Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have secured enough votes for his conservative Likud party to form a right-wing, ultra-orthodox coalition government. Based on vote totals calculated the morning after Tuesday’s vote, the Likud party itself tallied 26.27% of the vote, which translates to 35 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Along with five supportive right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties that amassed enough votes collectively to secure about 30 seats amongst them, Prime Minister Netanyahu is eyeing a 65-seat governing majority. Likud’s main challenger, the Blue and White party, led by the former chief of the Israel Defense Forces Benny Gantz along with former finance minister Yair Lapid, came in a close second with 25.94% of the vote. Although the Blue and White party’s vote total appears enough to also entitle it to 35 seats in the Knesset, it is nowhere near being able to reach the magic majority number of 61 seats with eligible coalition partners. Thus, barring some unforeseen occurrence, Prime Minister Netanyahu is on his way to commencing a record-setting fifth term, albeit under the cloud of possible indictment on bribery and other corruption charges.
President Trump wasted no time in congratulating Prime Minister Netanyahu for his victory. “He’s been a great ally and he’s a friend, I’d like to congratulate Bibi Netanyahu, that was a well-thought out race I can tell you,” President Trump said on Wednesday.
Several observations can be drawn from the election results. First, despite his serious legal challenges, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s sheer force of personality and brand of Israel-first, Jewish identity politics continues to motivate his core base of supporters to rally around him. Mr. Netanyahu used red-meat rhetoric effectively, including his pledge last weekend to begin annexing settlements in the West Bank and his warnings that, if his supporters did not show up at the polls, a “leftist” government could take over. His supporters listened. The prime minister had been working with President Trump’s pollster John McLaughlin, who is expected to help President Trump in 2020 with a similar campaign strategy.
Second, Israelis showed that, by and large, they are basically satisfied with the status quo. Prime Minister Netanyahu was able to run on a relatively strong record of achievement, including a healthy economy on his watch. Above all, during his current term, he has managed to keep Israel out of any major war and has prevented any attacks or incursions from materializing into an existential threat to the country. Hamas and Hezbollah, though raising security concerns to be sure, have been largely kept in check. Israel has taken the offensive against Iranian positions in Syria without encountering major reprisals, Russian interference or a spill-over of the Syrian civil war into Israel. The bond between Israel and the United States, thanks in large measure to the relationship that the prime minister has forged with President Trump, has never been stronger. Most notably, the Trump administration has moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Israel did not have to make any concessions to the Palestinians in return. Israel has been working with Gulf Arab nations to challenge Iranian attempts at achieving hegemony in the Middle East region.
Third, Israel’s rightward tilt, fueled in part by the increasing strength of the religious parties, became even more pronounced in this election and may be reaching a point of no return. The ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism secured third and fourth places behind the Likud and Blue and White parties. Shas’ tally of 6.10% (8 seats) and United Torah Judaism’s tally of 5.90% (8 seats) each exceeded the once dominant Labor Party’s tally of 4.46% (six seats). Meretz, a social-democratic and green party, just barely met the minimum vote threshold to be counted, with 3.3 percent of the vote. As Damon Linker, senior correspondent at TheWeek.com and former contributing editor at The New Republic, remarked, “the most far-reaching consequence of the 2019 Israeli election may well be that it verified, beyond any reasonable doubt, that there is functionally no left left in Israel. It has become a country with a center, a right, and a far right, but no electorally viable left to speak of.”
Fourth, the Palestinians are the big losers in this election. Arab-Israeli citizens did not help themselves or the Palestinian cause with their low turnout, although the Arab Hadash-Ta’al did manage to come in fourth with six seats. Lacking any strong political allies on the left with a dovish agenda, there is not much they could have done in any event that would have made a difference in the Palestinians’ favor. Even if the Blue and White party had prevailed, the Palestinians’ vision of a two-state solution on their terms, despite their backing from the so-called “international community,” would not have become a reality. Gantz may have talked about desiring peace with the Palestinians, but he did not endorse a two-state solution. He promised to “strengthen the settlement blocs and Golan [Heights], where we won’t leave ever.” Whether Israelis voted for Likud or the Blue and White party, they were not casting a vote for a government mandate to pursue direct negotiations with the Palestinians for a two-state solution resembling anything that the so-called “international community” has endorsed.
With that being said, Prime Minister Netanyahu faces the challenge of an indictment that could cause him to be unseated. Reportedly, Mr. Netanyahu is seeking support from possible coalition partners for new immunity legislation, in exchange for which he may be forced to follow through on his pledge to annex West Bank settlements. Moreover, although President Trump expressed the belief that Mr. Netanyahu’s re-election improved the chances for peace with the Palestinians, the opposite is more likely in view of the far-right parties that would be essential to keep the Netanyahu-led coalition in power. If the peace plan reportedly to be released soon by the Trump administration is premised on a two-state solution that includes a contiguous independent Palestinian state – a necessary condition to having any chance of getting so-called “moderate” Arab states’ support - Mr. Netanyahu will have virtually no wriggle room to accept it. The only possible path would be a unity coalition between Likud and the more centrist Blue and White party that may have enough political capital to at least use the Trump peace plan as a starting point for negotiations. However, Mr. Gantz has rejected any unity government with Likud that includes Mr. Netanyahu while the prime minister faces possible indictment. In any case, the Palestinians have indicated that, as far as they are concerned, the Trump peace plan is dead on arrival.
While anything could still happen, the most likely scenario coming out of the Israeli election is continued containment of the conflict with the Palestinians to manageable levels and continued focus on the Iranian-Hezbollah threat with more military action to prevent their build-up of permanent bases in Syria. Further entrenchment of Israeli government support for expanded Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank is likely, with formal annexation remaining the wild card.
One thing is for sure. As long at least as Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump remain in office, there will be no daylight between the United States and Israel. Compared with the Obama administration, that alone is like night and day