Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Israeli Elections 2019: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Israel- Likud party
Israeli Likud Party campaign material and posters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strewn on the floor following election night at the party headquarters in the coastal city of Tel Aviv. Photo AFP

Going into Israel’s 9 April 2019 elections, the polls had the two major contenders, President Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party and the newly created Blue and White party, neck and neck. They were almost right: an early count had the two parties dead-locked at 35 seats in the 120-seat Knesset (parliament). However, the final count gave Likud an additional seat, making it the largest faction and strongly positioned to form what is expected to be a right-wing governing coalition.

Meanwhile, the left, or what more accurately could be called the centre-left, was decimated. The country’s founding party, Labor, captured only six seats, a dramatic decrease from 44 in 1992 and 24 in the last elections in 2015.

Labor’s possible allies, namely Meretz and the two primarily Arab parties, also lost seats. The final tally put Meretz at four seats and the Arab parties at a total of ten.

The results were widely seen as a wish among voters to prevent Netanyahu from winning a fifth term. This was expressed by a large vote for the Blue and White party led by former chief of staff Benny Gantz plus two additional chiefs of staff and a popular centrist politician. This was a non-ideological but tactical vote, as the party had a mixed list of candidates from across the political spectrum.

Likud campaign propaganda consistently tried to paint the party as centre-left. In fact, the party did not take many votes from the right, as some may have hoped. Rather, its impressive numbers were mainly votes that presumably would have gone to Labor and some of the smaller parties.

The parties to the left of centre would presumably also have received more votes had Israeli Arabs voted in greater numbers. The percentage of Arabs who voted was approximately 50 percent, compared with 63 percent in 2015. The drop was primarily the result of disgust with the introduction of the controversial nation-state law in July 2018 declaring that only Jews have the right to self-determination in the country.

Arabs who did go to the polls gave Meretz, with its Arab and Druze candidates, more votes than in the past but not enough to make a difference.

A second reason for the reduced Arab turnout was Likud’s illegal placement of 1,200 hidden cameras in polling booths in Arab localities. The cameras were detected relatively early, but they likely had the effect of deterring potential voters.

The cameras are illustrative of the underhanded, often vulgar tactics employed by Likud. Indeed, this was one of the ugliest election campaigns in Israeli history. Likud campaign propaganda went so far as to imply that the Blue and White leader was weak, incapable and insane. Persistently claiming that a Gantz victory would be a victory for the Arabs, Likud tactics also included incitement and elements of racism.

Yet a deeper explanation of the results lies not only with the tactics employed but also with changing demographics in Israeli society and growing internal divisions. It is also important to note the years of relative calm Israelis have experienced despite the continued occupation. Indeed, the occupation was rarely mentioned during the election campaign, except by the small parties on the left. Nor was the economy much of an issue. People may complain about the cost of living, especially the cost of housing, or poor hospital conditions. But the past several years have seen no economic crisis, and the economy appears to be running smoothly.

In addition, Netanyahu has managed to manoeuvre diplomatic successes from allies Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, proving his statesmanship and ability to promote Israel’s standing in the world. These include the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the US’ withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, and just in time for the elections, Trump’s declaration that the disputed Golan Heights belong to Israel, followed by the US’ designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.

From Putin, Netanyahu received, also just days before the elections, the return of the body of an Israeli soldier missing in Lebanon (and Syria) since 1982. The return was accompanied by full, televised, Russian honours and a highly publicized Israeli funeral with Netanyahu in attendance.

The launch of an Israeli spacecraft headed for the moon also seemed timed to boost Netanyahu’s prospects for re-election.

The coalition that Netanyahu is likely to form will greatly resemble the one he had during his previous term. A notable absence will be his old rival and nemesis, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, and his number two, Justice Minister Ayalet Shaked. They left Likud to create a ‘new right’ for these elections but failed to pass the 3.2 percent threshold necessary to enter the Knesset.

They were replaced by the remains of their old party, united with the even more extreme right-wing figures of Otzmat Israel (Strength to Israel), which gained five seats as the Union of the Right party. Thus, the extreme right-wing will continue to be represented in the new government.

The only apparent hurdle in the creation of the new coalition is related to former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He has announced his support for a Netanyahu-led government but only if a number of his party’s demands are met, namely the death penalty for terrorists and compulsory military service for ultra-orthodox Jews. The reli-gious parties are vehemently opposed to the latter, and their 16 seats are critical for achieving a majority.

Still, a compromise may be in the offing as Lieberman is known for posturing for the sake of his electorate and, as in the past, is likely to seek a compromise that is also acceptable to the religious parties.

The final coalition, which is expected to be resolutely right wing, may well have two important and related consequences for Israeli democracy. The independent judicial system, especially the Supreme Court but also the appointment of judges at all levels and the role of other watchdog institutions, may be challenged. That was the case under the former coalition, and the new one promises to be even more aggressive.

The main reason for this is Netanyahu’s desire to stay out of jail. He currently faces indictment, pending a hearing, on three, possibly four cases of corruption, including fraud and bribery. One of the reasons he called early elections, according to speculation, is that he hoped to gain sufficient backing in a new Knesset to pass a law that would prevent indictment of a sitting prime minister.

When, towards the end of the election campaign, he announced that his new government would annex the settlements in the West Bank, the phrase bandied about was ‘annexation for immunity from indictment’.

While Netanyahu denied that this was the purpose of his annexation plans, such a step would constitute a serious blow not only to Israeli democracy but also to the chances for peace, with or without Trump’s so-called ‘deal of the century’.

It is difficult to know if any of the prospective coalition partners will insist on commitments regarding a future peace deal. In any case, hints and current analyses predict a US peace plan that will avoid mention of a Palestinian state and, therefore, will be immediately rejected by the Palestinians, providing Netanyahu with an easy way to avoid taking any real action on this contentious issue.

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