What do the Recent Israeli Election Results Signify?
The final results of Israel’s recent election confirmed that Binyamin Netanyahu’s bloc won a decisive victory of 64 seats in the 120-seat parliament, the Knesset. The bloc comprises his Likud party (32 seats) and his eclectic coalition partners, who include the religious parties Shas (11) and United Torah Judaism (7), together with the right-wing Religious Zionism party (14).
In the previous election, the results did not provide a majority of seats for the right. Does this mean that the Israeli public has shifted dramatically rightward in line with the trend in other countries, such as Italy? Does the public now expect a harder line on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and a more right-wing economic policy? Does the fact that Shas won two more seats than in the previous election indicate additional support for the religious parties?
I think not. When we analyze the data, we can conclude that it was the conduct of the political parties rather than a shift in public opinion that led to the conclusive Netanyahu bloc victory. Let us analyze the data:
To enter the Knesset, Israeli parties need to cross a threshold of 3.25% of all votes cast. In the anti-Netanyahu bloc, neither the Arab party Balad nor left-wing Meretz managed to reach this threshold. Meretz came close with 3.16% – just 3,800 short of gaining entry – and lost four potential seats. In other words, fewer than 4,000 votes, out of a total of four million, caused the present flip-flop. In a democracy such as Israel, the Netanyahu bloc victory is no less valid than if it had received a million more votes. However, his triumph does not reflect a change in public opinion.
Netanyahu faced the double challenge of fighting to maintain his leadership of Likud and uniting his right-wing bloc. As the previous government was based upon a common anti-Netanyahu platform and he is facing a high court trial on corruption charges, his task was particularly daunting. Nonetheless, Netanyahu brilliantly mobilized all the parties receptive to his leadership – including the capricious radicals Itamar Ben-Gvir (Otzma Yehudit) and Bezalel Smotrich (National Union) – and browbeat them into cooperating with one another. Without Netanyahu’s cajolement, they may never have crossed the electoral threshold. As it was, together they ended up with fourteen seats. Shas probably owes its two additional seats to Aryeh Deri’s determined and successful strategic campaign among voters who do not typically support his party.
The anti-Netanyahu bloc adopted the opposite strategy, with unfortunate results. Although they had worked together harmoniously during the Bennett-Lapid government, two sets of parties with overlapping ideologies refused to cooperate. Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Gantz and Saar’s National Unity jousted with each other, while Labor leader Merav Michaeli refused to run together with Meretz. In addition, a shift in voting within the bloc led to Lapid to win extra seats at Meretz’s expense. It is important to note that Abbas’ Ra‘am party rose from four seats to five. This 20% increase is significant, because Abbas supported the previous coalition, and it suggests that the Arab Israeli public increasingly supports involvement in the political process. Why did members of the anti-Netanyahu bloc not collaborate successfully? It is for them to do their reckoning. Unlike Netanyahu, who grasped that cooperation with potential coalition partners had to begin before the election, his rivals were apparently stymied by personality and ego issues and errors in strategy. Netanyahu simply outmaneuvered them.
Does it have to be this way? Well, no. Is there an alternative? Yes. For example, if the three centrist parties Likud (32), Yesh Atid (24) and National Unity (12), together with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (6), all with overlapping ideologies, were to unite, they would have 32 + 24 + 12 + 6 =74 seats, which is a definitive majority. Furthermore, although jockeying for power and implementing a successful election strategy may not be their strong point, each of the Bennett-Lapid party leaders performed well as ministers – and so, too, did many of their members throughout the last government’s term, despite the complexity and turbulence of the Israeli political scene. Were these parties to unite, government stability would no longer hinge upon the demands of the religious parties some of which are considered unfair and exploitative by many secular Israelis. Nor would it have to contend with the right-wing views of the Religious Zionist party, which many Israeli Jews consider provocative and which for Israeli Arabs are deeply concerning and even terrifying.
However, for such a political configuration to come into being, either the non-Likud centrist parties would have to accept Netanyahu as leader, or else Netanyahu would have to resign. Even though either scenario would produce a more experienced and consensual government than the current alternative, barring unexpected surprises, the possibility of either is low. Opposition to Netanyahu runs too deep, while he himself is determined to remain leader no matter what. Those who oppose his leadership have all worked with him closely in the past, and each and every one of them became disenchanted and disappointed by his leadership style and what they considered his lack of integrity, to the point of preferring to sit in opposition rather than join a coalition led by him. Netanyahu’s perspective is that he has the leadership skills to run the country. As Israel’s longest serving prime minister, he is definitely a political survivor. He has the popular support of large swathes of the public, together with majority backing from members of the Knesset. In forming his bloc, his presumption is that he will be able to both form a government and run the country effectively together with the extreme right wing and the victorious religious coalition parties.
One cannot help but see a parallel between pro- and anti-Netanyahu sentiments and the relationship between Trump’s Republican supporters and Democrats in the US. While the issues are different, polarization and lack of trust between the sides create a common denominator between the two situations. Just as many Netanyahu supporters among both the public and members of the Knesset do not trust the other side and follow the axiom “Only Bibi, (Netanyahu’s nickname)” while his opponents are aghast at the thought of his regaining power, so, too, Republicans mistrust the Democrats and vice-versa.
In conclusion, we may surmise that, while there has been a decisive Knesset seat shift in favor of the pro Netanyahu bloc, there has been no corresponding bloc shift in public opinion. Only time will tell whether or not Netanyahu can continue to harness the sort of cooperation and pragmatism among his coalition partners as he did during the runup to the election.