Analysis: Netanyahu stages a comeback – but will it be enough?

Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have pulled off a spectacular comeback in Israel’s general election, but one that has seemingly left his right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc still short of a majority in the Knesset.

The results of the election – the third since last April – aimed to break the deadlock which has paralysed Israeli politics for the past year.

With votes still being counted and official results awaited, Netanyahu’s Likud party has beaten the opposition Blue and White by 36 to 32 seats to emerge as the largest party in the Knesset. This reverses the result of September’s election which saw Benny Gantz’s alliance emerge with the most seats.

Efforts by both Netanyahu and Gantz to form a majority coalition in the wake of that election foundered, triggering yesterday’s poll.

The election saw the Israeli-Arab Joint List making gains on the back of a high turnout, and losses for the left-wing Labor-Meretz alliance.

Current results indicate that Netanyahu and his allies will have 59 seats in the 120-member Knesset, with the centre, left and Arab parties winning 53. As in the April and September general elections, Avigdor Liberman’s fiercely secular, but right-wing, Yisrael Beitenu party, holds the balance of power.

However, the results represent a significant strengthening of the prime minister’s position since September when Blue and White edged ahead of Likud by 33 to 32 seats and the right-wing bloc was able to muster only 55 seats as against 56 for Gantz.

Netanyahu’s comeback is all the more remarkable given the fact that he was formally indicted in November on multiple corruption charges and his trial in the Jerusalem District Court will commence in less than two week’s time.

That indictment may further complicate the prime minister’s efforts to form a government. Already, a motion has been filed at Israel’s Supreme Court arguing that Netanyahu should not be allowed to form the next government as he faces trial on criminal charges. The prime minister and his supporters say there is no legal impediment to Netanyahu heading a government and that he would only have to stand down if he were found guilty and the appeals process were exhausted. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court has failed to issue a definitive judgment on the matter in recent months – it has previously blocked ministers under indictment from serving – potentially paving the way for a constitutional crisis were it to rule against the prime minister.

A key player in the days ahead will be Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin. He will formally meet each party and ask who they recommend should be prime minister. Rivlin will ask the party leader with the best chance of building a 61-seat majority to form a government. That candidate will have 28 days (plus the option of a two-week extension) to form a coalition. If that candidate fails, the president will ask them return that mandate to him so he can ask another party leader to attempt to assemble a coalition.

Gantz failed to match Bibi’s ruthlessness

The election appears to underline once again Netanyahu’s hold on Israeli politics. “King Bibi”, as his supporters call him, last year became the country’s longest-serving prime minister.

His apparently successful effort to put himself back in the driving seat stems both from his own political ruthlessness, the assistance of Donald Trump, and a series of strategic and tactical missteps by Gantz.

Throughout the campaign, Likud and its allies mercilessly targeted Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, recognising after September’s election the potency of the threat he posed to their hold on power.

“Netanyahu ran the most ruthless, sleazy, deceitful and dishonest election campaign in Israeli history, which was also the most precise and lethal,” suggested Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev. “He assassinated his rival Benny Gantz’s character with doctored videos, sexual innuendo, malicious rumours and deliberate distortions. His success will whitewash his dirty campaign, which will be scrutinised, dissected and admired throughout the populist, nationalist world.”

At the same time, Netanyahu was boosted by Trump’s efforts to help him over the finishing line after two electoral false-starts last year. The president’s much-criticised peace plan, and Netanyahu’s promise to annex Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley on the back of it, appears to have boosted turnout among Likud supporters. This was combined with a highly sophisticated Likud get out the vote operation which opposition parties failed to match.

The Trump plan wasn’t an unalloyed political plus for the prime minister. Anger at the plan’s controversialproposal to transfer a number of cities, towns and villages from Israeli to a future Palestinian state also appears to have driven up turnout among Arab Israelis and assisted the Joint List’s strong showing. It remains the third largest group in the Knesset with a projected 15 seats, up two from September.

Finally, Gantz – a political novice until he entered the ring in December 2018 – also proved a less formidable opponent than in the run-up to the September campaign. “Gantz, for his part, ran a largely reactive campaign,” argued David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, “hurriedly denying each damaging allegation as it was raised by Netanyahu and his supporters, rather than taking the offensive. Rockets rained in from Gaza last week. But Gantz failed to take political advantage of even this Netanyahu vulnerability.”

