In recent weeks, the Israeli elections, called for April 9, 2019, changed from a sure thing for Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu to something approaching an actual race. The election is still Netanyahu’s to lose, but it certainly has become more interesting.
On December 26, 2018, the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament), in which Netanyahu’s government has a thin but stable majority, voted to disband itself and to move up the elections planned for November 2019. The proximate cause was Netanyahu’s desire to receive a renewed mandate from the public in the face of the possibility of criminal indictments being issued against him (one has already been issued to his wife) by the Attorney General, and Netanyahu’s declared intention not to resign if indicted. Netanyahu probably assessed that in the political constellation existing at the time none of the other heads of party in the Knesset had the stature to defeat him.
In September, Lieutenant General (res.) Benjamin (Benny) Gantz, the former Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), had ended the compulsory three-year “cooling-off period” for retired senior officers. This event was widely anticipated by Netanyahu’s opponents, and there had been much speculation—and elements of a “bidding war”—regarding his joining an existing party. On December 27, Gantz registered a political party by the name of “Israel’s Resilience (Hosen L’yisrael).” On January 29, Gantz announced that his party had unified with the Telem list headed by former Chief of General Staff and Defense Minister Moshe (Boogie) Yaalon, who would be number two on the combined list. On the same day, he gave his first, much anticipated programmatic speech, which was well received.
Since then, Gantz has become the main challenger to Netanyahu. On February 21, after a lengthy tug-of-war with the former front runner of the opposition, Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party (who felt he, as the more experienced politician, should be at the top of the list), the two parties agreed to run on a joint list, called “Blue-White” (the colors of Israel’s flag), with Gantz first on the list, Lapid second and Yaalon, third. Lapid had been under significant public pressure by the anti-Netanyahu camp, which feared splitting its vote, and that cannibalistic infighting in the Center would only help Netanyahu. The two parties have agreed that if the joint list is able to form a government, Gantz would serve as Prime Minister for the first 30 months, and Lapid for the next 18.
While handicapping polls is a mug’s game, it appears that since Gantz’s Israel’s Resilience has been running at around 20 seats in the 120-seat Knesset in the polls, and Yesh Atid at 10-12, the combined list is running neck-and-neck with Netanyahu’s Likud party, which is polled at around 30 seats (similar to their current number).1 It may even enjoy a bounce due to the merger. This is dramatic, since Gantz’s party didn’t even exist before late December.
Netanyahu’s strategy now largely consists in attempting to besmirch his rivals’ records (slightly problematical, since both Gantz and Yaalon served him as Prime Minister), and piling up achievements that highlight his political and security experience. This includes taking credit, after a decade of useful ambiguity, for attacks on Iranian targets in Syria; stressing diplomatic successes with Arab and Muslim states, including visits to Oman and Chad; spotlighting his close relationship with the current U.S. President and his willingness to irritate his predecessor; and taking an outsized role at the recent Warsaw Summit. (His arranging to host a summit, in Israel, of the Visegrad Group states—Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia—did not work out as planned: When Netanyahu and his freshly appointed Foreign Minister made remarks that annoyed the Poles, the summit was summarily cancelled.) But will the strategy work anyway?
To answer that question we have to look at a series of deeper political trends in Israel. The first is that Israel has a tradition, since 1977, of “flash-in-the-pan” center parties, which do very well in their first election cycle and then dwindle away—either by losing support or by being absorbed into a larger party—by the next cycle or the one after. Israelis have for many years been unimpressed by the choices given them by the Right and the Left, and by their leaders, and so have plumped for new faces promising a “third way.” In the past 42 years, the following center parties have come and (mostly) gone:
- 1977—Democratic Movement for Change—15 seats (the third largest party in the Knesset).
- 1981—Telem (Dayan)—2 seats, Shinui -2 seats.
- 1984—Yachad—3 seats.
- 1996—Yisrael Ba‘aliya—7 seats, The Third Way—4 seats.
- 1999—Shinui (new)—6 seats, Center—6 seats.
- 2006—Kadima—29 seats (the largest party in the Knesset, in both this and the 2009 elections), Pensioners—7 seats.
- 2013—Yesh Atid—19 seats (second largest party), Hatnua—6 seats.
- 2015—Kulanu—10 seats.
