Netanyahu Wins Again, But Why?


During the election night in Israel there were two victory speeches (with their corresponding victory tweets), one pronounced by Benjamin Netanyahu and the other by Benny Gantz. It was evident that one of these speeches would prove premature, and at the end it was Gantz who declared victory too early. The average of the exit polls released after the end of the voting put Gantz’s Blue and White over Netanyahu’s Likud. However, the margin was minimal and the electoral race seemed too close to tell.

But most importantly, in the exit polls the Likud and its former government partners seemed to be well above the 61-seat mark in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), which guarantees a parliamentary majority. Taking this into account, Gantz’s decision to deliver a victory speech is difficult to understand. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems clear that all Blue and White could have obtained from the election day was a pyrrhic victory.

It would not have been the first time such a thing happened in recent Israeli history. Back in 2009, when Netanyahu returned to the prime minister post he had left in 1999, he did not need an electoral victory of the Likud to do so. After finishing second behind the centrist Kadima Party, led by Tzipi Livni, he received the support of 65 MKs from religious and far-right parties to form a new government.

In the 2019 elections, Blue and White achieved an extraordinary result, but its potential government partners, the Labor Party and Meretz, gained just 6 and 4 mandates respectively. After the final recount of the votes was issued by the Central Electoral Committee, the Likud emerged as the winner after securing 36 seats in the Knesset, followed closely by Blue and White, which will have 35 MKs. Netanyahu saw his electoral supremacy confirmed once again. But why?

Firstly, we should take into consideration a structural factor that has been crucial for Netanyahu to be able to stay as prime minister after four different elections since 2009. One of the sources of the Likud’s strength is no other than the weakness of the center and, especially, the center-left block in Israel. As Brookings expert Nathan Sacks notes, the basic structure of Israeli politics has been skewed in the right-wing’s favour for decades.

In the 2019 elections, this reality was exemplified by the electoral failure of the Labor Party. The party led by Avi Gabbay represents the political tradition of former prime ministers David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eskhol or Yitzhak Rabin. In fact, it was not until 1977 that Menachem Begin became the first right-wing politician to become prime minister of Israel.

This political past as a dominant party notwithstanding, the Labor Party has proved unable to compete for the first premiership since Ehud Barak’s tenure, which began two decades ago. This inability to convince voters has become even more evident with the emergence of the Blue and White formation. The political group co-led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid has an unclear position in the left-right axis. The political analyst Lahav Karhov has aptly defined Blue and White as a “mishmash of ideologies”.

What is clear, though, is that Blue and White is located to the right of the Labor Party but has conquered many of its former voters. While many of these votes may be tactical and originate from a desire to back the only party with a chance to defeat Netanyahu, the shift to the right after the 2019 elections is undeniable.

The main political discussion surrounding the last Israeli elections was the decision taken by Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to indict, pending a confirmation hearing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Likud’s leader is facing investigations in three different cases and could be found guilty of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Despite the gravity and multiplicity of the accusations, Netanyahu’s indictment almost proved to be a non-issue for Likud voters. The final results of the elections lead us to think this way, but pre-electoral polls might also give us some clues to understand this. In a poll published by The Times of Israel, the respondents were asked whether they felt more comfortable with the assertion that the charges against Netanyahu are politically motivated or, on the contrary, with the assertion that the criminal investigation against him is extremely serious. 35% of the respondents chose the first option, 47% went for the second one.

It is important to keep in mind that the Likud did not receive more than 27% of the total vote in the last elections. This means that the conviction that Netanyahu is innocent somewhat cuts across partisan lines. A poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute found that voters of the Likud and the religious parties are equally convinced of Netanyahu’s innocence in the so-called Case 3000. This high-profile scandal consists of yet another criminal graft investigation against the Israeli prime minister, who is suspected to have received illicit funds as part of a deal by which Israel acquired German ships and submarines.

Any analysis of the reasons behind Netanyahu’s victory would be incomplete if it did not include the effect of the international context on the electoral contest. In his last tenure as prime minister, the conservative leader has seen how the President of the United States Donald Trump violated the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal), in addition to recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Golan Heights as Israeli territory.

All these movements are in contravention of international law. At the same time, the Israeli government has not been required to move an inch from its policy of repression of the Palestinian people to achieve some of its decades-long biggest objectives. In fact, the brutal response to the Palestinian “Great March of Return” or the passing of the discriminatory Nation-State law were met by indifference (or worse) in the US administration. Far more remarkable than this, conservative Arab monarchies have been progressively approaching Tel Aviv as the aim of countering Iran takes precedence over traditional pan-Arab causes.

Netanyahu’s lobbying in the international scene has been highly successful and has not required any kind of concession. This has been accompanied by a widespread conviction among his electorate that he has not committed any wrongdoing. If we add to this the fact that the right clearly dominates the Israeli political map and the Likud is the unquestionable leader of this block, we might start to understand why Netanyahu’s electoral supremacy has been confirmed once again.

Image: Кабінет Міністрів України [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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