Israel held repeat elections last week after having gone to the voting booths just 5 months prior. It was the first time the country has ever had to hold consecutive elections, prompted by Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s inability to pull together a right-wing coalition last time around. Rather than let opposition parties attempt to form a coalition when he failed, Bibi dissolved parliament and forced the country back to the polls. He was rewarded with a second-place showing, leaving him in an even worse position than he was back in April.
Why It Matters:
Because this looks like the end of the reign of “King Bibi”—as he is referred to by both supporters and detractors alike—who surpassed David Ben-Gurion this summer to become the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israeli history. Netanyahu is a polarizing figure in Israeli society, more so in recent years as he has tacked to the right to retain his grip on power, employing racist language against the country’s Arab citizens, attacking the media, police and the Supreme Court, and vowing to annex parts of the West Bank to appease his ultra-religious and far-right political partners (more on that below). Bibi is an unabashed political opportunist, but that same political opportunism has also allowed him to forge strong personal relationships with Israel’s Arab neighbors—particularly those that share his view of the existential threat posed to the region by Iran—as well as with the Trump administration. And while those personal relationships have benefited Bibi politically, they’ve also benefitted Israel a great deal, too.
But back to Israeli domestic politics. Over more than a decade in power, Netanyahu has presided over a country where the issue of how religious “the Jewish state” should be has come to the forefront of Israeli politics. This is not a new fight by any means—issues like the lack of civil marriages and the banning of public transport in major cities on Saturdays in honor of the Jewish Sabbath have long been sore points for the country’s non-ultra-Orthodox majority who feel forced to live by the rules of the country’s more religious elements. But the most explosive fight of late has come over the issue of mandatory conscription of the country’s ultra-Orthodox population. Most men in that community who choose to study the Jewish scriptures full-time receive exemptions from military service, a practice that Israel’s Supreme Court has in the past ruled unconstitutional for being discriminatory. The right-wing ultra-Orthodox parties that Netanyahu has partnered with insist that the practice continues, prompting Avigdor Lieberman, a former Netanyahu deputy and the head of the right-wing but stridently secular Yisrael Beitenu, to pull his support from the previous round of coalition talks. That made it impossible for Netanyahu to form a government and drove the country back to elections. Further adding to Bibi’s headaches? He is waiting to hear this fall whether the country’s attorney general will indict him on corruption charges.
What Happens Next:
The country’s president, Reuven Rivlin, has until October 2 to decide who will get first shot at forming a government. Netanyahu, Lieberman, and Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue & White party that won 33 seats to Likud’s 31 (Israel’s parliament has 120 seats total), all say they want the same thing: a national unity government, involving at least Likud and Blue & White. But that’s easier said than done.
The most likely outcome is a national unity government led by Gantz, which would include elements of Likud that decide to abandon the severely weakened Netanyahu, as well as a constellation of other parties including Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and possibly center-left Labor. Lieberman would probably demand the defense ministry and key policy concessions to bless this government. It would be a motley bunch—leftists and right wingers, hawks and doves, free marketeers and union bosses. But it would be a majority, and that’s all Gantz needs.
Netanyahu is not going down without a fight. His singular goal is staying prime minister, and it’s not just about lust for power. Being prime minister may shield him from the judicial proceedings against him (though it’s never been tested before); if he is a mere member of parliament or minister, he has no such hope. Netanyahu said he would be willing to unite with Gantz’s Blue & White party on the condition that he remains prime minister, even if it’s just a rotation. In exchange, Netanyahu would need to give Blue & White the keys to the kingdom: deciding foreign policy and the budget, and all the perks of office. But even that’s a tough sell for Blue & White, whose members have spent the last nine months campaigning against him and holding him up as the exemplar of what’s wrong with Israeli politics today. Lieberman will also work to undermine this particular outcome, as it would mean he could be cut out of government (Likud + Blue & White have enough seats between them to form a coalition on their own).
There is also a small chance that we don’t end up with a unity government at all—that Netanyahu is able to convince Yisrael Beitenu to join his right-religious coalition by offering many more concessions and jettisoning one of the more extreme religious parties to appease Lieberman. That’s a very long shot at this point, but after more than a decade power, Bibi is a hard man to write off completely. In all likelihood though, last week’s election results spell the end of the Netanyahu era of Israeli politics.
The One Thing to Read About It:
Avigdor Lieberman, a former bar bouncer from Moldova, just became the most important politician in Israel—his party’s 8 seats in parliament will likely be critical in whatever coalition eventually manages to take power. But while the politics playing out in Israel the next few weeks will be fascinating, they pale in comparison to the up-again, down-again relationship between Netanyahu and Lieberman. Read this piece to understand why.
The One Major Misconception About It:
That Bibi’s impact on Israeli politics is finished. Yes, he may be out of office and potentially on trial. But his legacy – everything from extremely hawkish views on Iran to expansion of settlements to a booming Israeli economy – will long outlast him, even with a Blue & White-led government.
The One Thing to Say About It at a Dinner Party:
Politics in Israel used to be about left vs. right, especially in regards to the Palestinian issue. Now politics has become about secular vs. religious. And the biggest loser of this paradigm shift is… the Palestinians. As always.
The One Thing to Avoid Saying About It:
First Erdogan, then Bibi. If you’re going to rerun elections, it helps not to live in an actual democracy.
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