On its face, the 2019 Israeli election results look very much like the status quo. As of this writing, Benjamin Netanyahu looks likely to create a coalition that will look a great deal like the one that has been governing Israel. Beneath the surface, however, several shifts on both the Israeli left and the Israeli right could indicate changes in Israel’s political landscape. More to the point, as I hinted in my election preview, winning the election may be only the beginning of Netanyahu’s most challenging year in his long political career. In what follows, I’ll give several key takeaways from the election and analyze the challenges Prime Minister Netanyahu may face in the weeks and months ahead.
The Left’s Collapse
The 2019 elections represent what may be a historic collapse for the Israeli left. As of this writing, the once venerable Israeli Labor Party is on track to obtain a paltry six seats in the Knesset. Meretz, the furthest-left Israeli party that does not outright reject the Zionist project, will receive a mere four seats. For contrast, the block most identified with the Israeli left now has as many seats as the fragmented Arab block, and is likely to have almost as little influence. Part of this collapse may be a temporary result of tactical voting by center-left voters, who hoped to give the broadly center-right Blue and White coalition enough seats to make them the natural party of government. Thus, supporters of the Israeli left may console themselves with the thought of a snap-back from those supporters in the next election, and the hope that Netanyahu’s troubles will lead that election to come sooner rather than later. But that is a dangerous gamble, and it masks a broader problem for Israel’s left: they are a movement without a message and seem to have lost the Israeli center’s confidence.
What Now for Arab Voters?
Arab turnout was reportedly quite low, which has, in a scene likely to be familiar to American audiences, left many of the Arab parties to make arguments about voter suppression. Still, for the leaders of the Arab-Israeli political parties, the turnout drop is a worrying sign. The Hadash-Ta’al list and the more radical Balad-Ra’am list split over tactical differences, with Hadash-Ta’al hinting at its willingness to provide a supply agreement to Benny Gantz, while Balad-Ra’am staked out a position as the most firmly rejectionist alternative. The result? Hadash-Ta’al underperformed the polls by a few seats, and Balad-Ra’am just barely passed the threshold to gain seats. Given these realities, perhaps it is worth asking whether the exclusively Arab parties are really the most effective vehicle for Arab Israelis’ political aspirations. This marks the second election in a row in which elements of the Israeli right mobilized their own voters based on fear of the Arab parties in government. Given that reality and the Israeli left’s collapse mentioned above, convergence of these two groups’ interests seems inevitable, to the detriment of both Hadash-Ta’al and Balad-Ra’am.
What Now for Gantz?
The conventional wisdom is that this close-but-no-cigar election probably marks the high-water mark of Benny Gantz’s political career. Blue and White, after all, is a fractious coalition of center to center-right parties and personalities, held together by their opposition to Netanyahu and acceptance of many of his policies. The coalition, so the thinking goes, is an incompatible kaleidoscope of personalities, and Gantz, it is believed, will have neither the patience nor the interest in successfully wrangling them. Further, the current suspicion is that Gantz’s coalition partner, Ye’or Lapid, is unlikely to remain part of Gantz’s opposition coalition in the long-term. Yet there are reasons to be skeptical of this analysis. First, as will be discussed below, Netanyahu’s electoral win does not mean he’s out of the woods in terms of political danger. Second, all of these same problems would have bedeviled Gantz’s coalition had they won. In reality, Gantz’s political future remains in his own hands. Yes, keeping his fractious coalition together in the opposition, and proving himself to be a credible presence on the Israeli political scene, will be a difficult challenge. Yet if he succeeds, Gantz could potentially position himself to be Bibi’s ultimate successor. Doing so will require patience, savvy, and political skills, which neophyte Gantz will have to develop on the fly. Still, he would hardly be the first Israeli general to successfully transition and become a political leader, or the first Israeli politician to recover from a political defeat only to return as prime minister later.
Down with the Secular Right, Up with the Religious Parties
Other than Netanyahu, the election’s clearest winners are the religious parties of the right, both ultra-orthodox and religious Zionist. For those unfamiliar with the nomenclature, ultra-orthodox parties started off as skeptics of the Zionist project who joined politics in the 1980s and generally engaged in transactional politics designed to preserve orthodox Judaism’s special status in the Israeli state. The parties break down along ethnic lines, with Shas representing the Sephardi and UTJ representing the various Ashkenazi communities. By contrast, religious Zionist parties fully and enthusiastically accept the Zionist project, to the point of actively participating in the settlement enterprise. Both the ultra-orthodox and religious Zionist parties performed well in the election, with the combined ultra-orthodox block gaining 16 seats. The religious Zionist block is smaller, with five seats at this writing (this total might change based on military ballots still to be counted).
