American Christians often look at Israel through lenses such as Christian theology, the US-Israel relationship, or our own American left-right dynamic. But for the upcoming general election Israel is holding on April 9, none of these lenses are actually all that helpful. Regardless of who wins, the US-Israel alliance is likely to remain unchanged, as is the general orientation of the Israeli government on regional matters. In fact, even compared to previous Israeli elections, the main drivers of controversy in the 2019 election are quite different. Rather than dominated by clear, stark differences on foreign policy, national security, or Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians, this election is, at its core, a referendum on embattled Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Israel’s parliament, or Knesset, is made up of 120 members, or MKs. To form a government, any coalition needs the support of at least 61 MKs. Rather than elected in geographic single-member districts, all candidates for the Knesset run on party lists, which are ranked by the heads of their party, and seats are apportioned based on the percentage of the vote each party gets. Traditionally, Israel also has quite a low threshold for the percentage of the vote a party must obtain to gain a seat in the Knesset; in this election, that threshold has been raised to 3.25 percent, which is still extremely low. As you can imagine based on the institutional setup, forming a government in Israel often involves a great deal of horse-trading to win over the support of relatively small Israeli parties that represent very particular constituencies.
Enter Netanyahu. Bibi is perceived by sympathetic American audiences as a suave, intellectual figure who speaks impeccable English and intuitively grasps American politics. Yet at home, he’s seen as a skilled, focused, disciplined, and somewhat Machiavellian politician who understands the vagaries of the Knesset extremely well, and is adept at catering to the small parties he needs to satisfy to stay in power. Now, Netanyahu may be facing the electoral fight of his life.
Three factors are critical to understanding why. First, Netanyahu is facing a number of indictments on charges of corruption. Supporters of the prime minister argue that these indictments are politically motivated, though it’s worth noting that the attorney general is a former Netanyahu ally. Second, Netanyahu’s main rival for the position of prime minister is retired Israel Defense Forces (IDF) General Benny Gantz, a political newcomer with a military background that plays well to the Israeli public, and with a potent yet simple message: Bibi fatigue. Third, Gantz has been careful to avoid taking any positions on foreign policy that might associate him with the Israeli left. Since 2000, there has been an undeniable shift rightward in Israel on matters of security. Sensitive to these currents, Gantz has self-consciously surrounded himself with former generals and figures who were Bibi allies in the past.
For Netanyahu, then, the danger that the election will become an up or down referendum on him, even as he faces indictments and corruption allegations, is very real. Unsurprisingly, the prime minister has responded with the tools that have worked for him in the past: discipline, horse-trading, and ruthlessness. Bibi’s campaign has relentlessly emphasized his personal relationship with the Trump administration, his long-term steady leadership, and the fact that Taal-Hadash, a list catering to Arab-Israeli voters, has been open to providing supply—votes without direct participation—for a Gantz minority government. He has also, quite controversially, brokered a merger between the United Right List, a religious Zionist party, and a faction loyal to the memory of assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane, a figure barred from standing for the Knesset in the 1980s based on an anti-racism law. This merger, brokered by Bibi to prevent vote-splitting among the hard-right parties on which his Knesset coalition would rely, has provoked a backlash from many American Jewish quarters.
Around the same time as this merger on the far-right, Gantz announced a union between his party, Israel Resilience, and Yesh Atid, the centrist, free-market secular party of Yair Lapid. The two men formed Blue and White, which seeks to be a broad-based, center-right alternative to Netanyahu. Lapid brought with him some strengths, including an established base of support and political operation, but has also been sharply at odds with the ultra-orthodox blocks of Shas and UTJ, two small but powerful political parties who will likely be essential to any coalition government. Complicating matters is an agreement in which the two men will rotate the position of prime minister between them; while some of the religious parties might be comfortable with Gantz, Lapid, who hopes to scale back the influence of the ultra-orthodox in Israeli society, may be a bridge too far. This perceived difficulty in winning over the ultra-orthodox, combined with some typical first-time candidate missteps from Gantz, gives Netanyahu a slight but significant advantage heading into the election.
There are two things to watch for on the ninth. First, there are several parties on the right, including Kulanu, Yisrael Beiteinu, the United Right List, and the New Right List, most of whom are very close to the electoral threshold. Netanyahu’s political survival likely depends on which of these parties pass the electoral threshold, and in what strength. From Bibi’s perspective, the more parties on the right that make it, the better. Second, there’s the Arab-Israeli factor to consider. Right now, the Taal-Hadash block is projected to get about eight seats, while the more stridently rejectionist Balad-Ra’am list is projected to win four seats. If Taal-Hadash overperforms, however, their offer to provide supply to a minority government—which Gantz has previously said is not something he would consider—may start to look more attractive. Conversely, if Taal-Hadash underperforms, or if other parties hostile to Netanyahu perform better than expected, Gantz could attempt to form a government without Arab support, as he has promised.
Both of these trends could influence Israel’s foreign policy posture. On one hand, it’s logical to assume that any supply agreement between Taal-Hadash and Blue and White would be predicated on a greater openness to a new two-state-oriented peace process than Netanyahu has been willing or able to countenance. Still, it is possible that Taal-Hadash would agree to a short-term supply agreement without preconditions simply as a tactical means of removing Netanyahu. On the other hand, several politicians on the right, most notably New Right party leader Naftali Bennett, have advocated for the annexation of Area C, a large area in the West Bank. This proposal has been criticized by many two-state advocates, as they believe it would both imperil the long-term prospects for a Palestinian state and dramatically alter Israel’s demographic balance.
Thus far, Netanyahu has remained coy as to his opinion of this proposal, but it is possible that the exigencies of coalition politics in Israel will lead him to take a more supportive line toward this idea than he might otherwise. With the Trump administration mulling its own peace proposal—which would likely also involve input from the Saudis—Netanyahu could find himself in the position of choosing between his Israeli coalition partners on one hand, and an American president who values his ability to “make deals when nobody else could” on the other. In that eventuality, even if he wins next week, Prime Minister Netanyahu may find he needs the skills he’s honed throughout his career in Israeli politics more than ever.
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: US Senator Lindsey Graham and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman traveled to the Golan Heights on March 11, 2019, with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The officials heard a briefing on the situation in the region by the IDF North Command Commander Maj.-Gen. Yoel Strick and also gave statements to the press. By Matty Stern, US Embassy Jerusalem.