Netanyahu and his wife Sara on election night in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 2019
Ammar Awad / Reuters

Israeli voters delivered a clear victory to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the country’s April 9 election. The vote was a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership, in view of his pending indictment in three corruption cases. Moreover, for the first time in a decade, the incumbent faced a formidable challenger: retired General Benny Gantz, who rode the support of Israel’s defense establishment and old elite in a bid to replace the prime minister. But in the end, Gantz could not break the hold of Israel’s right-wing bloc over the voting public, which issued “Bibi” a reverberating “yes.”

The right-wing bloc, led by Netanyahu’s Likud party, won 65 out of 120 seats in the Knesset. The victory paved the way for Netanyahu’s fifth government, whose main goals are protecting the prime minister from the criminal justice system, normalizing the legal status of Israel’s West Bank settlements, and limiting the independence of Israel’s Supreme Court. Divisions among Netanyahu’s prospective partners will complicate the coalition-building process but won’t seriously impair it, given that Israel’s right is ideologically cohesive and Netanyahu politically skilled.

The election outcome was unsurprising. Virtually all public opinion surveys during the campaign anticipated a right-wing majority. Gantz’s new party, Blue and White (the colors of the national flag), built its long-shot strategy on the hope that several of the smaller parties on the right would fail to pass the 3.25 percent bar for entering the Knesset, thus stripping Netanyahu of his majority and forcing Likud or the ultra-Orthodox into a deal. Two far-right parties did not cross the threshold, but this was not enough to sway the parliamentary majority. Now Gantz, a rookie politician, will lead the opposition. He’ll come under pressure to join a unity government under Netanyahu—something he pledged not to do in his campaign.

A BITTER FIGHT

The campaign season was an ugly one. Netanyahu’s first move was to try to convince Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to delay publishing his draft indictment. When that failed, the prime minister turned to smear tactics. He attempted to portray Gantz as a juvenile sex offender, a security risk (Israeli security service claimed that Gantz’s cell phone had been hacked by Iran), insane, and corrupt. Gantz and his supporters shrugged off these allegations but hit back by accusing the prime minister of treason. Netanyahu had given Germany the green light to sell sophisticated submarines to Egypt and hidden it from the country’s defense chiefs, Blue and White reminded voters, and had been accused of corruption in a scandal surrounding the purchase of submarines for Israel’s navy. (The attorney general cleared Netanyahu of these charges before the campaign, but Blue and White attempted to resurface them.) The allegations and counterallegations kept the media busy but failed to excite the public. Only 68.5 percent of voters turned out—the weakest turnout Israel had seen since 1999.

Both parties acquired their strength by cannibalizing the smaller parties in their respective blocs.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz succeeded in strengthening their respective parties, Likud and Blue and White, which together will hold a Knesset majority—the first time since 1992 that any two parties will do so. The public showed its preference for larger parties over smaller ones, but Israel’s fractured multiparty system is unlikely to stabilize as a consequence. Neither major party attracted voters from the other side of the aisle. Rather, both acquired their strength by cannibalizing the smaller parties in their respective blocs. Socioeconomic analysis of the vote shows that Israel’s affluent voted for Blue and White, the middle class supported Likud, and the poor—the ultra-Orthodox and Arab minorities—rallied behind their respective sectorial parties. Blue and White simply replaced Labor as the home of the old elite.

Likud won again owing to its successful strategy toward minorities: it formed strong alliances with ultra-Orthodox Jews, who vote in overwhelming numbers, and attempted to delegitimize Arab voters and their parties, who have low turnout. For example, turnout in the ultra-Orthodox settlement Modi'in Ilit was 84.5 percent, while in Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab town, turnout was merely 39.8 percent. This gap gives an inherent advantage to the right bloc.

Since his return to power in 2009, Netanyahu and his right-wing partners have spent considerable energy on portraying the Arab parties—which demand more egalitarian citizenship in Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza—as a fifth column. This tactic has worked to scare the left-wing Zionist parties away from making common cause with the Arab parties, preventing the formation of a left-leaning coalition. In 2015, the Arab parties combined on a joint list of candidates and won 13 seats, making theirs the third-largest party in the outgoing Knesset. Netanyahu’s coalition reacted by passing the Nation-State Basic Law, which declares Israel as the national home of the Jewish people alone, de facto giving non-Jews a lower-class status.