On the other hand, if any force on the right can be said to have lost the election, it is the New Right of Naftali Bennett and Aylet Shaked. Bennett and Shaked broke off from Jewish Home, the flagship party of the religious Zionists, in the hope that maintaining Jewish Home’s security positions with a more secular orientation would be an electoral winner. Many observers of Israeli politics suspect Bennett and Shaked ultimately hoped to fold their party into Likud and succeed Netanyahu sometime in the next five to 10 years. As of this writing, however, Bennett and Shaked’s New Right Party is hovering just below the electoral threshold, a reality that, if it holds, could have negative implications for their political futures. Even if they squeak in above the threshold, as some preliminary numbers early on Thursday morning indicated they might, this is a dramatic underperformance of their polling in February and March. The general takeaway is that, even within the right, conservative and explicitly religious populism is on an upswing in Israel.
To some degree, unique Israeli factors have driven this reality, such as Israel’s security situation and orthodox Jews’ high birthrates. Yet it may also be seen as part of a broader trend of conservative religious populism worldwide, from Hungary to Turkey to Indonesia to India. Clearly, the general assumption of religion’s decreasing relevance in the twenty-first century is, at best, limited to a handful of wealthy post-industrial Western countries. In Israel’s case, a working knowledge of Orthodox Judaism and its associated political thought is probably a must moving forward.
What’s Next for Netanyahu?
Undeniably, the election is a triumph for Bibi Netanyahu. Yet it is not the end of his political challenges. Two difficult tasks remain for him: overcoming indictments and investigations, and threading the needle between his coalition partners and the United States. As to the first, Netanyahu is almost certain to make passing a bill that provides him immunity from prosecution a cornerstone of his coalition negotiations. Still, there is a risk that a continued drip-drip of scandals might cost Bibi a death by a thousand cuts. To avoid this, he’ll need to carefully manage expectations and ensure his coalition partners’ firm loyalty. Most critical in that regard are two small secular parties: Yisrael Beiteinu, the secular nationalist party of Avigdor Lieberman, whose voter base is among Israelis of Eastern European descent, and Kulanu, a party founded by Moshe Cahlon that leans left on economics, right on security, and is popular with Israel’s Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish communities. Losing Kulanu would leave Bibi with a very narrow one-seat majority in the Knesset; losing Yisrael Beiteinu would put him below the 60-seat threshold, likely triggering yet another round of elections.
Bibi’s second challenge will be mediating between his coalition partners and the United States. As mentioned in my election preview, the issue of West Bank annexation represents a potentially thorny one for Bibi, as his religious Zionist allies are intent upon it. His expression of support for the policy just before the election almost certainly helped ensure the loyalty of the coalition partners to his right. Now, however, Bibi faces the gauntlet of the US election cycle. Bluntly put, the best-case scenario for Netanyahu would be if President Trump declines to release a peace plan before the 2020 election, leaving his vague pledge of an “unbelievable deal everyone will love” for a hypothetical second term. For Bibi, Trump’s victory in 2020 may be almost as important as his own in 2019, since the Democratic Party appears, from the Israeli perspective, to have grown worryingly wobbly in its support for the Jewish state. So Bibi will want—perhaps even need—to do all that he can to strengthen Trump’s position. On the other hand, any peace deal Trump might offer will also likely have the input of the president’s other key regional ally, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin-Salman. And any plan MBS proposes is very unlikely to meet with support from the new Knesset coalition members on Bibi’s right flank. For Bibi, then, the challenge will be convincing Trump that now is not the time for a new peace plan, with the promise that, once Netanyahu’s own position has stabilized, he may have more room to negotiate. Ironically, were it not for his need for an immunity agreement and their relentless campaign based on Bibi fatigue, Blue and White would probably have provided Bibi a stable coalition, from which vantage-point he might have effectively negotiated with Trump and, probably, the Saudis. But Bibi needs an immunity bill; Blue and White won’t give him one, so the coalition he needs for political survival is not a coalition likely to welcome any Trump peace initiative.
The next year, then, will likely be a challenging one for Prime Minister Netanyahu. But if Tuesday’s election has taught us anything, it is never to count him out until he retires from politics, and maybe not even then. Bibi must be acknowledged as a peerless political operator within the sometimes bewildering, always fascinating world of Israeli politics. So, challenging though the next year may be, it’s a fair bet that, somehow, Bibi will end up coming out of it all on top.
A.J. Nolte is an assistant professor of politics at Regent University’s Robertson School of Government. In 2017, he earned a PhD from Catholic University of America. Previously, he worked for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University and the Center for Complex Operations at National Defense University, served as an adjunct professor of politics at Messiah College, and taught at George Washington University, Catholic University, and National Defense University. Nolte’s research interests include religion and politics, Christian and Islamic political thought, Christian minorities, comparative politics, tribalism, and globalization. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife Tisa and daughter Reagan.
Photo Credit: Benjamin Netanyahu on March 31, 2019, during a press conference with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. By Palácio do Planalto, via Flickr.