If Netanyahu doesn't win, this could be his last election.
Israelis will go to the voting booth on Tuesday for the second election in the last six months, something unprecedented in Israel’s short history. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked like he would cruise to a fourth premiership in April atop another right wing-religious coalition, an unexpected turn of events precipitated the call for a new vote.
What has happened since the last election, what can we expect on September 17, and why does it matter?
On April 9, Israelis voted to form the 21st Knesset. Netanyahu’s Likud tied with upstart centrist party Blue and White, headed by former Israel Defense Forces Chief Benny Gantz. Each party gained 35 seats out of 120. However, in the critical post-election days it seemed that Netanyahu could reach the 61 seats needed to form a coalition, and Gantz could not. Netanyahu was therefore tasked by the president with forming a government.
Netanyahu was already operating on a thin margin to form a coalition. But the big surprise came when Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the hawkish secular Yisrael Beitenu party, decided to throw a wrench into the works. Claiming that he was standing up to “ultra-Orthodox extortion,” Lieberman said that unless the two ultra-Orthodox parties agreed to his military draft bill in the coalition agreements, he wouldn’t join. The draft bill in question was a plan to formalize the legal structure around the controversial exemption that ultra-Orthodox men receive from mandatory military service, so long as they study in religious seminaries. The aim was to gradually raise the percentage of eligible men from that community who must serve. Netanyahu was left one seat short of forming a coalition, and he had to dissolve the Knesset on May 29. Every jaw in the country was agape as the votes unfolded in parliament. Seventy-three other Knesset members voted essentially to fire themselves, including some who might not make it back this time around.
Comparing Pre-Election Predictions
The day before the April elections, I published this primer with a few predictions. Likud and Blue and White both took more seats than expected, sucking up seats from their smaller potential allies in the final stretch. The recently split Arab parties garnered considerably fewer seats than expected, due to historically low voter turnout in the Israeli-Arab sector. Turnout was dampened by frustration with their options and a sense of alienation, especially among younger voters. Had Naftali Bennett’s New Right surpassed the 3.25% threshold necessary to make it into the Knesset, Netanyahu would have been secure with or without Lieberman. It is worth mentioning that it was Netanyahu himself who weakened Bennett in the final days of the campaign, something the prime minister probably regrets.
An additional surprise that has affected the current campaign was the success of the larger centrist parties and the struggles of the extremist and smaller parties. Long known for favoring an abundance of niche parties, Israelis have become used to choosing from among 40 or so parties at the ballot box and winding up with 10 or so in the Knesset. Many left-wing and centrist observers, as well as foreign pundits and the American Jewish community (which largely leans left) were especially concerned by the appearance of a number of far-right parties, most of them deeply religious, including the ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Might) party. But the far-right religious parties only combined to garner 5 seats, the same number won by the far-left party, while a number of niche parties on the right and in the center fell by the wayside. Israelis, whether driven by strategic voting considerations or ideological ones, moved to the center.
What Changed in the Interim
The months leading to this week’s election saw a number of maneuvers among the parties. The smaller parties’ struggles in the previous election did not go unnoticed.
So, what changed, from left to right? Here are the highlights:
- The United List - The Arab parties reunited, hoping to pull back some lost voters frustrated by their infighting. Of note is party head Aymen Odeh stating that his Arab list would be willing to join a coalition headed by a center-left Zionist coalition. Although somewhat overlooked, this could end up having significant ramifications. The renewed Arab list is expected to win 11 seats -- not much of an improvement.
- The Democratic Camp – If you don’t recognize this name, it's because this party didn’t exist just four months ago. Former prime minister Ehud Barak (yes, him) came out of political retirement for the third time in a bid to energize and unite the left, bringing with him a controversial former general, as well as the granddaughter of assassinated prime minister Yitzchak Rabin, to form the Israel Democratic Party. Barak then joined forces with the far-left Meretz party, which ousted its leader and appointed the more moderate Nitzan Horowitz. The new party convinced rising political star Stav Shaffir to leave Labor after she lost a bid to head that party. Barak, often accused of being an opportunist, demoted himself to the 10th place on the list, making it highly unlikely he will return to Knesset himself. Barak’s return has focused on ousting what he claims is a corrupt Netanyahu, who he says is leading Israel down an authoritarian path. They are expected to win around 5 seats.