These parties—with the notable exception of Kadima, formed by breakaway, very senior members of Likud and Labor—were often headed by non-politicians or unconventional politicians and strove to create lists of mostly non-political candidates “untainted” by previous service in the legislature or government. Yesh Atid itself was founded in 2012 and only entered the Knesset in 2013; Lapid was then a media personality and political newcomer. “Israel’s Resilience” is, therefore, only the latest example of a long tradition in Israeli politics.
The second trend that Gantz’s meteoric rise illuminates is a recurrent longing on the part of the Israeli public for a “man on horseback”—a politically unsullied general who rises above mere politics yet is a proven “safe pair of hands.” This phenomenon is partly due to the centrality of security concerns in Israel, but also to the high level of trust in the IDF in Israel, as opposed to political institutions. According to the Israeli Democracy Institute’s Annual Index, the IDF is the most trusted institution by 78 percent of the general public, as opposed to the media (31 percent), the government (30.5 percent), the Knesset (27.5 percent) and political parties (16 percent). Political debuts by generals into Israeli politics have known their ups and downs over the years, and once engaged, most generals have not proven themselves significantly different in their political and executive capabilities than their civilian counterparts. Be that as it may, half of the “third way” parties listed above were headed by a former general or senior security official. In addition, many civilian parties seek the “ballast” that former generals or security officials can provide to their civilian-led lists (witness Labor’s recent “parachuting” of a retired general to their number two slot).
Unlike in most states, however, the Israeli electorate’s desire for the involvement of former generals in politics does not necessarily stem from a conservative worldview. To the extent that the IDF command level can be said to have a political orientation or culture, it has been, for the past thirty years at least, moderate. Of the three former generals to have become Prime Minister, two—Itzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak—headed the Labor Party, and one—Ariel Sharon—broke with his Likud Party to form the centrist Kadima. The majority of generals and former senior security officers who have gone into politics in Israel’s history entered Left and Center parties.
In any case, the addition of Yaalon to Gantz’s list, and the addition of yet a third former Chief of General Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, present a serious challenge to Netanyahu’s self-professed image as “Mr. Security,” and to a campaign strategy that stresses his foreign policy and national security expertise and experience.
A third trend in Israeli politics highlighted by the current race is the increased difficulty of coalition building. No large party has ever been able to form a government entirely on its own in Israel; the government has always been a coalition. The head of the party with the most votes is the one Israel’s President first asks to form a coalition government. In 2009 Netanyahu was able to form a government by bringing in the Labor Party under Ehud Barak (against the opposition of many luminaries within Labor); in 2013 Yesh Atid gave him the majority, and in 2015 Kulanu joined his coalition.
In the past, creative coalition-making was eminently possible. In recent years, however, the political system has hardened. The chances are vanishingly small that the parties to the right of Likud will join a Left or Center-led government. However, many of their leaders are personally ill-disposed toward Netanyahu, and may be positioning themselves to try to take over Likud if Netanyahu is forced from office. The Arab party bloc will not join a right-wing government, but has a significant problem with the Center parties, which, in their desire to woo voters from Likud, often venture into problematic rhetoric and policies from the perspective of Arab citizens. The ultra-orthodox parties, which used to be ideologically flexible on security and foreign affairs and have joined Left and Center governments in the past, have in the Netanyahu years become ever more oriented toward the Right, in consonance with the political leadings of their electorates.
It is therefore more difficult in general for parties of the Center and Left to build a coalition, since any coalition that excludes Likud and the right-wing parties would have to include both the ultra-orthodox and anti-ultra-orthodox (Meretz and to a lesser extent, Yesh Atid) parties, which are ideologically incompatible. Otherwise, they would have to depend for their majority on the support of the Arab party(s), which they fear doing since they leave themselves open to claims of “lacking a Jewish majority”—an accusation that haunted the government of Yitzhak Rabin until his assassination.
The bottom line: For several decades it has been easier for Likud to form a narrow government than for parties to its Left to do so.
The math may work out slightly differently in the coming elections. This is to a large part due to the “electoral threshold,” a mechanism built into Israeli election law, which was designed to prevent the proliferation of small parties, which were perceived to have led to un-governability and government instability in the past. The 11th (1984), 12th (1988) , and 15th (1999) Knessets, for instance, each contained 15 parties, some of which had one or two seats but held the pivotal role in close election results and therefore had inordinate leverage and influence. In 2014, the Knesset passed legislation raising the threshold to 3.25 percent of the vote: Since the Knesset has 120 seats, this meant that the minimum number of seats a party needed to get into the Knesset was four. That, in turn, led to the merging before the 2015 elections of ideologically close parties to ensure reaching the required number of votes, creating the Jewish Home party on the Right, and the United Arab List on the Left. However, personal rivalries and stubborn ideological differences within these “portmanteau parties” have caused them to collapse: Labor’s Gabbay unceremoniously dissolved his alliance with Tzippy Livni, who after 20 years (including an electoral victory in 2009 that she was unable to translate into a governing coalition) recently announced her retirement from politics; the Jewish Home split into three parties; and the Arab List has split into at least two.
