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Understanding Israel’s Latest Election Results

Five takeaways to ponder as we wait for the game of political Jenga to begin

Liel Leibovitz
September 18, 2019
Peter Summers/Getty Images
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to the press as he meets with Prime Minister Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street on Sept. 5, 2019, in LondonPeter Summers/Getty Images
Peter Summers/Getty Images
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to the press as he meets with Prime Minister Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street on Sept. 5, 2019, in LondonPeter Summers/Getty Images

It’s afternoon in Israel as I write, and despite having rushed to the ballots for the second time in five months, Israelis are none the wiser about their nation’s political future. President Reuven Rivlin will soon summon the parties’ representatives for consultations, and will then task the formation of a new government to the candidate he believes stands the best chance of succeeding in what, under current electoral conditions, amounts to a sensitive game of political Jenga. Neither Benjamin Netanyahu nor his rival, Blue and White head Benny Gantz, have a clear and logical path to a narrow majority of 61 members of Knesset, meaning it’s now time for all sides to brush up on the art of the deal.

With nearly all of the votes already counted, the number of possible scenarios is confounding. We may, for example, end up with a narrow Netanyahu coalition, provided that the prime minister can convince Avigdor Lieberman to return to the right-wing fold. Or we can soon see a broad unity government, perhaps one in which Netanyahu and Gantz agree to share power as Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir did in the 1980s. Just as likely is some canny move in which Netanyahu, say, lures Labor—and maybe even a few high-ranking officials—into his camp by focusing on a radical agenda of social welfare, or Gantz breaks with tradition and, for the first time in Israel’s history, invites an Arab party to join his government.

With so many plausible scenarios floating about, it’s important not to lose track of the bigger trends that are already becoming visible even if all the votes have yet to be counted. Five in particular stand out.

Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Lieberman: Any discussion of this do-over election should begin with a not-so-gentle reminder of why we’re here in the first place. The answer is stark and dispiriting: An entire nation was subjected to months of anxiety and millions of dollars in expenditures solely because of the cynicism and solipsism of one man. Long resentful of Netanyahu, and eager to teach his old mentor a lesson, Lieberman, who started his political career running Bibi’s office, observed the results of April’s elections and calculated that he could win himself two or three more seats by blowing everything up and forcing a mulligan on the entire nation. To that end, he feigned some principled objection having to do with drafting yeshiva students to the IDF, a thorny issue on which he was previously perfectly willing to compromise.

The ruse worked: Lieberman spent the past five months campaigning as a bold champion of secularism, earning him, if the exit polls are to be trusted, anywhere from three to four additional seats. He is now, however, right back where he started, which, in politics, is never a plum position: Whether he joins Netanyahu, forces some agreement between the prime minister and Gantz, or chooses to remain in the opposition, Lieberman, like all creatures who sting, is likely to learn that, having pricked Netanyahu once, he is suddenly drained of his political life force. There’s a price to pay for being monumentally self-serving, even in politics.

Hang on to Your Ego: The same goes for a few other players on the political field. The members of the far-right party Otzma Yehudit, for example, learned nothing from April’s debacle; instead of joining the other right-wing parties under Ayelet Shaked’s successful leadership, they insisted on running alone. This cost them not only, most likely, their Knesset seat, but also robbed the right of as many as four or five additional seats that they might’ve won had the vote not been split. Critics on the left can say the same thing about Labor’s Amir Peretz, who could’ve teamed up with the Democratic Union—formerly known as Meretz—and formed a left-wing superparty that might’ve won more than the combined 10 seats both parties are currently projected to have won.

Bloc Party: Analyzing the election returns, pundits were quick to speak of two blocs—the right, led by Netanyahu, and the center-left, helmed by Gantz. This is an absolute fallacy. The right-wing bloc is real. Its parties—Likud, Yamina, Shas, and Yahadut Ha’Torah—share a more-or-less coherent worldview that is, with few exceptions and with some gradations, faith-based and hawkish.

The center-left bloc, however, is an illusion. While the Democratic Union is truly leftist and continues to occupy the same narrow political perch—it currently has enough voters to occupy two or three ZIP codes in northern Tel Aviv, just as it had in the least few election cycles—and while the Labor party continues to hold on to its traditional voters, mostly aging loyalists who were born during the 29-year period in which the party single-handedly dominated Israeli politics, the bloc’s two other parties make for less than perfect partners.