Former Labor MK Einat Wolf drew a sharp contrast between Netanyahu and Gantz’s campaigns: “There is no doubt that in this round Netanyahu had fighting spirit that helped mobilise his supporters. He clearly fought for his life… the Blue and White leaders themselves clearly did not exhibit the same level of desperation to win as Netanyahu.”

But Gantz also suffered from a political conundrum that he ultimately failed to square: how to attract so-called “soft right” voters, especially those appalled by Netanyahu’s shameless efforts to shake-off the corruption charges against him by attacking the police and prosecutors, while holding together a wide and diffuse coalition.

In the end, Blue and White appears to have held its ground – but failed to advance – by swapping the votes it lost to Likud with support it “cannibalised” from Labor-Meretz. The net effect, however, was to weaken the overall strength of Gantz’s bloc.

Already, recriminations are flying. Running separately in September, Labor and Meretz won a combined total of 11 seats. Current projects suggest that the two parties – which united for the campaign – won between six and seven seats. Such a result would be the worst-ever for Labor which, as recently as 2015, secured 24 seats in alliance with former foreign minister Tzipi Livni. (Adding in Meretz’s share, the parties won 29 seats).

“We acted out of responsibility to ensure a large bloc that had a chance to form a government and set us on a new path. We acted responsibly. We signed a vote-sharing agreement with Blue and White, and backed [leader] Benny Gantz completely,” Labor-Meretz leader Amir Peretz argued last night. “But at critical moments [in the campaign, Blue and White] launched an irresponsible campaign against us.”

The Joint List, however, faulted Gantz’s strategy of attempting to reach out to right-wing voters. “Once he tried to enter Netanyahu’s playground, he had lost the battle,” Ibrahim Hijazi, a leading member of the Joint List’s campaign, claimed. “He showed that he is a beginner. He should have stayed on the path he started on.” The Joint List formally recommended Gantz become prime minister after September’s election. It was the first time since 1992, when they backed Yitzhak Rabin, that Israeli Arab parties have given the president their recommendation. However, relations soured in this campaign when Gantz, fending off attacks from Likud, said that he would not form a government backed by the Arab parties. Confusion over his intentions were further stoked by Peretz contradicting the Blue and White leader’s denials.

Not there yet: Coalition-building dilemmas

If the current trends are maintained and Netanyahu’s bloc remains stuck on 59 seats – two short of a majority – the prime minister will face the same coalition-building dilemma he faced after the inconclusive April and September elections.

The potentially easiest course would be to woo a couple of defectors from the opposition parties. Rumours that Likud is attempting to attract Orly Levy-Abekasis (a former Yisrael Beitenu MK whose Gesher party ran with Labor) have already been denied.

Some believe the prime minister may instead find enough turn-coats within Gantz’s party to allow him to form a government. As Michael Koplow, policy director at the Israel Policy Forum, argued: “Everyone is sick and tired of elections, and some of the right-wing Blue and White MKs who have spent three cycles trying to unseat Netanyahu may conclude that after losing ground, the best path forward is the one of least resistance. Israeli voters have demonstrated that there is no great clamour for unseating a prime minister under indictment.”

Another course would be for Netanyahu to reach out again to Liberman, a former aide whose party previously allied with Likud. However, Liberman would need to row back on numerous pledges not to serve in a government alongside the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, which are a key element of Netanyahu’s coalition. Early indications suggest that Liberman is sticking to his guns.

A final option would be for Netanyahu to resume the talks with Gantz on forming a unity government which ultimately drew a blank last autumn. They were scuppered by Netanyahu’s refusal to abandon his ultra-Orthodox allies and Gantz’s unwillingness to serve alongside the prime minister while he remained under indictment. Gantz has repeated that pledge on numerous occasions and other Blue and White leaders such as Yair Lapid and former defence minister Moshe Ya’alon appear equally opposed to any such arrangement.

Political commentator Anshel Pfeffer, however, believes there is a possible deal to be struck between Gantz and Netanyahu. “Gantz’s concession will be to serve under Netanyahu, despite the indictments. Netanyahu will have to agree to appear in court and not carry out his implied threats to remove the attorney general who indicted him.”

Many of those who lent Gantz their votes yesterday for the sole purpose of removing Netanyahu will consider such a bargain a huge betrayal. But for the prime minister, who once hoped the Knesset would pass legislation granting him immunity, it may turn out to be the biggest gamble.