One of the most keenly contested campaigns in Israel’s history appears to have given Benjamin Netanyahu the chance to form a new government – and coincidentally to overtake David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the state, as the country’s longest-serving prime minister.
Although Netanyahu’s Likud party was tied for first place with the new Blue and White party of former army chief Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, Netanyahu has the better odds of cobbling together a new coalition with the smaller right-wing parties. It leaves Israel’s next government looking very like the Likud-led government it replaces.
That appearance, however, could be deceptive. Not only was this election one of the most keenly fought, but the result was also among the closest – perhaps the closest – ever.
After the voting ended, divergent exit polls had both Netanyahu and Gantz ahead. As the count progressed through the night, Gantz initially claimed victory and launched his celebrations, only to find that his party was still running neck and neck with Likud, and that his rival already was already finalising his coalition.
The de facto tie between Netanyahu and Gantz thus adds Israel to the growing number of democracies that are essentially split 50-50 – something that (as the UK parliament is currently showing) does not make them easy to govern.
Instability within a coalition is one thing – and something Israeli leaders are used to. A legislature in which two main parties are evenly matched makes for a different dynamic.
Now it is just possible that the result could produce a government quite different, not just in substance, but also in name and composition, from its predecessor. The arithmetic opens the intriguing possibility of something akin to a unity government. Between them, Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s more centrist Blue and White party have 70 Knesset seats – enough to form a two-party coalition together without having to court any of the smaller parties.
Whether either Gantz or Netanyahu would consider such a project is doubtful, given that both are strong characters used to leading and that each seriously impugned the other’s character during the campaign. Gantz, of course, also made the strategic mistake – put down by some of his allies to political inexperience – of prematurely claiming victory.
But such a “unity” coalition would be a tantalising prospect. Both parties are essentially on the right – Likud leaning further to the right when in government, because of the need to keep the smaller further-right parties on board; Blue and White – more centrist – but exemplifying in its success the sharp decline of the Labour Party and the left’s appeal for today’s Israeli voters.
Both party leaders – Netanyahu, thanks not only to his record in office, but to his early career; Gantz as a former army chief of staff – place a particular premium on the role of the military and security. What is more, while there were differences of emphasis in the way they spoke about relations with the Palestinians during the campaign, there were not serious differences of substance. Both have misgivings about the hitherto widely accepted “two-state solution”.
While such a “unity” government offers a tantalising and elegant solution to what was essentially a tied election, it will probably not come to pass. This does not mean, however, that a new Netanyahu-led coalition, even if it is formed with the same right-wing partners, will necessarily resemble the old one – for at least three reasons.
The first is that, while Netanyahu’s Likud did better than many expected, so, more conspicuously, did Benny Gantz. From a standing start, as a new politician, with a new political party, he came very close to clinching victory. It was more the vagaries of Israel’s political system than any particular weakness of his campaign that denied him the prize. With an equal number of Knesset seats to Likud, he could prove a formidable Opposition leader.
Netanyahu is an adroit and seasoned politician, but he looks weaker today than he did when the election campaign began.
The second reason why a new Likud government may be different is Netanyahu’s personal political and legal difficulties. At the height of the election campaign, the attorney general announced that he intended to indict the prime minister for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Some have suggested that this could make it more difficult for Netanyahu to conclude deals with potential coalition partners – or that, with this shadow hanging over him, the price could be higher than last time – which could entail more concessions to the right.
Against this, it should perhaps be said that the attorney general’s announcement was followed by a rise – not a fall – in Netanyahu’s personal poll ratings. This may be a sign of the prevailing mood of distrust against established authority or that some voters at least had bought into Netanyahu’s own protestations of a “witch hunt”.
It has also to be said that proceedings are at an early stage and that Israel, while not giving elected officials immunity from prosecution, does not require officials to resign until and unless they are convicted.
The reality is, though, that Netanyahu’s new term could be cut short by the pending charges, which could also be a distraction for him and his party in the way they govern and a stick for the Opposition to beat him with.
And the third reason why Israel’s new government, even if it looks very similar to its predecessor, may turn out not to be relates to external circumstances. It was striking how little the Palestinian issue featured in this election campaign, but it could return to the agenda very soon. On the one hand, there are signs that tensions in and around Gaza are rising. Netanyahu cut short a trip to Washington during the campaign after a rocket launched from Gaza reached central Israel for the first time.
On the other, the Trump administration had apparently been waiting until after the election to present a new plan for what used to be called the “Middle East peace process”. Little about the plan, termed “a grand bargain”, has so far seen the light of day. But Donald Trump is not short of either ambition or unconventional approaches when it comes to diplomacy and it is not impossible that whatever is proposed will threaten, one way or another, the status quo.
Trump has already shown his pro-Israel credentials by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and suggesting that the US could recognise Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, while a clearly emboldened Netanyahu said during the campaign that Israel could formally annex – illegal – Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
With the war in Syria nearing its end, the balance of power between Turkey, Russia and Iran currently in flux, and the US apparently wanting to reduce its military presence in the region, the complexion of Israel’s immediate neighbourhood could well be changing.
Benjamin Netanyahu may well be back in power with a coalition very similar in composition to the one he led before, but the context, at home and abroad, is already starting to look very different.
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