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Benjamin Netanyahu re-elected as voters swing to the right

  • Paula
As expected, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has named incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the best person to put together the next Israeli government.
by PAULA SLIER | Apr 18, 2019

All week, Rivlin has been consulting with the leaders of the parties that won seats in the 120-member Knesset (parliament) about their preference for premier. No surprise that Netanyahu is the most popular choice.

His Likud party won the largest number of parliamentary seats in last week’s election, and his closest rival, former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Chief Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party, conceded defeat days ago.

Netanyahu won 35 seats, the same number as Gantz, but with a slightly higher number of voters favouring the premier. He now has up to 42 days to form a government. If he fails, Rivlin can ask another politician to try.

It’s happened before. Back in 2009, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party won the most seats, but she was unable to form a government because, in part, she could not match Netanyahu’s promises to the ultra-Orthodox.

They demanded – as they do today – funding for their religious seminaries, exemption from the army, and control of the country’s Jewish religious life.

Winning 20 seats this time around, the religious parties carry important political weight. They are critical for whoever is tasked with forming the next government. It is highly unlikely they’ll form a coalition with parties on the left because of disagreement about the Jewish nature of Israel. It throws into question whether a left-wing majority coalition government can ever again be formed.

This means that even if Gantz had won the most seats in last week’s elections, he would have been unable to form the next government.

And so, Netanyahu is on track to secure a fourth consecutive, and a fifth overall term, in office. But coalition negotiations can drag on, especially as smaller parties put forward demands to satisfy their own electorates, which don’t always align with Netanyahu’s preferences.

While right-wing and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties were quick to announce that they backed Netanyahu, it gave him only 60 seats. He needs a minimum of 61 to have a majority in the next Knesset.

The sticking point was former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, which won five seats (and appeals to the mostly elderly Russian-speaking population). While slow to announce his support for Netanyahu, it was always unlikely that Lieberman would side with left-wing and Arab parties as they are far from his political outlook.

So, while he took his time, it was merely a way of pressing for concessions in coalition negotiations.

On Monday night he came on board, giving Netanyahu 65 seats, four more than he secured during the last parliament. Netanyahu is now in a stronger position to push for what he wants.

These elections proved once again that the right-wing and religious parties dominate Israeli politics, a trend that dates back about two decades.

In the final tally, more than 57% of votes went to these parties – the highest proportion in Israel's history. Only 34% went to centrist and left of centre Zionist parties.

And still, the right-wing bloc lost a staggering potential eight Knesset seats.

In December, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked left the New Home party that they had led until then to set up a new one. This was less than four months before the elections.

They hoped to appeal to more secular Israelis, but the political gamble they took backfired and their new party (New Right) did not win enough votes to enter the Knesset. They were short of just a thousand votes to pass the election threshold, which would have translated into four Knesset seats for them.

In addition, Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party (a right-wing party that among other things called for the legalisation of cannabis) also narrowly missed the threshold. This means that a potential eight Knesset seats that would have joined Netanyahu’s coalition effectively went down the drain.

The right-wing bloc was watered down by there being too many parties with very similar agendas for people to choose from.

Once seen as rising young stars in Israeli politics, there are rumours that Bennett and Shaked have dissolved their political alliance and that Shaked might be (re)-joining Likud.

As for the Israeli left, the elections were a wakeup call. The Labour party, which led Israel from its founding in 1948 for the following 30 years, and was for decades the mainstay of the Israeli centre-left, won only 4.45% of the vote. It garnered just six seats in the next parliament. It was Labour’s worst-ever election showing.

A similar pattern emerged on the left to that of the right. A significant number of Meretz supporters, a progressive peace and civil-rights alliance further on the political left than the Labour party, abandoned their party in support of Gantz’s Blue and White.

The same happened to Labour. While votes were not rendered meaningless like some of those on the right, there seemed to have been too many parties competing for the same left and centre-left electorate. For this reason, officials in the Labour and Meretz party are now exploring the possibility of a merger.

It’s worth noting that even though security remains the number-one concern for most Israelis, very few voters from the right of the political spectrum put their support behind Gantz and the two other former IDF chiefs of staff who ran in his party alongside him. And so, those on the left of the political spectrum are feeling despondent. While voter turnout was a healthy 67.9%, the reality is that more people than ever in Israel’s history voted for right and ultra-Orthodox parties – and they did so with their eyes wide open.

Israeli voters are informed. They know that Netanyahu faces corruption charges. They know any resumption of the peace process with the Palestinians under his watch looks unpromising. But they also know that he has the support and respect of world leaders like American President Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin. They feel safe with him at the helm.

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