Following a critical election on Tuesday, Benny Gantz conceded to Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who is now heading straight for his fourth consecutive term as Israel’s Prime Minister — and fifth overall — despite a corruption scandal that muddied his campaign.
Early exit polls rendered Gantz and Netanyahu essentially tied in the race for Prime Minister. The final results show Netanyahu’s Likud Party with 36 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s legislative body, while Gantz’s Kahol Lavan (Hebrew for “Blue and White”) Party garnered 35. The numbers favor Netanyahu as the most viable candidate to form a coalition government, with the right-wing parties leading the left by a margin of 9-10 seats.
About 67.9 percent of voters turned out for the election, slightly down from 72.33 percent in 2015. Many Arab-Israelis boycotted the election, leading to a notably low Arab turnout at just over 50 percent.
In short, Netanyahu is expected to remain in power for at least a couple more years. But what does this all mean?
How does the Knesset work?
The Knesset is the legislative body of the Israeli government. Its 120 members are elected indirectly through proportional representation of political parties. Each party selects a list of candidates, and seats are distributed according to the proportion of votes the party receives. A party must receive 3.25 percent of the vote to reach the electoral threshold and obtain a minimum of four seats. In order to become Prime Minister, a candidate must be selected by the President to form a new government with the majority of seats in the Knesset. Israel has a multi-party system, so in order to obtain the required 61 seats, the candidate must negotiate to form coalitions with smaller parties.
Who were the favored candidates?
The Likud Party, a right-wing, conservative, nationalist party founded in 1973, led the Israeli government under Netanyahu from 1993 until 1999. Ehud Barak of the Labour Party took this position from 1999 to 2001, until Ariel Sharon brought Likud back to power and briefly united his party with Labour. Sharon then formed the centrist Kadima party, which led Israel under Ehud Olmert from 2006 to 2009, when Netanyahu and Likud regained power. The Likud Party has resisted ceding territory acquired in 1967 and prioritizes security. The party has also become increasingly divided over the viability of the two-state solution, and now opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state.
On the other hand, Benny Gantz, the former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), formed the Israel Resilience Party in December 2018, which he merged with Yesh Atid last February to form the centrist Kahol Lavan. Gantz’s platform planned to retain major Israeli settlement blocs, address the relationship between religion and state and reform public services. It also stated a willingness to negotiate with Palestinians.
What is going on?
According to Sara Hirschhorn, Visiting Assistant Professor in Israel Studies at Northwestern University, Netanyahu’s primary concern for this election was to stay in power.
“It wasn’t really a campaign based on policy,” Hirschhorn said. “More or less it was a referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu and his political future.”
Israel’s attorney general announced in February that he intends to indict Netanyahu with corruption charges, including bribery and breach of trust. However, no formal indictment was ordered before the election, leaving voters uninformed.
Israel’s economy has prospered under Netanyahu. He has endorsed a tough policy on Iran, and has fostered a close relationship with Trump. And at the moment, he appears more equipped to be able to form a government. The real question is whether or not he will be able to maintain a stable coalition.
“He’s always going to be at the mercy of some elements of his coalition and that could topple the house of cards at any moment,” Hirschhorn said. “So I don’t think that it’s going to be very steady. It’s just that Kahol Lavan – Blue and White – doesn’t look like it has the numbers to put together a coalition.”
But Gantz certainly had Netanyahu worried. In a desperate bid for more right-wing votes, Netanyahu pledged last weekend to annex parts of the West Bank if re-elected. Hirschhorn thinks this is primarily electioneering, and harbors doubts as to whether Netanyahu would make any big moves that could prove destabilizing. However, according to Hirschhorn, his vow should not be dismissed.
“This issue of annexing the West Bank has become pretty mainstream within right-wing political parties in Israel,” Hirschhorn said. “So if he’s going to build a coalition with these other partners, I think he’s going to face a lot of pressure from them to move forward in some direction on that issue.”
McCormick senior Josh Cohen, who has family in Israel, follows the nation’s politics closely. He said that while the media often portrays Gantz as the centrist challenge to the conservative Netanyahu, there is more to the story.
“If you look at it with any real scrutiny, it just really shows the death of the Israeli left,” Cohen said. “Benny Gantz, under all political analysis, is just as right-wing as Netanyahu, but doesn’t often use the same sort of rhetoric.”
Why does it matter?
Beginning the annexation process of the West Bank would likely evoke condemnation from the European Union and the Arab world. The costs are high – maybe to the extent of violence or another intifada, according to Hirschhorn. But a return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians seems unlikely in the near future. Especially with Trump still in office, Hirschhorn said, Israel is weighing the benefits of unilateral annexation.
Support for the “two-state solution” is declining in Israel, especially among the younger population. According to Hirschhorn, the major parties don’t have a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli situation, and discussion of the topic was largely left out of the campaigns.
“The only people who really wanted to talk about the Israeli-Palestine conflict were the parties on the right that have a pretty clear-cut solution,” Hirschhorn said. “But they’re not solutions that the international community is really willing to accept.”
Bob Rowley, an adjunct lecturer in the Medill School of Journalism, worked in Jerusalem in the 1990s as a Middle East Correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.
“Many voters feel Netanyahu’s hard line on security issues and the Palestinians have made Israel more secure,” Rowley said. “But a lot of Israel’s supporters in America believe the peace process has stalled under his tenure and it’s time for fresh ideas and leadership.”
What happens now?
Trump has intertwined his administration with Israeli politics in a rather unprecedented manner. From his decision to relocate the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to his recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights last month, he has made his allegiances clear.
Trump’s peace plan for Israel is expected to be released in the coming months, though the jury is out on what exactly that will look like. Still, the U.S. continues to demonstrate a powerful interest in Israel’s future.
Cohen put it bluntly: “Israel is a microcosm for how we see ourselves in America.”