Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 17, 2019
Netanyahu’s Israel story continues

When Israel went to the polls last week, it was as much to vote in a referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu as it was to find a successor to the prime minister who is now in his fourth term. In this, Election 2019 was similar to Election 2015. And like in 2015, this year too, the electorate re-endorsed Netanyahu who will be forming the next government with the support of other right-wing and religious parties, but rejected almost all this potential successors.

The Blue and White (Kachol Levan), formed just weeks before the election, did well for itself but evidently not well enough. Led by former chief of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) Benjamin Gantz, who joined hands with Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party, and brought on board two other former IDF chiefs, one of whom was also Netanyahu’s defence minister, the new party won an impressive 35 seats (and tied with the Likud) in the Knesset. However, the Blue and White’s road to coalition-building was always a whole lot longer than the Likud’s because it did not have the necessary alliances with smaller parties to get past the half-way mark in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset.

Also, the Blue and White didn’t take away very many votes from the Likud (which grew from 30 to 35 seats). Instead, it mostly replaced the previous centre-left coalition from 2015--the Zionist Union--and expanded that space by adding the seat share of its constituent Yesh Atid party. Hence, it damaged the Left but didn’t carve a niche for itself on the Right against Likud.

The party also needs to build its own political identity--its motto, “Israel First”, sounds nice but doesn’t mean much. On social issues, it campaigned for some progressive legislation like civil marriages and public transport on shabbat but that’s been on the agenda of other Centre-left parties as well and would even have the Likud’s support if the Jewish orthodox Haredi parties weren’t a factor. On economic issues, it had little to offer even though at least the Lapid has always focused on economic issues, his lacklustre tenure as finance minister notwithstanding. On security issues, the so-called General’s party didn’t have anything new to say--not even during the flare-up in Gaza just before the election.

The Blue and White’s campaign focussed on getting rid of Netanyahu who is facing corruption charges. But that strategy didn’t work for the Zionist Union in 2015 and failed again for Blue and White in 2019. In contrast, Netanyahu’s response to run a gevalt campaign -- go into panic mode and urge supporters to vote him to ‘safety’--worked well in 2015 and even better in 2019. If the Blue and White even stays together for the next election, it will have to become more than just Likud-lite and present a real alternative to Netanyahu.

New Right: crash and burn

Among prominent politicians from the outgoing Knesset, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, the education and justice ministers, were seen as heir apparents. Both served in elite IDF units, both had successful careers in hi-tech, and both offered a tantalising mix of a liberal values with conservative policy priorities. Bennett emerged as the Right’s blue-eyed boy when, under his leadership, the Jewish Home party (Habayit Hayehudi) soared from three to 12 seats in the Knesset in 2013. Shaked, meanwhile, was praised for being the only secular woman to represent a religious party in the Knesset. It was widely believed that first Bennett and then Shaked would eventually get the top job.

However, their electoral fortunes dipped in 2015 -- when the Jewish Home lost a third of its seats. Both still got ministerial portfolios but, after this election, they are not even in the Knesset. Bennett’s decision to quit Jewish Home and Shaked’s decision to follow him, and set up a new party backfired. Their New Right (HaYamin HeHadash) party did not even get past the electoral threshold. The Israeli Right’s power couple crashed and burnt -- but Shaked might still rise from the ashes. She is reportedly parting ways with Bennett, and might join the Likud.

Kulanu: Cut to size

Finance minister Moshe Kahlon had hoped to position his Kulanu party as a crucial swing factor. Though he has now placed himself in Netanyahu’s tent, he could have very well gone with Gantz. In fact, Kahlon had public stated that he would not sit in government with a prime minister who had been indicted on corruption charges. This would have been a deal breaker for Netanyahu. However, Kahlon’s party lost six of its 10 seats this time, barely making it past the electoral threshold. Fearing a complete washout in the next election, Kahlon has not only abandoned his anti-Netanyahu line but is merging Kulanu with the Likud; much like the Lapid, who joined Gantz, fearing electoral irrelevance.

Yisrael Beiteinu: Kingmaker, but not the King

In September 2018, Avigdor Liberman, then defence minister, resigned from the government and withdrew his Yisrael Beiteinu party from the ruling coalition over disagreements with Netanyahu on how to respond to Hamas’ provocative rocket fire from the Gaza strip. He was already being criticised for his sub-par performance; and calculated that by taking a hardline on Gaza against Netanyahu, he might be able to strengthen his hand. That strategy has brought only limited benefits.

Yes, Liberman has emerged as the king-maker. His party’s five seats are needed to put a Likud-led coalition past the 60-seat mark. And if those seats were to be taken to Blue and White, hypothetically, Gantz could have also built the winning coalition -- with external support from the Arab parties. But this was more of an academic exercise. In reality, Liberman would have had to return to Netanyahu -- though now he has the luxury of doing so on his own terms. These terms include return of the defence minister’s portfolio and ending the exemption from military service given to Haredi men. The former is do-able, the latter could bring down the government.

But while Liberman remains an important player and has done better than the younger lot of Lapid, Bennett, and Kahlon, the fact remains he hasn’t been able to measure up to Netanyahu’s towering figure on the Israeli political scene. Indeed, while Netanyahu has gone from strength to strength, Liberman’s block has consistently become smaller -- from 15 seats at its peak in 2009 to 13 in 2013, six in 2015, and now five.

In this election, Netanyahu fought a rising anti-incumbency sentiment, brought his challengers to their knees, and now has a coalition that is least likely to demand his resignation if he is, as is widely expected, indicted on corruption charges in a few months’ time. Clearly, he hasn’t lost his magician’s touch and remains the undefeated Melech Yisrael, the King of Israel. Only the question of who will inherit his kingdom remains a mystery.

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