Perennial PM wins a fifth term
He did it again. After having already won four general elections, Benjamin Netanyahu has won a fifth term as Israel’s prime minister, a feat matched only by the Jewish state’s fabled founder David Ben-Gurion.
Moreover, by July the 69-year-old Netanyahu will have been at Israel’s helm longer than any other of its twelve previous prime ministers, with his first stint having ended in 1999, and his return to the premiership in 2009 having launched a full decade in power as of last February.
By the time he turns 70 next October, the perfectly healthy Netanyahu will have presided over an era to which historians will in all likelihood attach his name, for better or worse.
As far as the voters who decided Israel’s 21st general election are concerned, the Netanyahu era will be judged for the better.
Netanyahu’s victory is unambiguous, and in fact the most impressive he has ever won. Netanyahu’s Likud has grown from 30 to 36 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, and together with its five conservative satellite parties it is now poised to count 65 lawmakers who will form a solid, compact, and obedient coalition.
On the face of it, Netanyahu’s personal achievement seems rivalled by that of Blue and White leader Benny Gantz in receiving an almost equal number of Knesset seats.
The former commander of the IDF is so politically virgin that he has never served as a lawmaker, minister, or even a municipal councillor in his 59 years. Attracting such a following a mere six weeks after having welded together the three parties that will now dominate the opposition is an accomplishment never previously seen even in Israel’s eventful politics.
Indeed, Netanyahu’s and Gantz’s performances appear to jointly restore the two-party system that characterised Israeli politics until 1996, when Likud and Labor began shrinking electorally, ultimately coming to be surrounded by assorted satellites that left the two largest parties with less than half the electorate.
In what is likely a healthy change for Israel’s fractious politics, Likud and Blue and White will command 60% of the next Knesset, as opposed to the 45% commanded by Likud and the Zionist Union in the departing Knesset.
Even so, Gantz must now take his accomplishment into a testing period as leader of the opposition, where his first task will be to keep his large but disjointed party together, and prevent the unbundling of its cumbersomely packaged capitalists, socialists, doves and hawks.
Moreover, Gantz’s feat has come almost wholly at the expense of other anti-Netanyahu parties, most notably Labor, which has plunged from 24 seats (under its previous name, the Zionist Union) to six, in addition to having incorporated former Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”), which held 11 seats in the outgoing Knesset.
From previous right-wing voters, Gantz appears to have gained only two seats.
Netanyahu’s victory reflects four factors.
The first is that most Israelis, even many of his opponents, feel that his era has brought a measure of military security, economic prosperity, and unprecedented diplomatic legitimacy, confidence, and sway.
Netanyahu is now counted among the world’s most veteran and appreciated leaders, one who comes and goes freely between the White House, the Kremlin, the Élysée and 10 Downing, whose own inhabitants – even the timeless Vladimir Putin – were political nobodies when Netanyahu first took office in 1996.
This global stature became palpable twice as voting day approached – first when US President Donald Trump recognised Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, then when Putin helped retrieve from Syria the body of fallen solider Zacharia Baumel, who has been missing in action since a Syrian-Israeli armour battle in 1982.
Socially, Netanyahu’s voters identify him with Israel’s economic success, underscored by the developed world’s highest growth rate so far this century, as well as minimal unemployment, inflation, and foreign debt – all of which has made the Israeli shekel one of the world’s strongest currencies.
The second factor is Netanyahu’s legal situation.
Facing three indictments pending a hearing, Netanyahu managed to convince his core electorate that he is innocent. Rightly or wrongly, these voters were inspired by their embattled hero’s political bellicosity, which made them rally around him as he circled his wagons.
Having said this, Netanyahu’s legal situation remains grave, and chances he will be indicted by next year remain high. In such a case, political dynamics may force him to step aside, even though Israeli law does not demand that a prime minister resign until convicted beyond appeal.
The third factor in Netanyahu’s victory is his iron-clad alliance with the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism.
Had either of the two been open to negotiations with Gantz, he could have been Israel’s next prime minister. However, the ultra-Orthodox have served in eight of the ten Likud-led governments since 1977, and have no intention of abandoning that pattern.
In this regard, Gantz is also paying the price for the alliance he has struck with Yair Lapid, who has long campaigned intensely against exemptions from military service for ultra-Orthodox conscripts, and against public money going to ultra-Orthodox religious seminaries. These stances have made him the political antichrist for the ultra-Orthodox.
Lastly, Netanyahu benefitted from demographics.
The ultra-Orthodox parties’ combined electorate grew from 13 to 15 seats in this election, adding up to growth of well over 10%.
This trend reflects the ultra-Orthodox electorate’s higher birthrates, a factor for which Gantz’s constituency has no equivalent, even though they too, like the general Israeli population, have more kids than any other western society (Gantz himself has four children).
Having said all this, Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies will likely be looking across the cabinet table at the first-ever openly gay minister in Israeli history. Likud MK Amir Ohana, a gay lawyer and former Shin Bet officer, is expected to get a cabinet seat.
The Likud’s strong overall showing will also allow Netanyahu to refrain from handing key ministries to coalition allies from smaller parties, the way he did in previous governments with the ministries of defence, finance, education and foreign affairs.
Now all these portfolios may remain in Likud’s hands, with Netanyahu intending to retain the defence portfolio himself, the way some of his famous predecessors did before him, from Ben-Gurion in the 1950s to Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s.
Netanyahu, in short, will likely reign supreme in his new coalition, and be in a position to consolidate his sway over Israel’s domestic scene in much the same way that he has long established himself as Israel’s voice abroad.
It will all feel great for him and his political base until the legal process he faces matures, and he is potentially indicted. This may occur within an estimated ten months. That prospect, realistic or not, is what Benny Gantz will now prepare for while the second decade of the Netanyahu era begins to unfold.