but still plausible, could see Netanyahu’s most serious rival, former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who united his Israel Resilience party with the center-left Yesh Atid party under a single list called Blue and White, form a center-left government. Some polls had shown Blue and White receiving a few more seats than the Likud (around 28 to 31 for Blue and White and 26 to 28 for Likud), while others have shown Likud in the lead (with 29-31 seats for Likud and 28-29 for Blue and White).
The critical question, however, is not whether Likud or Blue and White will receive the most votes, but which party can convince 60 members of the Knesset to recommend its leader to form the next government. Based on current polls, this could only happen if Gantz’s governing coalition were to include a minister from a non-Zionist Arab party, an unprecedented albeit not impossible choice. A record 73 per cent of Israel’s Palestinian citizens support Arab parties joining a coalition, but Gantz has explicitly ruled out forming a coalition with anyone who is not “Jewish and Zionist”. Though Gantz’s positions could change after the election – he won’t be the first leader to backtrack on an electoral promise – no Israeli government has ever included an Arab party.
Another possibility is that neither Netanyahu nor Gantz will be able to form a coalition. In that case, either they will establish a government of national unity with a rotating premiership or the President of Israel will call for a new election after determining that no party leader is able to form a government. Past experience suggests that in a national unity government, Gantz will be inclined to demand control of certain portfolios rather than demand that Netanyahu adopt specific policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the event of a new election, the right-wing may well draw the lesson from its current fragmentation that it ought to go to the ballot box more united.
What will determine the outcome of the election?
This election will turn on three issues: the degree of fragmentation within the right and center-left camps; voter attitudes toward Netanyahu’s likely indictments for bribery, fraud and breach of trust; and voter attitudes toward security challenges on several fronts.
First, the fragmentation or unity of different political blocs will be critical in determining whether Netanyahu can form a new government. The electoral threshold, which right-wing parties raised several years ago as a way to limit the number of Arab parliamentarians, is now more than 50 per cent higher than it was before 2014: a party needs to win four out of 120 seats (3.25 per cent of the popular vote) to enter parliament. The Joint List, a political alliance of Arab-dominated parties, has split in two and its components risk not meeting the electoral threshold. In Israel’s right-wing camp, several parties – Kulanu, Israel Beitenu, Shas and Zehut – have polled at 3.25 per cent or less over the past couple months. In contrast, Israel’s other main camp, which largely refuses to label itself as left-leaning, has consolidated.
Gantz’s alliance with center-left Yesh Atid faces a different challenge for establishing a future government. Yesh Atid’s leader, Yair Lapid, is detested by the ultra-Orthodox parties for attempting to force yeshiva students to join the labor market and the army (Israel has universal conscription that most ultra-Orthodox have avoided on religious grounds since the state’s founding). The ultra-Orthodox parties, often kingmakers in Israeli politics, are therefore unwilling to join a coalition under Gantz and Lapid (who agreed on a rotating premiership if Blue and White forms the next government).
Second, polls so far suggest that Netanyahu remains relatively untarnished by the Attorney General’s 28 February recommendation to indict him for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. What appeared to have hurt him more, however, was a recent scandal involving allegations of impropriety and financial profit in his decision to agree to Germany’s sale of submarines to Egypt. Netanyahu approved the sale of the submarines without consulting top military officials, and he had an undisclosed financial stake in the company supplying the German manufacturer. The Likud’s polling numbers dipped as a result of the scandal, but have since picked up again.
Third, four flashpoints with the Palestinians – Gaza, Israel’s prisons, Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade (Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount), and the West Bank – are on the cusp of escalation. Historically, an escalation during an election campaign has pushed the Israeli Jewish electorate to vote for right-wing candidates. This election is somewhat different, however, because Netanyahu is facing off against a party led by three former IDF chiefs of staff; criticism from these rivals could undermine Netanyahu’s brand as “Mr. Security”. When rockets from Gaza landed in central Israel, Blue and White’s generals attacked Netanyahu for being soft on Hamas and “paying protection [money] to terrorists” by allowing Qatar to pay salaries to the Hamas-led government in Gaza.
Like all incumbent candidates, Netanyahu enjoys disproportionate media coverage and can use the power of his office during the campaign. The most recent example is his successful push to win President Trump’s recognition of Israel’s de facto annexation of the Golan Heights and obtaining, with Russia’s assistance, the return of the remains of an Israeli soldier who went missing during the First Lebanon War in 1982. Netanyahu showed Israeli voters not only that he can score diplomatic achievements for Israel but that the leaders of two great powers appear to support his re-election.
How will the election result affect Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts?
There is little reason to expect dramatic changes in Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority or Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), no matter who leads the next governing coalition. If anything, in the most likely scenario of another Netanyahu-led right-wing coalition, the government may well pursue more hard-line policies than its predecessor. If the election results reflect the current polls, Netanyahu will have a narrow and fragile coalition. Smaller parties like the National Union, Zehut, and the New Right will therefore be in a strong bargaining position.
Such a government will likely continue to avoid choosing between ending occupation or annexing the West Bank. Netanyahu’s advisers speak with pride of having driven a wedge between the West Bank and Gaza, noting that Palestinian political and geographic division has diluted the effectiveness of international pressure to establish a Palestinian state. As Likud campaign spokesperson Erez Tadmor told Israel Radio on 31 March: “The split between Fatah in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and Hamas in the Gaza Strip is a division that allows Israel to divide and rule, a division that serves Israeli interests”. Leading such a government, Netanyahu will almost certainly seek to avoid having to engage seriously with the peace plan the Trump administration has promised to unveil and which, while doubtless heavily tilted toward Israel, probably will contain elements anathema to the country’s far right. This should be fairly easy to do, given the very high likelihood that it will be rejected by the PLO.
In contrast, a Gantz-led government arguably could take steps to help restore PLO interest in negotiations. Although any resulting negotiations are unlikely to succeed – as Crisis Group has long documented, the Israeli-Palestinian impasse goes far beyond the exact composition of Israel’s coalition – Israeli steps that the PLO sees as positive can open up space for further cooperation. A Gantz-led government – especially if dependent on Arab support as current polls indicate would be necessary – could take steps to redress Arab-Jewish economic inequality in Israel and lessen discrimination against Palestinian citizens in Israel, after a lengthy period of growing discrimination on the grounds of ethnic origins. With respect to policy toward the West Bank and Gaza, such a government could for instance restrain construction outside of major settlement blocs (though Gantz has vowed to increase settlement construction within them) and allow Palestinian cities in the West Bank to territorially expand, effectively expanding the Palestinian Authority’s area of operation (in the early days of the Trump Administration, U.S. Envoy Jason Greenblatt asked Prime Minister Netanyahu to make such gestures toward the Palestinians in the town of Qalqilya and was rebuffed).
Any further steps favored by the Israeli left – such as forcibly evacuating isolated settlements east of the separation barrier – would face fierce opposition from right-wing pro-settler activists, notably in the West Bank, and would be contentious within Blue and White, which contains a number of right-wing figures. But softer policies can still make a difference. A Gantz-led government could, for example, advance a law that would provide financial rewards to settlers residing east of the separation barrier and willing to relocate into Israel proper. Polls suggest that over a quarter of the settlers living east of the barrier would opt to relocate. Their relocation might weaken settler communities and induce additional waves of settlers to relocate. Though such an initiative would fall far short of ending Israel’s occupation or resolving the conflict, the sight of thousands of settlers packing their bags could change Palestinian perceptions of Israel’s willingness to leave most of the West Bank.
Ofer Zalzberg is a senior analyst on Israel/Palestine for the International Crisis Group, where this article originally appeared.