First, there’s Blue and White: The center-left’s bloc party is, to put it mildly, a hot mess. A hastily put together gaggle of candidates, many of whom are political neophytes, the party has failed miserably, in April or now, to propose a solid agenda or a sweeping vision for Israel’s future. At its best, it reminded Israelis that it was the only credible alternative to Bibi, while implicitly promising to pursue all the policies that had worked so well for Netanyahu. As American Democrats are learning the hard way these days, just asking voters to reward you for not being your opponent isn’t much a of a long-term strategy. In his years in office, Netanyahu was responsible for real and impressive achievements, from forging strong diplomatic ties with India, Brazil, and other nations formerly reluctant to embrace the Jewish state, to keeping Israelis safe and their economy booming. Anyone who wants to replace him but has no coherent offerings is going to end up just like Dash: In 1977, a handful of Israeli politicians, led by former IDF Chief of Staff Yigael Yadin, formed a new party that swept 15 Knesset seats and promised to reshape Israeli politics and make it less corrupt. It was gone a year later, having failed to deliver anything of substance. A similarly grim fate was visited on another political upstart, Shinui: Led by Tomy Lapid—the father of Blue and White’s Yair Lapid—the party won 15 seats in the 2003 elections by promising to usher in a vaguely defined golden age of Israeli politics. By 2006, it had largely disintegrated. Blue and White is almost certain to follow in the footsteps of these predecessors, unless it takes the time to figure out what it is that it believes and reinvents itself as something other than a Bibi-free clone of Likud.

Which leaves us with the Joint List. The party, the biggest winner of this election cycle, is as diverse as the Israeli Arab population it represents: Some of its candidates are committed communists, others are Islamists, and more yet are hard-edged nationalists, which makes it hard to pin down on any one side of the political spectrum. Nor is the party really a member of any bloc, as it’s highly unlikely that any mainstream Zionist politician would ever agree to form a coalition with a fiercely anti-Zionist Arab party. Any attempt to spin the results as a real achievement for anything resembling a cohesive center-left bloc, then, is simply false: Even if you count Blue and White as a centrist party, it leads a bloc that is no larger than 42-45 seats and agrees on pretty much nothing.

King Bibi: Even if you disregard the pending investigations against the prime minister, Bibi’s limitations were on full display this week. A brilliant politician and a singular statesman, he is no stranger to hubris and not above pettiness. Rather than turn the Likud into a big tent thick with talented people, he systematically sabotaged the rise of anyone he perceived as a potential threat. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, for example, both started out as Likudniks; so did Avigdor Lieberman and Blue and White’s Moshe Ya’alon. Had Netanyahu decided to cultivate them and others rather than marginalize them, he could’ve presided over a right-wing dream team, giving his party upwards of 50 seats. When he leaves—which, depending on the election’s results as well as on his ongoing rendezvous with the courts—Likud is likely to face a true existential crisis, paving the way for upstarts left and right.

Law and Order: In many ways, this election cycle, just like April’s, was much less about parties and their platforms and much more about the actions of Israel’s law enforcement bureaucracy. Nearly two dozen times in his decade as prime minister, Netanyahu had found himself at the center of a criminal investigation for alleged wrongdoing. Every single time this happened, he was judged guilty in the press and then, to much less fanfare, watched the allegations against him quietly implode for lack of evidence. Many of his supporters are arguing that there’s a pattern here, that Israel’s deep state, or deep shtetl, as it were—the cabal of unelected and unaccountable elites that govern the country by controlling the courts, the Attorney General’s Office, and other key institutions—have targeted Netanyahu unfairly. Without the taint of corruption—still, it should be emphasized, largely unproven—hanging over the prime minister’s head, it’s not unreasonable to assume that many of Blue and White’s voters, who opted for Bibi’s policies without Bibi, might’ve felt more inclined to stick with Netanyahu. The case against Bibi will reportedly resume in October. If Netanyahu’s accusers once again fail to deliver anything by way of hard evidence, there would be very little anyone could say to those who are already convinced that Bibi was wrongly and conspiratorially accused. Here, too, Bibi may look to America for inspiration: His friend Donald Trump survived a long and protracted investigation that ended with a whimper and failed to prove anything, let alone the worst accusations leveled against the American president. Expect to see Bibi taking a page from Trump’s playbook and amping up talk of a witch hunt, a story line that is likely to get all the more resonant and convincing if he again emerges unscathed in court.

So where does all this leave us? Not, as some pundits will have you believe, at a real juncture of change. Israel, despite the rosy wishes of many liberal American Jews, is not the United States. When Israelis vote, they vote because what’s at stake—as Matti Friedman reminded us earlier this month—is life and death. The issues Israelis face today are the same they faced yesterday, beginning with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. The left continues to offer no real alternatives, nor is it ready to reckon with the spectacular failure of the Oslo Accords. If you want to understand Israeli society, consider the following number: 103. That, most likely, is the number of Knesset seats, out of a possible 120, that will go to parties—Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Blue and White, Shas, Labor, Yahadut Ha’Torah, and Yamina—that all support more or less the same military, diplomatic, and economic agendas. Israelis stand united even if their politicians do not, and this being startup nation, it’s only a matter of time until someone comes up with some way to reinvent what is clearly an industry ripe for disruption.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.