Last week’s national elections in Israel brought a decisive victory for Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s embattled prime minister, who won his fifth term this past week.
Netanyahu’s Likud won 35 seats, as did challenger Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, but Netanyahu has the necessary backing to form a ruling coalition. Netanyahu’s coalition will likely command around 65 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
What makes the total extraordinary is that it was achieved with about 6 percent of potential right-wing votes going to parties like New Right and Zehut, which are outside the Netanyahu-led coalition. Neither party will seat anyone in the Knesset.
For Gantz, Moshe Y’aalon, Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenazi of Blue and White, 35 seats and more than a million votes will be cold comfort. Though they were just the second party to ever capture that many raw votes in an Israeli election, the first one was this year’s Likud, which secured more than 26 percent of the total Israeli vote, a massive number.
Voter participation was slightly down this cycle, from 71.8 percent in 2015 to 67.9 percent. Election Day in Israel, unlike in the United States, is a national holiday, and all public transportation between cities was free this year to facilitate greater turnout.
Moreover, Blue and White, cast as weak leftists by Netanyahu, did indeed miss out on most of the traditional right-wing voters, instead capturing many who might have voted Labour in days gone by. All in all, this was the highest percentage of voters going to the right and haredim since 1977 — 57 percent. Even after Israel’s Attorney General indicted Netanyahu, voters overwhelmingly voiced their support of him.
For Ian Lustick, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, the rightward shift was not much of a surprise.
“Long ago Israel was, in American terms, a blue state, kind of like New Jersey. Now it is Nebraska, Oklahoma or Idaho — solidly red. There really was never much doubt about the outcome of this election,” he said.
However, this phenomenon is not simply Likud-powered.
“Even if Gantz’s Blue and White list had won a few more seats than Likud, without a large Arab turnout and without moderate Jews willing to ally with Arabs in the Parliament, the Likud and its far-right and religious allies would have still been able to form a government,” Lustick said. “The nationalist, ultra-nationalist and religious right in Israel can more or less run the country as they have been doing for years.”
One of the consequences of this, according to Lustick, is the ever-dimming possibility of a two-state solution. The mandate given to the far right, he said, means a “consolidation of the one-state reality that exists between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. The fact that more Arabs now live in that area than Jews will someday be decisive politically, but that will not happen soon.”
Another takeaway Lustick noted was in the right-leaning preferences of younger voters, typically construed as a left-wing bloc.
“In a poll just prior to the election, it was found that among Israelis 65 and older Gantz beat Netanyahu 53 percent to 35 percent, while among those 18 to 24, Netanyahu beat Gantz by a whopping 65 percent to 17 percent,” he said. “In any event, it has almost always been the case that the strongest predictors of right-wing views in Israel have been education [lower, more right-wing]; religiosity [more religious, more right wing]; and age [younger, more right-wing].”
Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of history at Temple University, wondered what the election could mean for the relationship between American and Israeli Jews, who seem as split on Netanyahu as they are on another divisive political leader: President Donald Trump, who enjoys robust Israeli support.
“The election seems to represent yet another indication of a growing rift between American Jews and Israeli Jews,” she said. “The vast majority of American Jews would not have supported Netanyahu in his bid for reelection, and many feel flabbergasted by and disappointed in the results. The question on the horizon is how far right can the Israeli government move while still garnering support from the core institutions of American Jewish life?”
Indeed, some of the issues that Netanyahu ran on remain difficult for most American Jews to stomach.
In the waning days of the campaign, he vowed to annex the West Bank, which would throw a wrench in, as David Horovitz wrote in The Times of Israel, “what was once called the peace process.” His renewed commitment to the haredi parties ensured that the issue of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall will remain more or less unresolved.
The marginalization of the Israeli left continued unimpeded. Counting Blue and White as a left or center-left party, which already stretches the definition, left-wing parties won just 34 percent of the total vote.
When Netanyahu wakes up on July 16 of this year, he will become the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, surpassing the tenure of David Ben-Gurion.
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