In the summer of 1982 a little-known marketing executive arrived at the Israeli embassy in Washington and assumed his new position as deputy ambassador. He thus launched a remarkable political career that in due course included 13 years as prime minister, more than any of Israel’s 12 other prime ministers.
The second election of 2019 may end up being remembered as the beginning of that career’s end.
Though politically inconclusive, on the personal plain the general election Israel held on September 17 dealt Binyamin Netanyahu a blow that may prove politically fatal.
Netanyahu entered the election holding, theoretically, 41 of the last Knesset’s 120 seats – the Likud’s 35, four more won by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party in April before he joined Likud’s ticket, and the equivalent of another two seats which had been won by former lawmaker Moshe Feiglin, who has also re-joined Likud.
After the election, that figure has shrunk by more than a fifth, to 31 seats. Worse, from Netanyahu’s viewpoint, the main opposition party, the centrist Blue and White, emerged as the largest party, having apparently won 33 seats.
More ominously for the ruling Likud party, the three smaller conservative and ultra-Orthodox parties with which it had hoped to build a right-wing coalition won 24 seats between them, which leaves the outgoing coalition six seats short of the 61 that a Knesset majority requires.
Even more painfully for Netanyahu, Blue and White won more votes than Likud among IDF soldiers.
The soldiers’ vote may reflect one cause of Netanyahu’s setback, namely, Blue and White’s inclusion of three former IDF chiefs of staff, a unique and hawkish lineup that devalued Netanyahu’s claim that Blue and White represents “the Left.”
Moreover, Blue and White leader Lt-Gen (res.) Benny Gantz’s announcement the day before the election that, if elected, he would appoint Lt-Gen (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi as defence minister, apparently appealed to many soldiers. A veteran and former commander of the Golani infantry division, Ashkenazi is popular among Israel’s working class, from which thousands of the fabled unit’s veterans over the decades have hailed.
Having said all this, Netanyahu’s setback is attributable to three deeper causes, the first of which is his conduct in the face of his legal situation.
Facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust pending a hearing with the Attorney-General on Oct. 2-3, Netanyahu has repeatedly attacked the judiciary, the police and the media, alleging that they and “the Left” conspired against him, regardless of the evidence. In all likelihood, this rhetoric put off the very swing voters Netanyahu has failed to win over in his effort to come into that hearing backed by a decisive parliamentary majority.
Similarly, intentions on the part of various Likud lawmakers to pass legislation that would have postponed Netanyahu’s indictment until after he leaves office are now out of the question, as such legislation would require the parliamentary majority Likud no longer wields.
The second factor in Netanyahu’s electoral decline has been his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Having heeded the demands of ultra-Orthodox legislators last summer that he retreat from legislation that had already passed a first reading defining quotas for the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men, Netanyahu was politically ambushed by his former defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman.
The 61-year-old Lieberman, who arrived in Israel at age 18 from then-Soviet Kishinev, used Netanyahu’s concession on conscription as a political casus-belli, bolting coalition talks with Netanyahu and forcing an early election hardly half-a-year since the one in April.
It was a massive gamble that is now seen by pundits as a massive success from the viewpoint of its mastermind. Lieberman’s following grew by 60%, from five to eight seats, and his position morphed from a fifth wheel in a right wing coalition to the potential lynchpin of a prospective broad unity government.
In terms of Netanyahu’s miscalculations, his failure to predict Lieberman’s bold manoeuvre was accompanied by a further failure to appreciate the scope and intensity of public displeasure with his concessions and overtures to the ultra-Orthodox parties. This, then, was the second factor in Netanyahu’s electoral failure.
The third was Netanyahu’s targeting of Israel’s Arab population for political attack on two occasions.
The first was when he tried to pass legislation that would have allowed political parties to place surveillance cameras in polling stations in order to prevent fraud. The bill did not pass, but the proposal was widely perceived as aimed at reducing the turnout of Arab voters.
Meanwhile, a statement sent to Netanyahu’s Facebook followers claimed Gantz is out to forge a coalition “that relies on the Arabs who want to annihilate all of us.” Netanyahu’s campaign claimed the statement was posted “mistakenly” by “a staff worker,” but many assumed it had to have been approved by Netanyahu.
At the ballot box, the perceived effort to corner the Arab population seems to have brought Netanyahu few new voters, and in all likelihood cost him some, first by raising Arab turnout, and then by putting off Jewish voters who found such rhetoric damaging to Israel’s social fabric. It certainly helps explain the success of the Joint List, a ticket comprising four primarily Arab parties which increased their representation from 10 to 13 Knesset seats.
These, then, are the apparent reasons for Likud’s first electoral failure since 2006. Having said all this, Blue and White’s achievement is no landslide, and in fact creates a political logjam.
Israeli law says that after an election the president should consult all elected parties, and then call on the party leader that most legislators recommend and assign him or her with forming a coalition. In normal situations this is a matter of simple arithmetic, but this year is not politically normal.
The first complication is that Blue and White and the Joint List of Arab parties have both made it clear they do not want to partner in a coalition, the former because the latter is mostly anti-Zionist, and the latter because the former includes hawks like former defence minister Lt-Gen (res.) Moshe Yaalon – now Gantz’s candidate for education minister.
The second complication is that Gantz promised a “broad, secular coalition,” – likely meaning a government with Likud and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, but at the same time insists that it will not partner with Netanyahu as he long as he faces indictments. In other words, it says such a coalition is contingent on Likud replacing Netanyahu as leader.
A third complication is that the religious parties will almost certainly not consider entering a coalition with Gantz as long as he is in partnership with Blue and White’s number two, former finance minister Yair Lapid, head of the secularist Yesh Atid party.
Hovering above all this are Lieberman’s pre-election and post-election vows to join only a broad government without the ultra-Orthodox parties. This repeated pledge is the key reason it appears Netanyahu cannot create a narrow coalition.
Israel’s politicians, in short, will have to be creative during the coming few months, because not one of them can afford to be blamed for causing a third general election within less than a year.
The impasse all this creates may well take months to untangle, because the Jewish holidays will seriously slow political activity for most of October. However, at some point one or more of the key players will climb down from the tree they have climbed up and a coalition deal will be made – and the most likely outcome is that Israel will emerge with a broad unity government headed by Gantz, possibly in a rotation arrangement with a Likud leader.
There’s a good chance that Likud leader will be someone other than Netanyahu, who after, in all likelihood, being formally indicted, is expected to come under pressure from within the Likud to step aside.
Little in all this is pretty as most Israelis see the situation, but two aspects of it may eventually be universally appreciated.
The first is that Israeli voters blocked what a critical mass of the public saw as a gathering attack on Israel’s fiercely independent judiciary. The second is about the relationship between the Netanyahu era’s political atmosphere and the global rise of nationalist populism.
Netanyahu has hobnobbed and built good relations with this resurging populist movement’s key protagonists, from US President Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to Hungary’s Viktor Orban, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and, to a lesser extent, India’s Narendra Modi. Netanyahu’s critics saw his increasing confrontations with the judiciary, the media, and the Arab minority in recent years as a reflection of what such leaders have been up to in their own lands.
Seen this way, Israeli voters defied the populist global trend, and possibly helped replace it with an era of gentler political substance and style.