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Second time unlucky for Netanyahu?

  • Paula
After a decade in power, incumbent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might soon have to vacate the country’s top office.
by PAULA SLIER | Sep 19, 2019

At the close of national polls on Tuesday night, he proved unable yet again to secure an outright victory, making it near impossible for him to form a majority coalition government.

He needs 61 out of 120 Knesset (parliament) seats, and exit polls showed him falling between four to seven seats short of achieving that.

Perhaps Netanyahu is cheered up in knowing that his main rival, Benny Gantz, the former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief and leader of the centre-left Blue and White party, is in the same situation.

While final election results will be announced only next Wednesday, the tally is unlikely to differ much. While some polls placed Netanyahu in second position to Gantz, others saw the two as neck-and-neck.

It’s now up to the country’s president, Reuven Rivlin, to move the process forward. He’s responsible for tasking the leader with the most number of votes to form the next government. With neither Netanyahu nor Gantz seemingly able to do so, questions are being asked if Israelis could be headed to the polls for a third time.

This is uncharted and unprecedented territory. In spite of concern about voter apathy keeping people away from the second election in six months, the turnout was 1% to 3% higher than the April ballot.

It speaks volumes about the commitment of citizens to shaping the future of their country. It also shows their trust in democracy and democratic institutions.

Still, many Israelis believe these elections were unwarranted, unnecessary, and expensive. It will be difficult to convince them of the need for a third round. Rivlin says he will do everything in his power to prevent that from happening, including, if necessary, granting an extension to the coalition-making process.

Back in April, it was Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the Israel Our Home party and a former defense minister, who put the spoke in Netanyahu’s plans. By refusing to join the prime minister’s coalition over the issue of religious Jews serving in the IDF, Lieberman in effect forced Netanyahu to dissolve the parliament and call for a new election.

Six months on, and Lieberman has doubled his support base, making him the ultimate kingmaker. Winning twice as many seats this time around compared to April, he can, to a certain extent, dictate the makeup of the next government.

Lieberman’s agenda was to thwart the growing monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox on Israeli politics, something evidently many Israelis support. His strong showing indicates that aside from the usual issue of security, many voted on the questions of religion and state.

Interestingly, though, the exit polls also showed an increase in the ultra-Orthodox, which in essence is a mirror image of Lieberman’s strength and political power. While such parties find a natural home with Netanyahu, should he be unable to form a majority – even with their support – analysts suggest that the ultra-Orthodox will explore a coalition with Gantz. It makes for unnatural bed partners, and it will be a very difficult coalition to maintain, but it shouldn’t be ruled out.

Well aware of his political clout, Lieberman addressed his supporters a short time after polls closed on Tuesday, proposing a unity government between himself, Netanyahu, and Gantz. But because there is so much bad blood between the three leaders, it’s questionable whether this can really happen.

The most likely scenario is a change within Likud that would result in a new chairman being elected. In such a case, he might be able to form a government with Gantz in which there is a rotation of prime minister between Gantz and whoever the Likud will elect. But it’s all speculation at this stage – and Netanyahu’s not relinquishing his power just yet.

Of all the party headquarters, it was Lieberman’s that on Tuesday night was the most cheerful. Netanyahu tried to put on a brave face, promising his supporters that he would fight on and form a “strong Zionist government without Arab parties”.

It’s not the first time the premier has referenced the country’s 20% minority, and he warned again on Tuesday that Arab turnout was higher than usual. This was the same tactic he used back in the 2015 election when he (in)famously said that Arabs were “going to the polls in droves” in an effort to encourage his supporters to cast their ballot. It worked then. It doesn’t seem to have worked as well this time around.

The Arab parties did well, garnering third position in the exit polls. While there was concern that calls for a boycott from within their community would result in many Arabs staying away, voter turnout was higher than six months ago, hitting the low sixties.

What it shows is a change in behaviour in the Arab population from virtual apathy a short time ago to high levels of involvement. Nonetheless, it’s highly unlikely that they will join a governing coalition.

Typical of a politician fighting for his political survival, Netanyahu made a lot of promises in the run-up to these elections. Most recently, he vowed to annex settlements in the West Bank and Jordan Valley, putting the final nail in the coffin of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks which have already been dead for five years anyway.

For the Palestinians, it’s irrelevant whether Gantz or Netanyahu becomes the next premier. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh explained that for them, the difference is small, much like the “difference between Pepsi Cola and Coca-Cola”.

United States President Donald Trump also wasn’t particularly helpful to Netanyahu during these elections. By comparison, just prior to the April poll, he made the bold announcement that the US recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. That statement was intended as a gift to Netanyahu and was received as such, viewed by many Israelis as proof of the strong relationship between the two leaders. Netanyahu’s campaign was not shy to plaster posters of him and Trump standing together on all the country’s major highways, but this time around there were no dramatic statements from Trump who is busy with Iran, and to be fair, Netanyahu’s relationship with the US is already factored in by voters.

In essence, Israelis find themselves now in the same position that they were in April. The country is entering a period of political uncertainty, and for Netanyahu, the coming weeks are only just the beginning of his troubles. In spite of consistent attempts by his legal team to postpone the corruption trials he’s facing, Netanyahu will next month be forced to shift his attention from political concerns to legal matters as he faces the courts. Had he won another term in office, many believe he would have used his power to obtain immunity from prosecution.

Now, what remains to be seen is how he will be remembered in the history books. Will his legacy be that of Israel’s longest serving prime minister to date, or will he end his career facing the justice system and possibly prison?

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