- Avodah – Gesher – Another surprise move took place within the struggling Labor party, or Avodah. The party ousted leader Avi Gabbay. Beyond his failure at the helm, Gabbay had seriously mulled joining Netanyahu’s coalition in the latter’s last-second bid to form a government. Avodah voted veteran lawmaker Amir Peretz back into power in their primary. Peretz surprised many by quickly joining forces with Orly Levy-Abekasis and her Gesher party, which failed to reach the threshold last time around. Levy-Abekasis, although focusing primarily on domestic issues, was assumed to lean right on security and diplomatic matters. The union between the two is said to be an attempt to create a “new politics” and focus on domestic issues, leaving the old left-right divides behind. Of note is that both Peretz and Levy-Abekasis are of Mizrahi/Sephardic (Middle Eastern) descent, whereas most left-wing figures and voters tend to be Ashkenazi (of European descent). They are expected to win around 5 seats.
- Blue and White – Recall that Blue and White is actually a union of former IDF chief Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and former IDF chief Bogie Ya’alon and his Likud outcasts, along with another former IDF chief, Gabi Ashkenazi. The party never seemed especially united, focused, or energized to begin with. It rather relied on not making too many mistakes and providing a level-headed alternative to Netanyahu. Indeed, on most policies, it is difficult to distinguish between Blue and White and Likud. Gantz seemed flustered at times, while the controversial Lapid seemed to go off message, especially when attacking the ultra-Orthodox. Blue and White’s main message is that of keeping Israel as a rule-of-law democracy, free of the corruption and authoritarianism that Netanyahu and his right-wing partners are supposedly advancing. Blue and White has said multiple times they would join a coalition with Likud, but not with Netanyahu so long as he faces indictment. Most recently, they adopted Lapid’s push to form a secular government to minimize the influence of the ultra-Orthodox. They are expected to win around 33 seats, which would make them the largest party. However, without the Arab parties, they cannot form a coalition of center-left parties on their own.
- Likud (and Kulanu) - Where does Likud stop and Netanyahu begin? It is hard to say anymore. Netanyahu seems bent on remaining in power, and any politician that threatens his status finds himself ousted or diminished. The same goes for rivals outside Likud such as Lieberman and Ayelet Shaked. It’s no wonder Netanyahu just surpassed founding David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving premier. Almost immediately after the April elections, it became clear that Netanyahu sought to legislate immunity for himself and stave off the indictments against him. (He faces three indictments pending a hearing on corruption and breach of trust charges.) Riding a wave of foreign-policy and security successes and boasting an especially close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, Netanyahu continues to portray himself as the only statesman capable of navigating the turbulent Middle East. One small surprise was the return of former Likud MK Moshe Kahlon, who had been the head of Kulanu, into the ranks of the party. Having only managed 4 seats and risking an even worse result, Kahlon and what was left of Kulanu fully merged with Likud. In the meantime, another Likud MK and minister is being indicted for corruption. As of the most recent election polls, Likud without Lieberman will not have enough right-wing supporters to form a coalition without Gantz. Also of note is that Netanyahu managed to convince the right-wing Zehut party to drop out of the elections in exchange for an influential cabinet post for its leader, Moshe Feiglin, if Likud wins. Likud is polling at 31 seats ahead of the elections and Netanyahu’s infamous “gevald” (woe is us) campaign is in full form. Lastly, as Netanyahu has done in the three previous elections, he has swung right at the last minute, this time promising to extend Israeli sovereignty over settlements in the Jordan Valley should he be elected. This is a bid to weaken his rivals to the right and win a few more seats from them.
- Yisrael Beitenu - Avigdor Lieberman is the story of these elections. Lieberman supposedly forced new elections because he decided to take a stand against the ultra-Orthodox. Lieberman is one of the more cunning and veteran politicians in Israel. Originally representing Russian immigrants, who trend right and secular, Lieberman noticed this demographic has been drying up in recent years as second-generation Russian immigrants integrate more fully into society. Lieberman decided to wager his political future on a different aspect of the right-left divide. As explained in the previous election primer, left and right in Israel can relate to security matters, economic ones, or matters of religion and state. Here Lieberman has always acted as a counterweight to the three ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox parties in the Knesset. Sensing that the security right-left battle is moot, as is the economic one, Lieberman decided to reframe the election as one of secular vs. religious. It is no headline that the ultra-Orthodox have long held outsized influence in Israel due to the coalition system, and Lieberman gained much public support by holding his ground. Of course, one more seat for Bennett and he would not have been able to do this. There is another cynical view according to which Lieberman hopes to take advantage of this situation to engineer Netanyahu’s fall. Lieberman already announced he seeks a Likud-Blue and White-Yisrael Beitenu unity government, fully aware that Gantz would not sit with Netanyahu. Lieberman thereby hopes to force the Likud to oust Netanyahu in order to form this unity government. He also continues to portray himself and his party as the “sane” right, while Netanyahu is the one caving in to Hamas terrorists and “messianic extremists.” Lieberman’s gamble seems to be working, as he has already increased his position from 5 to 7 seats or perhaps more.
