Netanyahu wins coalitions, not elections

Netanyahu has led the Likud in eight Knesset elections. Only Begin has led a party in more elections since independence in 1948. Ben Gurion particpated in seven elections, winning five as head of Mapai and then running twice as head of a tiny breakaway party. Begin led the Likud (or its earlier version called Herut) in 10 elections from 1948 to 1981. From 1951 onwards, Begin’s share of the vote either increased or remained static in every election: He never won less seats than in a previous election and in his last couple of elections he was Prime Minister.

Since winning leadership of the Likud in 1992, 27 years ago, Netanyahu has contested eight Knesset elections as head of the Likud. In five of those elections, Netanyahu became Prime Minister, (a sixth remains open). Curiously he has won the most Knesset seats only twice in eight elections, but still managed to become Prime Minster five times.

Netanyahu has never lost a contest for leadership of the Likud. Sharon became leader because Netanyahu resigned after losing the 1999 general election to Ehud Barak. In only one election in the last 27 years, was the Likud not led by Netanyahu: Ariel Sharon won the 2003 Knesset elections and accompanying direct election of the Prime Minister. Ariel Sharon then left the Likud in 2005, creating a new party called Kadima, and Netanyahu has led the Likud ever since. 

From 1992 to 2002 the Prime Minister was directly elected. There were three such elections, in 1996, 1999 and 2002. Netanyahu ran twice, winning once and losing once.  Both times the election was combined with elections to the Knesset and although he won the first Prime Minsterial contest, Netanyahu failed to win a majority of the Knesset seats both times.

When did Netanyahu lose?

The first election Netanyahu lost was in 1999. He faced two rival candidates, both highly decorated former Generals: Yitshak Mordechai (representing a new center party) and Ehud Barak (leading the Labor party).

The second election Netanyahu lost was in 2006.  Sharon had taken most of the Likud into a new party and then had a stroke. Ehud Olmert led Kadima and the Likud, led by Netanyahu came third, with a mere 12 seats.  Netanyahu also lost to Tzippi Livni in 2009, by a single seat: But she was unable to form a coalition and he became Prime-Minister. He has remained in the post every since. He also lost the last 2019 election, but may yet manage to form a coalition. Netanyahu’s achievements show that the winner of an Israeli election is not the party with the most seats but the party that makes and leads the coalition.

Why did Netanyahu lose?

Well, Netanyahu has never won an election in which his chief rival was a former General: He lost to Barak and he has never won more Knesset seats than Gantz. Actually no civilian leader of a main party has ever defeated a former General in an Israeli election: Shamir lost to Rabin in 1992, the only other example of a General facing a civilian.

Netanyahu also lost two elections to the leaders of Kadima (who were not Generals) before that party disintegrated and vanished from the scene: Maybe the auora of the comatose General Sharon was enough to keep him down.

So Netanyahu’s record in Knesset elections is not stellar, but he is very effective at forming coalitions.

Elections   Leader of
 Likud 
   Knesset
 Seats
Became 
 PM?
Largest 
party?
 1996   Netanyahu

    32

   Yes No
 1999  Netanyahu

   19

   No No
 2003  Sharon

   38

    –    –
 2006  Netanyahu

   12

   No  No
 2009  Netanyahu

   27

  Yes  No
 2013  Netanyahu

  31

  Yes Yes
 2015  Netanyahu

30

  Yes Yes
 2019(1)  Netanyahu

 35

  Yes* Tied
 2019(2)  Netanyahu

32

?

No

 

About the Author
Jonathan Lowenstein is an Anglo-Israeli who has lived half his life in England and half in Israel, but has never spent more than a decade continuously in either country. In the 1990's, he helped found the Tel Aviv Bicycle Association, Israel's most successful bicycle advocacy organization, now known as the Israel Bicycle Association. Since 2007 he has edited the History of Israel in Wikipedia. Jonathan has an MA in Political Science from Tel Aviv University and an MA in History from the University of London.
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