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Turnout Will Be the Tipping Point in Israel's Election

4 MINS READSep 16, 2019 | 22:30 GMT
Election billboards for the Likud party and the Blue and White party line a street in Israel.
(AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)

An election billboard in Jerusalem shows U.S. President Donald Trump shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Stratfor's geopolitical guidance provides insight on what we're watching out for in the week ahead.
The Big Picture

For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, securing another term will require sufficiently demoralizing his centrist and leftist opponents and enticing enough like-minded voters to go to the polls on Sept. 17. Anything less than a decisive victory for Netanyahu (or his main opponent, Benny Gantz) risks throwing the country into even more political turmoil amid rising regional tensions with Iran.

In June, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's prospective government fell apart as his nominal partners — namely, Israeli nationalist Avigdor Lieberman and ultra-Orthodox parties — squabbled over the potential conscription of the ultra-Orthodox into the military. Lieberman has since upped this demand to include a call for a unity government between Netanyahu's Likud party and opposition leader Benny Gantz's Blue and White party. Should Netanyahu secure enough support in the country's Sept. 17 elections for another term, he must also receive enough votes to ensure Lieberman does not gain a similar level of kingmaking power. And that means trying to lure nationalists who might vote for Lieberman into Netanyahu's camp, which explains why the prime minister has promised such substantial changes to Israeli policy on the campaign trail.

For one, Netanyahu has offered to annex much of the West Bank — a move that would alter the demographic balance between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Annexing the West Bank, in part or in whole, has been a long-held dream for Israel's right-wing, which favors a one-state solution over one that would see a Palestinian state emerge alongside a Jewish one. Netanyahu has also promised a mutual defense alliance with the United States. This, too, is a sop to the right, as it showcases Netanyahu's close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump. 

What to Watch for

Whether these lofty promises increase turnout for Likud, as well as for Netanyahu's more reliable allies (including the far-right Jewish Power party), will thus be key to watch in the election. Should Jewish Power pass the country's 3.25 percent threshold, it could give Netanyahu just enough seats to avoid making an alliance with Lieberman. Turnout will also be key for the New Right party, which failed to cross the threshold in the last round in April. The New Right, like Jewish Power, is a more reliable ally for Netanyahu than Lieberman.  

Anything less than a decisive victory for Netanyahu or Gantz risks throwing Israel into even more political turmoil.

Turnout will also be crucial for the center and center-left. Disillusioned voters tired of Israeli politics as usual may stay home, hurting the opposition's chances. And Netanyahu's promises to annex the West Bank may dispirit Israeli Arabs, who tend to vote left, but see no natural ally in the centrist Gantz. To this end, Gantz hasn't helped his case, as he too ultimately envisions a West Bank under long-term Israeli domination — even if he wants to go about it more diplomatically.

Another Term?

Should the election yield another government for Netanyahu, he will then face the decision of whether to follow through with his promises. The U.S. mutual defense treaty would be a relatively uncontroversial move in Israel, at least initially. It would be popular with many Israeli nationalists worried that a less friendly U.S. president could replace Trump in the 2020 election. On the U.S. side, the treaty would need only to win approval by the Republican-controlled Senate, making its ratification in Washington likely as well. But the pact would bind the United States and Israel in a way that could produce future headaches. Both countries already have plenty on their plate with varying conflicts in the Middle East. And as close as they are, neither the United States nor Israel necessarily wishes to be dragged into the other's conflicts. 

Meanwhile, the annexation of the West Bank would deal yet another blow to the post-World War II consensus on territory and use of military force. Since 1945, the United States and other great powers have strived to cut down on the incentive for states to change territory with their armies — and the Palestinian question has always been at the forefront of that consensus. But if Israel decides to annex yet more territory, it would put another nail in the coffin of that idea. The annexations of Crimea, Kashmir, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights would grant state actors with a potent precedent to point to, should they take military action to change the shape of their nations. Moreover, wholly or partially annexing the West Bank would also bring Israel closer to having to decide between risking the country's Jewish identity by nationalizing the millions of Palestinians living there or permanently relegating them to a second-class status.   

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