Is Israel’s Netanyahu Era Over?

Jonathan S. Tobin

After more than ten consecutive years in power, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s luck may have finally run out. The country’s second election in five months appears to have set in motion the final chapter of his long and political career. But if this is the end for Netanyahu, it’s also proof that he has changed how Israelis think about major policy questions in a way that will ramify long after he’s gone.

The Israeli electoral system provides for confusing results in even the most clear-cut election outcomes. The system of electing a parliament — each citizen casts a single vote for one party of his choice, with the 120 seats in the Knesset allocated on a proportional basis among only those parties that get at least 3.25 percent of the total vote — makes it virtually impossible for any single party to win a majority on its own. This has created a system in which blocs of parties, whose components compete separately for seats in the Knesset, are widely understood to back a single candidate for prime minister.

In the past few elections, that meant the bloc of right-wing and religious parties consistently scored a majority in the Knesset, electing Benjamin Netanyahu to consecutive terms and helping him become the country’s longest-serving prime minister. So long as Israelis were primarily focused on the conflict with the Palestinians and the threat from Iran, the Right’s victory over what is left of the left-wing parties (which Israelis still identify with the failed Oslo peace process) was all but a foregone conclusion.

That seemed to be the case in April, when Netanyahu sought his fourth consecutive term. Parties that had pledged to back him won a clear majority: 65 seats went to the Likud and its partners, 45 to his center-left opponents, and ten to Arab parties.

Many assumed this would mean another Netanyahu government. But one of his coalition partners — Avigdor Lieberman, a onetime aide to Netanyahu who broke with him more than 20 years ago and founded the Yisrael Beitenu Party — had other ideas. Lieberman has long relied on the votes of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are right-wing on security issues but hostile to the influence of the religious parties aligned with Netanyahu, and the electoral math in April gave him a unique opportunity to sabotage the prime minister.

Without the five seats his party won in April, Netanyahu fell one short of the majority needed to govern. Armed with that leverage, Lieberman then made symbolic but noteworthy demands, calling to curtail exemptions from the country’s conscription policies for many ultra-Orthodox men. The religious parties could not comply, and neither could Netanyahu, reliant as he was on their support. The subsequent stalemate caused the prime minister to seek another vote.

Now the results are in, and Netanyahu’s choice backfired. Likud lost ground; Lieberman gained a few seats. And while the Blue and White Party — the leading centrist opposition party led by Benny Gantz, a former general, and Yair Lapid, a TV host–turned–politician — fell short of a majority, so too did Netanyahu’s bloc. Blue and White heads into negotiations with one more seat than Likud.

Since a third election within a year to resolve the deadlock seems unthinkable, that leaves party leaders with a few unpalatable choices. A unity government of the two largest parties — Likud and Blue and White — would seem the logical outcome. It’s also the outcome for which Lieberman has publicly hoped. But Blue and White has pledged never to sit with Netanyahu because of the ethical cloud hanging over him (Netanyahu faces pending corruption charges) and the Likud members of the Knesset have pledged to stick with Netanyahu. Unity thus seems unlikely.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s attacks on the political influence of the country’s Arab minority have resulted in the various Arab parties — a group that includes Islamists, secular Arab nationalists, and Communists — uniting their own bloc of twelve seats. This faction has the power, should it choose to use it, to help Blue and White leader Benny Gantz get the first crack at forming a new government — even if they can’t ultimately join it. Netanyahu getting another term in office is still possible, but this appears unlikely.

Israel, therefore, may be entering a new political era. But it is an era over which Netanyahu’s shadow will loom. Over the last 20 years, Bibi has taken several major steps that have reshaped Israeli politics — steps that a new administration would be hard-pressed to reverse.

Take diplomacy. Netanyahu was responsible for breaking down Israel’s diplomatic isolation in ways that would have been unimaginable a generation ago, building an international coalition against Iran that has made allies out of formerly hostile Arab nations and is making steady diplomatic inroads in both the Persian Gulf and Africa. The relationships he forged with Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Narendra Modi created a singular moment in which it was arguably Israel’s foes that were marginalized on the international scene rather than the perennially isolated Jewish state.

Yet on these and other issues, Netanyahu is a victim of his own success. It wasn’t possible for him to castigate his main opponent as a creature of the left, as he had traditionally been able to do. A chorus line of ex-chiefs of staff of the Israel Defense Forces leads the Blue and White party. Indeed, Gantz spent both election campaigns portraying himself as tougher than Netanyahu on security issues and just as willing to assert Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and the West Bank settlement blocs. Rather than challenging the consensus on the peace process that Netanyahu had forged, Blue and White is an expression of it.

Israelis were once split fairly evenly between the left and the right on the subject of peace. But Netanyahu’s run of political dominance was made possible by the disastrous Second Intifada and subsequent withdrawal from Gaza, which led to the emergence of a Hamas terrorist regime. While the rhetoric between Netanyahu and Gantz’s factions was heated in both of this year’s election campaigns, there was little talk of peace. Instead, the primary issue was whether Netanyahu, now tainted by corruption investigations and burdened by the baggage that any democratic leader acquires after a decade in office, needed to go.

It is from this consensus that Blue and White emerged. And it is because of this consensus that Lieberman, no slouch on security issues, felt free to execute a maneuver whose only real goal was deposing Netanyahu.

As always, those who underestimate Netanyahu’s political skills do so at their own peril. But his second consecutive failure to win a majority means that the post-Netanyahu era may be about to arrive — an era that will continue to be dominated by his signature policies.

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