Takeaways from the Israeli Election

Benjamin Netanyahu (photocosmos1 via Shutterstock)

by Mitchell Plitnick

The Israeli elections are over, and the outcome largely matched the predictions. The Blue and White coalition amassed enough votes to match Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, but only Likud has a path to assembling a governing coalition. Many pundits tried—and largely succeeded—to generate interest in an election that was a nearly foregone conclusion from the start, with only an unlikely combination of long shots offering a sliver of hope that the Benny Gantz-led center-right opposition to Likud could eke out a narrow victory.

This is familiar territory for Netanyahu, for he has faced races just as tight as this one several times in the past. In both 1996 (in a direct election for prime minister) and in 2015, it looked for a time like Netanyahu would not get the most votes. In 2009, he didn’t, but Tzipi Livni, whose Kadima party got the most seats, was unable to cobble together a governing coalition.

This time, Netanyahu may have ended up in a tie with Gantz at 35 seats each, but the right wing and religious parties emerged with a distinct majority. He’ll need to do some wheeling and dealing to appease every party he wants in the government, but it’s a trick he’s pulled off many times before. The new government will, once again, be the most right wing in Israel’s history. But this time, the length of the new government’s tenure will depend more on Netanyahu’s legal troubles than on the political dynamics of the coalition.

Annex the West Bank?

Netanyahu’s promise to annex parts of the West Bank raised alarm bells around the world and perked up the ears of right-wing Israelis just as election day was approaching. He has been known to back off from bold statements in the past. But these days, with Washington destroying long-held diplomatic norms, he may feel that annexation is less risky than in the past. On the other hand, with President Donald Trump and his team of settler-aligned negotiators insisting that their “deal of the century” peace program is ready to drop, Netanyahu may not want to risk stepping on Trump’s toes.

Most likely, Netanyahu will take gradual steps in entrenching full Israeli control of the Jordan Valley and using legal means and statements to normalize the extant realities on the ground. He has already successfully fought off attempts to differentiate between settlements and Israel proper. The announcement this week by Airbnb that it will continue listing West Bank settlement homes, reversing its previous decision to de-list them, demonstrates his success. Doubling down on that campaign will help cement the idea that the West Bank is Israel, solidifying an apartheid regime quietly rather than suddenly.

The other possibility is that the Trump peace plan, or one of Trump’s whims, will do the job for him. The thin security rationale offered for annexing the Golan Heights can be applied as well to the Jordan Valley. Trump knows very well that such an action would increase the divisions over Israel between Republicans, who would support it, and Democrats, who would oppose. It would also deepen the split in the Jewish community over Israel, which Trump relishes for cutting anti-Trump Jews out of the Israel policy debate.

The Ashes of the Israeli Left

This election was between the right and the ultra-right. Despite Netanyahu’s campaign rhetoric, there is no definition of “left wing” that could reasonably include the Blue and White coalition or any of its constituent parties. The Labor party is the centrist boundary of the Zionist “left,” and the term “left” includes any party whose purpose is to represent Palestinian citizens of Israel. Thus, Ra’am, also known as the United Arab List, is referred to as “left wing” although it includes quite conservative elements within it.

The Joint List came together in 2015 to maximize the impact of votes for the three main Arab parties in Israel—Ra’am, Balad, and Ta’al—along with the communist, Jewish-Arab party, Hadash. The strategy was successful, as the Joint List’s 13 seats made it the third largest party in the last Knesset. This time, for a variety of reasons, the Joint List split into two, with Hadash and Ta’al running as one joint party and Balad and Ra’am as another. Balad and Ra’am barely got past the threshold for entering the Knesset, 3.25% of the vote, getting them four seats. Hadash-Ta’al fared better, with six seats. But both are now very minor parties.

The turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel was extremely low, in part because of the ineffectiveness of the Joint List in the last Knesset. As the second largest opposition bloc, but still a political pariah, the Joint List had little practical effect in the parliament. Combined with the vicious anti-Palestinian rhetoric that characterized both the Gantz and Netanyahu campaigns, the despair among Palestinian citizens of Israel was palpable.

The Zionist left, however, fared no better. The Labor party—whose bona fides as a left-wing party are questionable—plummeted to an historic low of six seats after garnering 19 in the previous election. The more left-wing Meretz party’s entry into the Knesset was in doubt for a while, and it barely got in with four seats. In a country where non- or anti-Zionist parties are political outsiders, it is extremely telling that those parties won as many seats as the parties of the Zionist left.

It will be up to the former Joint List parties to determine if they can find a way to overcome their differences and reconstitute their unity. But for Labor and Meretz, some fundamental questions arise.

Labor leader Avi Gabbay tried to remake Labor’s sagging image into more of a security-minded one. He hoped to revive Labor’s relevance by moving away from a past strongly associated with the Oslo Accords toward one that projected military strength. Predictably, this failed. After all, Israelis who wanted to vote for such a party prefered Netanyahu. Or, if they wanted a leader less beholden to religious and settler forces, they would naturally gravitate to Gantz, who was one of three former chiefs of staff among the leadership of Blue and White.

Gabbay is probably on the way out as Labor’s leader. But the party doesn’t have many options. Its constituency and identity don’t allow for a policy shift on the occupation or much latitude on domestic issues. Meretz, on the other hand, can move a bit more, and it must.

Meretz is the one Israeli Zionist party that could partner with some of the former Joint List parties. If it can join with Palestinian citizens of Israel and yet demonstrate that it still maintains a Zionist identity, Meretz could provide a real alternative for Israelis that would strike chords among the currently marginalized Israeli Jewish left. In partnership with parties like Hadash and Ta’al, Meretz could show that Zionists and anti-Zionists can transcend nationalist ideology and work together for broader, universal values. On the precipice of disappearing completely from the Israeli political map, Meretz might be desperate enough to try something like this. Chances for success would be slim, but the rewards for such success could be game-changing.

The Fall of the “New Right”

When former Minister of Education Naftali Bennett and former Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked bolted the Jewish Home party to form The New Right last December, they intended to set themselves up as a successor right-wing party. They hoped to take advantage of a more open field on the right—and Netanyahu’s legal troubles—by forming a party that united secular and religious nationalists in a pragmatic platform that could appeal to a wider swath of right-wing voters than Likud or similar parties.

That plan failed dramatically as The New Right seems to have failed to garner the required 3.25% of the vote to enter the Knesset. The Central Elections Committee said that it narrowly gathered the requisite votes, but a subsequent announcement stated the reverse. Shaked and Bennett are appealing for a recount, but it seems they will need to find other ways to occupy their time until the next round of elections. They miscalculated Likud’s appeal to the nationalist voters they were targeting. Likud already employed much of The New Right’s rhetoric and ideology. Running a poor campaign didn’t help.

Bennett, one of Netanyahu’s most abrasive critics from the right, is now gone. Even if he wins his appeal, he will be severely weakened. As he attempts to form a government that will not only carry out his political agenda but more importantly shield him against a potential indictment, Netanyahu needs to avoid surrounding himself with similarly contentious potential coalition partners. Now there will be a scramble among right-wing leaders to see who can position himself as Netanyahu’s right flank, a position that might be particularly important whenever the next election comes around.

Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at www.mitchellplitnick.com. You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.