In the recent campaign, Netanyahu went even further, calling the Arab parties “supporters of terror.” On election day, Likud sent activists with cameras to polling stations in Arab towns and villages for the purpose of intimidating voters, who felt under surveillance during a presumably private affair. The activists were breaking a law that forbids photography during the vote. Gantz, following the anti-Arab sentiment and afraid of appearing less than patriotic, pledged not to hold any political discussions with the Arab parties. Divided among themselves and lacking allies in the Jewish majority, Arab voters, whose turnout peaked in 2015, stayed at home. In the new Knesset, the two Arab parties will fill only ten seats, shrinking the “non-right” bloc. In comparison, the two ultra-Orthodox parties grew from 13 to 16 seats. 

Having successfully presented himself as the only possible alternative to Netanyahu, Gantz attracted the majority of left-wing voters, who were willing to accept his timid views on Palestinian statehood in return for the slim chance of replacing the incumbent prime minister. As a result, the left-wing parties, Labor and Meretz, shrank to six and four seats, respectively. Altogether, the opposition does not hold nearly enough seats to score a “stumbling block,” meaning that the right-wing coalition would be prevented from getting the 61-seat majority it needs to form a government. Moreover, Gantz’s failure to engage Arab voters and their representatives stands in stark contrast to Netanyahu’s successful maneuver to unite the far right, including erstwhile pariah supporters of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane and his racist ideology. 

NETANYAHU’S ISRAEL

Having defeated Gantz, the right now has carte blanche to lead the country according to its ideology. Where will it head? Before the election, Netanyahu showed off his diplomatic prowess by getting last minute support from the presidents of the United States, Russia, and Brazil. As expected, U.S. President Donald Trump was the most generous: he announced that the United States would recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Syrian territory that Israel has occupied since 1967. Netanyahu parlayed this statement into a predicted U.S. blessing should Israel annex the West Bank settlements, or at least some of them. After all, Israel captured the West Bank during the same “defensive war” that delivered the Golan. 

The White House has not denied the linkage and has pledged to publicize its “deal of the century” to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after Israel swears in its new government. But if Trump’s deal offers the Palestinians economic aid in return for abandoning their demand for independence, the Palestinians will likely reject it. The Israeli right will portray the Palestinians’ rejection as a refusal to cooperate and use it to justify its demand that the settlement areas be annexed. Netanyahu has rejected such demands in the past but has now warmed to them in order to attract voters from the settlements and the far right.

Having defeated Gantz, the right now has carte blanche to lead the country according to its ideology.

Annexation is a cause célèbre of the far right. In return for promoting it and other right-wing agenda items, such as legal reform, Netanyahu will seek the support of his coalition partners in obtaining immunity from prosecution, for which he will need a parliamentary majority. He is still awaiting a final decision on his indictment this summer. He and his cronies argue that the public has read and rejected the draft indictment by voting for him. They will likely try to pass an immunity law or resolution, or at least an agreement to keep Netanyahu in power during a trial. 

In the dark imagination of Israel’s right-wing politicians and pundits, the legal system—including the police, the attorney general, and the Supreme Court—belongs to an anti-Netanyahu deep state that usurps power from the public under pressure from the media and the left. (This language probably sounds familiar to Trump-era Americans.) Right-wing ideologues have long complained that they can win elections but not really run the country, given the left’s residual control of the judiciary and the mainstream media. Now they see an opportunity to turn the tide and exert more political control over the judiciary through proposed reforms in judicial appointments and by banning the Supreme Court from striking down legislation. 

Netanyahu will now have to decide how far to go with West Bank annexation, legal reform, and other proposals that were derailed in the outgoing Knesset, such as using the death penalty against Palestinian terrorists or requiring loyalty oaths for artists who seek state support. He will take into account Trump’s peace plan and might invite Gantz into a unity cabinet. But Netanyahu’s top priority remains avoiding prosecution and possible internment. That was, after all, the reason he called an early election and fought so hard for a decisive win.