Israel is back on the brink

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's election at his Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel March 3, 2020. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

In the endless loop of Israeli politics, one could easily have failed to notice that on Monday, the country held its third national election in less than a year. This numbing political repetition, however, masks the high stakes of these recurring elections.

After the second election, in September, I wrote that one thing emerged from the muddled results: “Israel had stepped all the way to the brink on two fundamental issues, and it has now taken a half step back. These [second election] results scuttle Netanyahu’s plans to officially apply Israeli law to parts of the West Bank, annexing the Jordan Valley, and to curtail the Israeli Supreme Court’s powers in order to secure himself immunity from prosecution on corruption charges.”

So how fairs the brink of Israeli policy after the third election, on March 2?

The results, round 3

Last night in Israel — where I was as exit polls were published — felt like a huge victory celebration for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters. He declared the win to be as sweet as his first, in 1996. Upending expectations, he improved significantly on his result in the second election, five months ago.

Exit polls put Netanyahu’s bloc at exactly 60 seats, just one seat shy of a majority. With preliminary results of about 93% of the votes in, Netanyahu’s Likud is still projected to have a 3-seat lead over the main opposition party, Blue and White, but, if the preliminary results hold, the pro-Netanyahu bloc of parties will have about 58 seats of 120, three shy of a majority.

Israeli election results, March 2020Israeli election results, March 2020 (pro- vs. anti-Netanyahu)

The celebrations may seem a bit puzzling, though, since 58 is not, after all, a majority, and the results are about where they were after the first elections in April. Then, Netanyahu appeared to have secured a clear victory, only to have his erstwhile ally Avigdor Lieberman refuse to join his coalition. Without Lieberman, Netanyahu had a bloc of 60 seats, exactly one half of the 120-member Knesset. Unable to gain a majority for a new government — he frantically searched for a single defector from the opposition to give him the edge — and fearful that his rival, Benny Gantz, might get an opportunity to do so, Netanyahu initiated a vote to dissolve the Knesset.

In the second round, in September, Netanyahu’s gamble to go back to the polls backfired. The opposition Blue and White faction emerged as the largest in the Knesset, and although neither camp had a majority, the anti-Netanyahu bloc was slightly larger than the pro-Netanyahu one, with Lieberman’s party in the balance. For the first time in a long time, Netanyahu seemed like the underdog. No one counted him out, but he was definitely down.

Through tireless maneuvering and a mastery of the political scene, Netanyahu prevented any breakthrough in the hung Knesset that followed the second election. He immediately started a relentless campaign aimed at showing his international stature. The Trump administration’s very pro-Israel “deal of the century” came out, by pure chance, in perfect timing for his electoral needs. He led a campaign to delegitimize support for a Gantz government from the Arab-based Joint List, in order to prevent a Gantz minority government tacitly supported by the list. And his Likud embarked on brazen and baseless personal attacks against Gantz himself. Pulling a classic Karl Rove, the Likud accused Gantz of corrupt practices, as if it is not Netanyahu who is in legal trouble for alleged corruption.

Now, the morning after round three, Netanyahu appears again as the master politician of contemporary Israel. He has improved dramatically on his round 2 showing. True, he has ended up almost exactly where he was after round 1, but he did so despite having been now officially indicted on three criminal charges. His trial will start in just two weeks. The voters, it seems now, have largely given Netanyahu a win, despite, or maybe even because, of the prosecution’s case against him. Where many supposed experts thought Netanyahu was done when the initial charges were raised, his supporters rallied to oppose what they saw as deep-state coup attempt against the representative of the popular will.

What now?

These results could still easily change by a seat or two for each camp, once all the ballots are counted, including those of soldiers, prisoners (who can vote in Israeli elections just like any other citizen), and — a first — those quarantined for possible exposure to the coronavirus. But assuming the pro-Netanyahu bloc does not hit the magic number of 61, there appear to be three broad paths forward.

1Netanyahu’s allies are already hard at work trying to find individual defectors from among the parties of the center-left camp who might join his coalition. If enough are found to tip the scale — two if the preliminary results hold — Netanyahu will form a narrow coalition that would depend on every last member for their support. It would herald a very hard-line government, although after its formation, Netanyahu may try to bring in other parties from the opposition and dilute the power of the extremists in his camp.

2A party of the anti-Netanyahu camp may decide to support him, most notably Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. The possibility of another, fourth, election is troubling enough, and Netanyahu’s symbolic victory clear enough, that Lieberman may decide to allow a right-wing government to be formed even if he remains outside it, at least at first. After the exit polls were published, Lieberman reiterated two promises: no fourth elections, and no joining a Netanyahu coalition in which the ultra-Orthodox parties take part. If Lieberman chose to abstain in a vote of confidence, for example, a minority right-wing government could be formed and a fourth election averted. Netanyahu would become a full-fledged prime minister once again, albeit without stable parliamentary backing.

3Sometime around September 2020, Israeli political rituals may be observed, and I could be back writing again about the results of a (fourth) Israeli national election and the differences between 59 and 61. I’d understand if you had better things to do.

Back on the brink?

The second campaign in this tumultuous year was a dirty, ugly, affair. The third, which just ended, was considerably worse. Netanyahu’s success — notwithstanding that there may be a slim majority of voters who opposed him — grants him a dangerous mandate in the face of his legal woes. If in the first round of elections he could still deny he was interested in circumventing his legal troubles via legislation that would protect him, now, if he has the votes, he can pursue such legislation with the claim that the electorate supports it. In that sense, Israel is right back at the brink of legal reforms aimed, first, to protect one defendant.

This makes the last details of his political bloc so crucial. Fifty-eight is very different from 61. If he fails to secure the full support of 61, including any defectors, the threats to the power of the judiciary will be at least partially postponed. Reform to the judiciary may still take place, but blatant attempts to protect one individual from prosecution will be far less likely.

Attempts to annex parts of the West Bank are quite a different matter, however. On this dramatic issue, unlike immunity for Netanyahu, there is considerable support among right-leaning members of the anti-Netanyahu camp too, including Lieberman and his party and several members of Blue and White. Determining whether annexation happens would therefore be Netanyahu himself — whether he chooses to do so with no campaign to run — and decisions made in Washington.

Will Netanyahu go for annexation, if he manages to form a new government? Several people here scoffed at the idea. It was all campaigning, they claimed. I’m less convinced. The Trump plan represents an opportunity for Netanyahu to move the goal posts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way he was never able to do before. It may be the moment in which his cautious approach to diplomacy is set aside in favor of a permanent non-solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If in the coming months he sees no roadblocks in Washington, he may well push forward.

Moreover, if he succeeds only in forming a narrow coalition, he will be dependent on every last member, including the far right, which has called already for a “sovereignty government” (over the West Bank). His political calculations, which generally have the final say, could easily call it.

This odd, endless year in Israeli politics may have come to an end just as it began. With a smiling, seemingly-triumphant Netanyahu, no real winner, and an Israel that is right back on the brink.