With nearly all the votes now counted, it’s safe to say that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been reelected. For those catching up, here are five takeaways from Tuesday’s Israeli election:
Bibi Survives. This of course is the biggest takeaway, and love him or hate him, it’s a testament to his incredible resilience. Netanyahu was initially elected back in 1996, but was driven into the political wilderness by 1999. Yet a decade after his failed premiership, he was back in power, and after a decade as the nation’s leader, he’s about to start a record fifth term. This was far from a guarantee. Facing indictment for corruption and a strong challenge from a newly formed center-left alliance, he found himself in the fight of his political life. With 95% of the vote counted, his Likud party tied with the center-left Blue and White Party with 35 seats apiece. However, the right-wing bloc of parties gained a total of 65 seats, compared to 55 for the left-wing bloc, meaning Netanyahu is in a much stronger position to form a government, which requires a majority of 61 in the nation’s parliament, the Knesset. As things stand, Netanyahu has been prime minister for nearly 20% of Israel’s existence.
RIP Trump-Kushner peace plan. The outcome of the elections, and the fragile coalition Netanyahu will have to put together, will make it very unlikely he’d be able to support any sort of President Trump-Jared Kushner peace plan proposal. Any plan that involves significant Israeli concessions to get buy-in from Arab countries is almost certainly going to be opposed by Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners with the power to bring down the government. The religious Zionist Union of Right Wing Parties in particular will be an obstacle, and they currently have five seats, which means without their involvement alone, Netanyahu would be down to 60 seats and thus lack a majority. Add to this the fact that Netanyahu will be facing indictment, and it’s hard to imagine he’d have the political capital to make a deal. The only remaining question at this point is whether Trump even bothers to roll out the peace plan at all, or delays it indefinitely.
The racist party that drew international backlash likely shut out of the Knesset. Netanyahu drew significant international backlash, even in pro-Israel circles, for his cynical move that brought the racist fringe Jewish Power party into the political fold. What happened is that in the Israeli system, to qualify for the Knesset, any party has to win at least 4 seats, or 3.25% of the vote, or else its votes are tossed out and the seats are re-allocated among the larger parties that meet the threshold. Netanyahu was concerned that too many right-wing votes would go to waste, so he brokered a deal that brought the Jewish Power party into the Union of Right-Wing Parties. However, the party’s representative, Itamar Ben Gvir, was seventh in line to gain a seat, and the party only won five according to the current results.
Religious parties win big. While, internationally, most coverage of Israel focuses on the conflict with the Palestinians and Iran, domestically, one of the biggest issues is the tension that exists between proponents of secularism and religious pluralism and ultra-Orthodox forces. Secular Israelis who serve in the military, work, and pay significant taxes bristle at ultra-Orthodox communities that skip military service, spend their time studying Torah, and then depend on state welfare to support their large families. Additionally, secular Israelis are increasingly frustrated with the power exerted in by the Chief Rabbinate, particularly over marriage laws. But boosted by massive turnout, the two largest ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) won eight seats each, tying them for the third largest party in the Knesset, and ensuring that they’ll represent the largest bloc of votes within the new Netanyahu government after his own Likud. Their combined 16 votes will be able to stymie any sort of secular reforms, and allow them to exert considerable influence.
An exercise in political cannibalism. In the end, the overall balance of power did not shift significantly from the 2015 elections, when the right-wing bloc secured 67 seats and the left-wing was at 53. What ended up happening was a lot of political cannibalism. As Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman noted, the major parties directed much of their campaigns against the smaller parties in their own likely coalition to consolidate support. In the case of challenger Benny Gantz, this proved fatal, because it meant he wasn’t doing enough to steal away votes from the other side. The outcome was that after the last election, Likud was at 30 seats and the closest rival, the makeshift Zionist Union alliance, was at 24 seats and there were multiple other parties in the double digits. Now Likud and rival Blue and White are both at 35, and no other party has more than eight seats.