- Yamina (Rightward) - The new combination of the Union of Right-Wing Parties and the New Right, essentially the old Bayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) of two elections ago, was formed to ensure no hard-right votes go to waste this time. After proving to be less appealing than he thought, Naftali Bennett agreed to step aside and allow his more popular partner Ayelet Shaked to take over. Shaked left Bennett’s “The New Right” after they missed the voting threshold, mulled joining the Likud, and ultimately returned to Bennett after being offered the top spot. What is more notable is that the two national-religious settler parties who comprise the rest of the “United Right” agreed to allow Shaked, a secular woman no less, to head their list. Yamina is battling with Likud, portraying itself as the true right, on issues such as Gaza and West Bank settlements, as well as how they would respond to the Trump peace plan. The party is expected to win 9 seats. Also of note is that Otzma, the extreme-right faction of Israeli politics, was left out of the United Right this time around. Otzma demanded a place on the list higher than what Shaked thought they were worth, and the party will run alone. Otzma's passing or missing the threshold could be significant for the other right-wing parties. As of the most recent polling, they look to sneak in with 4 seats. Netanyahu, in the run-up to the elections, is trying to chip away at Yamina and Otzma’s votes to ensure that his is the largest party.
- Shas - Not much has changed for Shas, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party. Shas head and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri might also face corruption charges, something for which he previously sat in prison. They are expected to win 7 seats.
- United Torah Judaism - The Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party head and Deputy Health Minister Ya’akov Litzman might face corruption charges of his own for allegedly aiding a convicted pedophile. The party is expected to win seats, as both ultra-Orthodox parties have strong and committed voter bases.
Polls should be read carefully and taken with more than a grain of salt. Yet if Lieberman’s gambit works -- and many on the street are convinced it just might -- we could see a historic unseating of Netanyahu not by the center-left opposition and not from within his party, but by a right-wing rival who managed to change the order of national priorities under Netanyahu’s very nose.
A Blue and White-Likud unity government that includes Lieberman and perhaps Avodah/Gesher, while leaving out the ultra-Orthodox and the religious right, would be a historic development with regional and domestic implications. Such a coalition could make significant legislative headway on a number of matters long demanded by a majority of Israelis but blocked by coalition politics that give outsized power to the religious right. It could legislate on matters of religion and state, for example allowing marriage freedom. It could seek to repair damaged relations with American Jewry by pushing through the egalitarian section at the Western Wall, and it could make a renewed attempt to address the Palestinian issue and the fate of outlying settlements. Trump’s long-awaited peace plan, were it to be revealed, might also have more of a chance under such a government, although this is likely to stall in any case due to Palestinian intransigence. Of course, Iran or Hamas could take advantage of the political chaos and of the possibility of new leadership to further its regional ambitions.
Alternatively, another right-wing coalition led by Netanyahu and with the far-right parties, including the possible entrance of Otzma, could further cement the right’s ambitions regarding Judea and Samaria. This could further alienate American Jews as well as Israel’s new regional allies and those parts of the international community already critical of Israel.
Does all this seem like it is a lot to digest? That is because it is, and the complexity is causing many Israelis to lose interest in politics. Making things even worse, this has been an intensely personalized campaign. Personal attacks among the candidates have taken precedence over policy debates.
Are we still talking about the same issues?
It looks for now like Lieberman’s gambit to make the elections all about religion and state might just work. Lieberman is keenly aware that limiting ultra-Orthodox influence on matters of religion and state is as close to a consensus issue as exists in Israel. The ultra-Orthodox and more hardline-nationalist religious right comprise perhaps 15-20% of the population, while issues like civil marriage, which is not allowed in Israel, consistently get around 60% public support in polls.
The other major issue is once again, and perhaps more than ever, Netanyahu himself. This is especially the case after the prime minister dragged the country into a costly election most Israelis see as unnecessary. Frustration explains why a record low of Israelis is expected to vote this time. Low voter turnout will likely help the niche parties more than it will the mainstream ones. If Netanyahu cannot form a government, this could be his last election.
Dan Feferman is a major (res.) in the Israel Defense Forces, where he served as a foreign policy planner, assistant to the deputy chief of staff, and as an intelligence analyst. He researches, writes and speaks on Israel and the Middle East. The views expressed are the author's own.