Voters Leave Netanyahu in the Driver's Seat, but Give Nationalists Steering Power

6 MINS READApr 10, 2019 | 21:26 GMT
Israeli supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appear to have plenty to celebrate after preliminary election results were released April 10.

Supporters of the Israeli Likud party wave party and national flags along with a sign showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they gather at party headquarters in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on election night early on April 10, 2019.

(JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
The Big Picture

Israel is experiencing a demographic change that's changing its politics toward a nationalist base. That nationalism will increasingly influence its relationships with its allies like the United States and Europe as well as its enemies, like Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel’s most recent election translates that nationalism into electoral power.

What Happened

With almost every vote counted in the Israeli national elections, and with his chief opponent conceding defeat, the electoral ground favors a fifth term for incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Of the 120 Knesset seats up for a vote, Netanyahu's Likud party looks likely to take 35 — the same number as the Blue and White alliance led by his primary rival, Benny Gantz. As the final tally is counted by April 17, the candidates must wait for a go-ahead by President Reuven Rivlin before attempting to form a governing coalition.

Netanyahu's ultra-Orthodox allies Shas and United Torah Judaism posted strong results, meaning that a potential new right-wing combination led by Likud would be one of the easier coalitions to form. But it's not entirely an assured path — and even during the process of coalition-building, there remain important points to monitor, from developments inside Israel itself to how the election's results will affect its regional strategy going forward.

In Israel's three-phase system of choosing the next prime minister, Rivlin will name his favored candidate by April 23 at the latest. The candidate will then have 42 days to form a government.

What to Watch: Ministerial Posts

The ground favors another Netanyahu government, but with a different composition than before. It appears as if a Likud-led coalition could emerge giving more political leverage to nationalist and security-minded parties and officials who did well in this election. Who takes what posts will thus matter in the signaling of this power.

Defense minister: This post had been vacated by nationalist Avigdor Lieberman in protest of what he saw as Israel's weak Gaza policy last November. That set Netanyahu's government on the road to collapse just a month later. Lieberman could demand his return to the job in exchange for tipping the coalition balance to Netanyahu. But he will have conditions: Already he wants a more comprehensive Gaza policy, one that will deter Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad from launching attacks on Israel.

Education minister: Once held by hard-line nationalist Naftali Bennett, this post is now open, after Bennett's gambit to empower his newly minted party, the New Right, flopped in the polls. Control of the country's educational system is something near and dear to Israelis interested in controlling the cultural development of the country.

Justice minister: Also vacated by another failed New Right leader, Ayelet Shaked, this position will be important in shaping the rule of law — especially in the prosecution of corruption charges against Netanyahu. Moreover, a nationalist justice minister could well tip the institutional balance toward the prime minister by attempting to weaken the oversight powers of the Supreme Court — as Shaked had vowed to do.

Other posts, like intelligence chief, foreign affairs minister and transportation minister, may also be up for grabs. However, because all three are held by Likud loyalist Yisrael Katz, it seems less likely that Netanyahu would trade them away at this time.

What to Watch: Policy Shifts

Beyond filling posts, coalition-building will also include promises of future policy direction. Key policies include:

Annexing the West Bank: Pro-settler rabbinical parties and nationalists desperately want this to happen, and Netanyahu has gradually edged toward fulfilling this demand as he maneuvered to remain in power over the years. With the Golan Heights and Jerusalem now recognized by the United States, Netanyahu will be under pressure to make good on his pre-election promise to take steps toward annexing the portions of the West Bank already containing settlers — and perhaps even beyond.

A stronger Gaza policy: Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Palestinian activists have pushed the line against Israel with attacks and unrest over the past year. Israelis, especially on the right, want a stronger deterrence to be put into place to discourage those actions. The new government may well promise those nationalists that it will do more than just buy a few weeks of peace here and there.

A solution to the ultra-Orthodox draft controversy: This issue nearly killed Netanyahu's government last year. The rabbis want to continue to receive exemptions to military service, but nationalists who see ultra-Orthodox's rising numbers as a strategic weakness want them brought in — and secular nationalists want the ultra-Orthodox to share some of the same experiences as their secular counterparts compelled to serve in the military. They've kicked this issue down the road multiple times, but in the coalition-building process, it may well emerge as a sticking point.

Immunity for Netanyahu: Netanyahu and Likud may well press for immunity from prosecution for the prime minister while in office — the so-called French Law that was introduced in the Knesset. In exchange for naming coalition allies to posts, Likud may demand that a new government back the change that would substantially change the rule of law inside the country.

What to Watch: Global Reactions

Europe: As policies and posts are negotiated among potential coalition partners, European reactions will matter, especially in regards to Europe's alarm at the possibility of further Israeli annexations of Arab territory.

Gulf Arabs: Like the Europeans, the Gulf Arabs don't want to see an expansionist Israel coming to the fore. But, driven by shared anxiety about Iran's regional role, they do want to foster closer security and economic relations with Israel and have done well with outreach to Netanyahu and his government. The balance they strike will be telling for the speed of that rapprochement.

The United States: With U.S. political values undergoing shifts driven by demographic changes, the response from the United States to political and policy shifts, and specifically from the opposition Democratic Party, will be telling. In addition, some American Jews have shown a disquiet with Netanyahu's rule and the allegations of corruption surrounding him; the actions and words of American Jews both in polls, as well as in influential lobbying groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, will be worth monitoring. Meanwhile, the White House's Israeli-Palestinian peace plan may yet emerge during Israel's political transition — and in doing so, may expose contradictions in promises that had been made in back rooms in Israel.

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