Analysis: Netanyahu on brink of fifth term

Benjamin Netanyahu’s hopes of entering the history books and becoming Israel’s longest serving prime minister appear close to realisation after yesterday’s general election.

Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White alliance each emerged from the closely fought contest with 35 seats.

But, with counting almost complete, the prime minister looks set to have a decisive edge when it comes to assembling a coalition in the Knesset. Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing, nationalist and religious parties holds 65 seats. The centre-left and Arab parties have secured a combined 55 seats.

It was a remarkable triumph for Netanyahu – all the more so, given the multiple allegations of corruption he faces – who will surpass David Ben-Gurion’s tenure as prime minister in July.

The overall strength of the two blocs is similar to that in the outgoing Knesset. However, there were considerable shifts within the two camps.

In an apparent reversal of Israeli politics’ centrifugal tendencies, voters coalesced around the two parties most likely to form a government. Likud’s tally of 35 seats is up five on the 2015 contest and the party’s best result since 2003. Blue and White won 24 more seats than Yesh Atid, the centrist party led by Gantz’s coalition partner, Yair Lapid, achieved four years ago.

As one journalist suggested: “The political map has not changed. The people did not go to the right, the people did not become more radical. On the contrary, on the one hand, there was a trend towards the centre and, on the other hand, there was a desire for stability.”

No other party seems to have broken double digits in terms of seats in the 120-member Knesset.

It was a bitterly disappointing night for the Labor party. It won less than five percent of the vote and secured only six Knesset seats, the party’s worst result in its 71-year history. Labor dropped 18 seats compared to 2015 when the party’s then leader, Isaac Herzog, formed the Zionist Union, an alliance with the dovish former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.

Avi Gabbay, who unseated Herzog in primary elections in 2017, broke the pact with Livni as the campaign commenced. The move appears to have weakened Labor, which was already flailing in the polls in the wake of Gantz’s decision to enter politics soon after the election was called in December.

More fundamentally, Labor faces the same dilemma it has wrestled with for nearly 20 years in the wake of the terror campaign which accompanied the collapse of the Oslo process and the Second Intifada: how does a party committed to negotiating a two-state solution make its case when so many Israelis doubt the current viability – however desirable – of such an outcome?

Two ultra-Orthodox parties which served in Netanyahu’s outgoing coalition – Shas and United Torah Judaism – won 12 percent of the vote, each securing eight seats.

The predominantly Arab Hadash-Ta’al polled just under five percent and won six seats. Ra’am Balad, an Islamist party, secured four seats. In 2015, the two groupings formed the Joint List, winning 13 seats to become the third biggest bloc in the Knesset. Their divisions – and an apparent 12 point drop in turnout among Arab-Israelis – appear to have cost the Arab parties dear.

The Union of Right-wing parties, an alliance between the Jewish Home party and the far-right Otzma Yehudit, won five seats. The alliance was controversially negotiated by Netanyahu during the campaign in order to bolster the chance of each clearing the 3.25 percent of the vote required to enter the Knesset. The prime minister correctly calculated that he might require their support to form a government, although the move – which lets the far right into the Israeli parliament – was heavily condemned in Israel and by many Jewish and pro-Israeli groups around the world.

The left-wing Meretz party, which had appeared in danger of losing its Knesset representation, scraped back in with four seats. Two other former Netanyahu coalition partners – Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and the centre-right Kulanu party – had similarly struggled in the polls. In the end, both cleared the threshold, winning five and four seats respectively. Liberman’s resignation as defence minister last autumn helped trigger the election, which was not due to take place until later this year.

Perhaps the biggest losers of the night were two high-profile members of Netanyahu’s outgoing government. Education minister Naftali Bennett and justice minister Ayelet Shaked quit the Jewish Home party in December in a bid to woo more secular, right-wing Israelis. Their new party, the New Right, did well in initial polls but then performed poorly. The party failed to cross the threshold, although its leaders hope that the votes of soldiers – which, like those of diplomats and Israelis living overseas, are still being counted – may give them a late reprieve.

Although the numbers suggest that Netanyahu is almost certain to become prime minister again, several weeks of coalition-building horse trading now lie ahead as smaller parties seek ministerial posts and policy concessions. Formally, the action now moves to President Reuven Rivlin, who will meet with each party and ask them to offer a recommendation as to who should become prime minister. On the basis of those discussions, the president will then ask either Netanyahu or Gantz to attempt to form a government.

However, Netanyahu already appears to have the numbers he needs to secure a majority of those recommendations. Both Liberman and Kulanu’s head, Moshe Kahlon, have said they will suggest Rivlin calls Netanyahu; both parties were, perhaps, the shakiest of Netanyahu’s potential coalition partners. Liberman has, indeed, already signalled that, while recommending the prime minister, he may not join his government.

Although Gantz, who initially declared victory last night when some exit polls showed him clearly ahead, seems likely to have fallen short, his achievement is considerable. He came closer than any of Netanyahu’s challengers over the past decade to defeating the long-serving premier. All this as leader of an alliance which was formed barely two months ago.

Nonetheless, Gantz’s strategy of squeezing parties to his left – principally Labor – rather than trying to chip off more votes from the right appears to have weakened potential coalition partners. Netanyahu, by contrast, successfully “cannibalised” right-wing parties for votes – repeatedly insisting “vote Likud, only Likud” – and appears to have not simply strengthened Likud but also seen off Bennett, one of his bitterest rivals, in the process.

Despite facing three former IDF generals – Gantz recruited fellow ex-chief of staffs Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi to run alongside him in the Blue and White alliance – Netanyahu’s reputation as “Mr Security” remained hard to shift. Faced with ongoing violence on the Gaza border, Iranian meddling in Syria and the growing power of Hezbollah in Lebanon, many Israelis appear to have baulked at ditching a prime minister who, they believe, has kept the country safe. The prime minister will have benefited too from the perception that the warming ties with many Arab states which have occurred on his watch may presage the beginning of the end of Israel’s isolation in the region.

Netanyahu also benefited from decisions in Washington and Moscow designed to bolster him on the eve of the elections. President Trump recognised Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, while last week Russia laid on a ceremony to hand over the remains of Zachary Baumel, an IDF soldier killed in Lebanon 37 years ago, which it had help recover in Syria.

As Gideon Rahat of the Israeli Democracy Institute suggested, Netanyahu has “convinced people that he is irreplaceable and that no one else comes even near to him”. “That is the secret to his power,” he concluded.

But, as he did in previous contests, Netanyahu also fought a dirty and divisive campaign. Likud politicians once again attempted to pit Israeli Jews against Israeli Arabs and smeared their political opponents as weak and unpatriotic, even attempting to portray Gantz as mentally unstable.

Netanyahu, Israel’s great survivor, may have won another term. However, his legal problems are mounting. Under the threat of indictment, he next year faces court cases for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Yesterday’s victory may be his last.