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Key takeaways from the Israeli election

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not only survived but increased his party’s share of parliamentary seats.

- April 12, 2019

Israel just held national elections. The big question on all observers’ minds was whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would survive the recommendations by the attorney general that he be indicted on three cases of fraud, bribery and breach of trust — and whether that would mean the political right would remain in power.

Not only did Netanyahu survive, but he also increased Likud’s share of Knesset seats from 30 to 36, and is thus likely to form the next government.

Because no party has ever received 61 or more seats in the 120-seat Knesset (the parliament), all Israeli governments have been coalitions of parties. This makes bargaining over who gets to join the government a complicated affair. Typically the largest party becomes the senior partner and tries to persuade smaller parties to join it.

Under these conditions, Likud’s path to government is easiest. Because it’s a right-wing party, it is more attractive to other right-wing and religious parties than its main competitor, Kachol v’Lavan, which won 35 seats. Likud can count on the support of the two Orthodox parties — Shas and United Torah Judaism, with eight and seven seats, respectively — plus the Union of Rightwing Parties, with five seats. Though it will hold out for as long as it can, Yisrael Beiteinu is likely to support Netanyahu with its five seats, as is Kulanu, a center-right party that won four seats. That would give the government 65 votes in the Knesset.

Here are the other implications of the election:

Likud and Netanyahu remain dominant.

The right wing has been the dominant force in Israeli politics since the mid-2000s, and this election underlined its hegemony. Not only did Netanyahu overcome potential doubts about his leadership in the wake of the attorney general’s charges and intermittent skirmishes with Hamas in Gaza, but Likud’s 36 seats is its best showing since 2003, when it won 38. That year was an anomaly in a period when it appeared that Likud’s decline was steady.

The far right made a comeback but only a partial one.

The 1980s and 1990s saw small and medium-size far-right parties appear, merge, break apart and then disappear. By the 2015 election, most had been subsumed within larger, less-extremist parties. This year, two far-right parties passed the electoral threshold. The Union of Rightwing Parties, which includes Otzma Yehudit, a small party whose ideological predecessor, Kach, was once banned by the Central Election Committee for being racist, won five seats.

The other far-right party is Yisrael Beiteinu. It is considered far right because of its hawkish foreign policy and opposition to a Palestinian state, but it also holds more liberal positions on social issues, such as the role of religion in the public sphere.

Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party did not pass the threshold, though it was polling at six seats. Feiglin is committed to building the Third Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, which would entail the destruction of the two mosques there.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked miscalculated badly, which weakened the far right.

Bennett and Shaked are prominent politicians who harbor plans to reshape the Israeli polity. For his part, Bennett has long seen himself as the next prime minister. They shaped their former party, Bayit Yehudi, to appeal to both religious Zionists and secular Jews but broke away before the 2019 poll to form HaYamin HeHadash, New Right. It didn’t pass the threshold.

Given their hard-line views on the peace process with the Palestinians and their illiberal views about domestic issues, they see Israel as a strictly Jewish entity and are suspicious of judicial independence and left-wing criticism of the government — they would have strengthened the far right and the trends toward illiberal democracy underway in Israel.

The phenomenon of “centrist” parties

“Center” parties have a long history in Israel. These are parties that emerged between the dominant Likud (right wing) and Labor (left wing) parties, claiming to represent a balance between the two poles. Often these parties do well in a single election and then disappear in the next cycle.

With the decline of the left wing in Israel, these parties — which lean toward the right, and so better fit on the center-right of the political spectrum — have replaced the Labor Party as the institutional home of those who want an alternative to Likud and Netanyahu. Since the 1990s, and especially the 2000s, these parties have appeared (and disappeared) with greater frequency. Their presence ensures Labor’s decline and creates volatility in the electoral system, and thus leads to instability in governing.

Labor probably will not recover.

The party that founded the state and led it through its critical first 30 years is a shell of its former self. It doesn’t have any leaders of national stature who have credibility on security issues as well as on other issues of concern to Israelis, so it cannot pose as a viable alternative to Likud. The party has a history of infighting, but since the 2000s has been replacing its leaders at a rapid and regular clip. This creates the perception of instability and weakness.

The cycling of the centrist parties saps Labor’s support, while volatility in the region strengthens the right. Demographics also favor the right: Young voters are more right-leaning and have grown up occupying the Palestinians, so a message of withdrawal and concessions is meaningless to them. The Mizrachi population, now more populous than the Ashkenazim that have long been the base of Labor, also favors the right.

If Netanyahu does form the government, it is possible illiberal trends might be slowed down, as the Orthodox parties and the Union of Right-Wing Parties clash with Yisrael Beiteinu and Kulanu, which are both on the right end of the spectrum but liberal on social and some economic issues. They might balance each other out. But none of them will push for progress in the peace process.

Brent Sasley is associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington and co-author of “Politics in Israel: Governing a Complex Society.”