Benjamin Netanyahu spent the day of Israel’s elections screaming that he was about to lose his post as prime minister if supporters didn’t get out to vote — a familiar tactic to invigorate his right-wing base.
Only this time, he was right. The man once crowned “king of Israel” is royalty no more.
Election results aren’t yet official, but with over 90 percent of the votes counted, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party seems to have narrowly lost to the center-right Blue and White party on Tuesday.
The poor showing for Israel’s longest-serving prime minister has forced Israel’s political elites to contemplate a future without Netanyahu as leader of the country. But not everybody is ready to declare Netanyahu’s political career dead.
“He’s down, but not out,” said Shalom Lipner, a former Israeli official who served in the Prime Minister’s Office from 1990-2016. “He’s smarting over hemorrhaging votes, but his consolation is they didn’t give an obvious majority to his competitors.”
But whatever happens next, the aura of invincibility that once surrounded Netanyahu, the sense that he is Israel’s indispensable leader, has been punctured.
Now, Israel enters a period of uncertainty. Israeli President Reuvin Rivlin could try to get the top two vote-getters, Benny Gantz and Netanyahu, to come together in a unity coalition, or, based on the recommendations of Israel’s political parties, tap one candidate to try to form a coalition of at least 61 Knesset seats. That candidate would then have up to six weeks to form a government, though if he fails, Rivlin could turn to another candidate to try to form a stable coalition.
There remains a scenario in which Bibi could still serve as prime minister, but likely only as part of a deal that would also see his opponent Gantz, the army general and head of Blue and White, rotate into the position as well. Yohanan Plesner, president of the Jerusalem-based think tank Israel Democracy Institute, told VICE News a “national-unity” government is the most likely scenario, but there’s no sure outcomes in Israel’s famously fractious political system.
The climate of uncertainty has put a lot of power into the hands of one man: Avigdor Lieberman, head of the secular right-wing Israel Is Our Home Party.
“Everyone needs Lieberman,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster and expert on Israeli public opinion.
Because Lieberman is a swing vote, and Netanyahu and Gantz don’t have enough votes for a coalition on their own, Rivlin will pay special attention to his recommendation, and he alone could determine who forms the next coalition.
Lieberman’s choices are paramount. The brash Russian-speaking immigrant who lives in a West Bank settlement and has long pushed to break the Orthodox monopoly on Israeli life was once a key aide to Netanyahu and is now a thorn in his side. Last year, he brought down Netanyahu’s coalition government and, in refusing to join Bibi after April’s elections, forced Likud to dissolve Israel’s parliament and hold another election.
Once again, “he’s the kingmaker,” said Scheindlin.
That’s because the Israeli political map is split into two rough camps: the right-religious bloc, which received about 55 seats, according to unofficial tallies, and the center-left Jewish bloc, which got about 43 seats. The magic number for a coalition is 61 seats, which Lieberman could help fill with his estimated nine seats — giving Likud power back, or giving a unity coalition more stability than they would have without him.
Lieberman has repeatedly promised to push for what he calls a “broad, liberal, national government” made up of Likud, Blue and White, and his party. The wrinkle in that plan is that Blue and White’s Gantz has pledged not to sit in a government with Netanyahu because of the corruption allegations facing him.
“Everyone needs Lieberman”
He could backtrack on that promise and decide to sit with Netanyahu. But if Gantz holds fast, that leaves any number of possible scenarios, including a Bibi-less Likud party joining forces with Gantz and Lieberman. In another scenario, Blue and White could strike a deal with the religious parties that typically sit with Likud. Barring a successful coalition, though, a third election could be called, an outcome the Israeli public would hate.
Benefiting from Bibi’s downfall
In Israel's political chaos, one party is declaring victory. The Joint List, the coalition of Arab political parties, saw their support surge, winning perhaps up to 13 seats. Under Israel’s proportional system, that means they took away votes from the right-wing bloc, denying Netanyahu a clear majority.
The Joint List’s success was a rebuke to Netanyahu’s polarizing campaign that stoked anti-Arab sentiment by floating dubious allegations of voter fraud, and pushing a law to allow party officials to bring cameras into polling stations, widely seen as an attempt to intimidate Israel’s Arab population.
“This was an extremist, racist campaign”
“What raised their voting rate is they feel they are under attack directly,” said Hassan Jabareen, the founder and general director of Adalah, a legal group that fights for the civil rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel. “This was an extremist, racist campaign.”
The Joint List’s strong showing could make Ayman Odeh, the head of the list, the leader of the opposition — a perch that gives him access to security briefings and a platform to meet world leaders. Odeh also has the power to give Gantz a leg up by recommending to Israel’s president that the Blue and White leader form the next government.
But those hoping for a return to a more moderate government that entertains a serious agreement with Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza will be disappointed, analysts said.
“The political right is dominant on security issues,” said Brent Sasley, a professor at the University of Texas who studies Israeli politics. “This is bad news for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and for the peace process, because the status quo will remain.”
Cover: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech to supporters of his Likud party after polls closed in the Israeli parliamentary elections. Photo by: Ilia Yefimovich/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Alex Kane is a New York-based freelance journalist who writes on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties issues.