This could have led to the discounting and “loss” of a substantial number of votes on the far Right, since they will be spread too thinly over too many parties. In addition, Kulanu, Netanyahu’s Right-Center partner, may not pass the threshold. This would strengthen the larger parties, including their ideological enemies (Israel’s Resilience/Yesh Atid). Netanyahu therefore put unprecedented effort into convincing the two remaining modern-Orthodox, pro-settler factions in Jewish Home (whose leaders, Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked, split to form the own, secular, party, the New Right), to join with “Jewish Power” (Otzma Yehudit), a far-right racist party not in the current Knesset. This would ensure that votes cast for these three parties’ would not be dustbinned due to their not crossing the threshold. Netanyahu has promised the resulting, new, far-right portmanteau party the Education and Housing Ministries and two seats in the Security Cabinet; He also promised to put their representative in the 28th place on his own Likud list, from which that representative would return to the new party after the elections. This strategy should strengthen the Right bloc and prevent the erasure of votes. But it is also risky, since some “soft” Likud and Jewish Home supporters are dismayed by the entry of the racist, and perceived anti-democratic, Jewish Power into their camp.
With the reshuffling of the party decks and the creation of a new balance between the Center-Left and the Right, the ultra-orthodox parties may return to their traditional balancing role.
Lastly, it is important to note the decline of the Left in Israeli politics. Labor, which as recently as 1992 had 44 seats in the Knesset (and 34 in 1996), had 19 seats in 2006, 13 in 2009, 15 in 2013, and 24 in 2015, after it joined with the remnants of Kadima under Livni. The most optimistic predictions say it will win 10-11 in the next Knesset. Meretz, the Zionist party to the left of Labor, which had a peak of 12 seats in 1992, has five seats in the current Knesset, and is expected to achieve a similar result in the next elections, if it doesn’t disappear entirely due to the election threshold. Livni’s party, the rump of Kadima, has folded. Why has this happened?
The perceived failure of the Oslo process, and of the unilateral withdrawals from Southern Lebanon (2000) and the Gaza Strip (2005), key policies of Left- and Center-led governments; the continued stalemate on the Palestinian issue (attributed by the majority of Israelis to a lack of a viable Palestinian partner, especially since the split in 2007 between the Gaza Strip under Hamas and the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority/Fatah); as well as demographics, have moved the midpoint of Israeli politics to the Right. Centrist (or even right-of-center) parties like Yesh Atid and Israel’s Resilience are delegitimized as “leftists”—a term of opprobrium in Israeli political discourse today: The actual Left is largely seen as irrelevant. Recent internal developments in Labor seem to indicate that the party is shifting from seeing itself as a potential ruling party to a democratic-socialist “woke” opposition, which may explain the internal pressures to merge with Meretz on its Left.
The overarching dynamics of the system as sketched above still work to Netanyahu’s advantage. He enjoys the powerful benefits of incumbency, with its accompanying ability to largely shape the political, diplomatic, and media agenda. His base disregards his legal problems, either seeing them as the product of a conspiracy by left-leaning elites and the deep state or shrugging them off as peccadillos that should not bring down a strong and effective leader (especially since they would return “the Left” to power).
To win, Netanyahu only needs his current coalition to do no worse than before in the aggregate; the election is his to lose. However, Netanyahu’s legal issues and increasingly polarizing political style, combined with possible loss of seats due to inability of prospective coalition partners to pass the electoral threshold, may have opened a narrow path to victory for a “clean-hands” rule-of-law candidate of the Center-Left.
Even if Netanyahu is elected, it is not at all clear that the indictments (which are expected to come before the elections despite the Prime Minister’s ferocious efforts to push them off) and the court process they will engender, will allow him to remain in office through his term. So whatever the results of this election, expect more political reshuffling and possibly even another round of elections in the not-so-distant future.
1A word of caution: Public opinion polls in Israel historically slightly underestimate support for Likud.