Israel’s general election is too close to call, exit polls showed on Monday. They put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party virtually level with Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White.
Former military chief Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White alliance was projected to win between 32 and 34 seats of parliament’s 120, while Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party looked set to get from 30 to 33 seats.
Netanyahu said he would await official results and said he would work toward establishing “a strong Zionist government” that would reflect the views of “many of the nation’s people.”
Israelis went to the polls for a second time on Tuesday since the beginning of 2019, as Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to secure a majority for his Likud party and extend his 13-year run as prime minister of Israel.
While Netanyahu, commonly referred to as ‘Bibi’ in Israel, is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, he has seen his fortunes wane over the past year, embroiled in allegations of corruption and involved in a bitter political conflict over military service for the ultra-Orthodox community.
Netanyahu also faces his most formidable political opponent in decades: Benny Gantz, former chief of the Israeli Defence Forces.
Gantz’s Blue and White Alliance won 35 seats in the Israeli Knesset in April — a tie with Likud. The result left Netanyahu far short of the majority needed to form a single-party government, and the ensuing months of political battling have left him unable to form a coalition and renew his mandate.
Ever the divisive figure in Israel, Netanyahu’s supporters argue that he brought Israel to the forefront of global politics and admire his tough rhetoric on Iran, the Palestinian people and his political opponents.
His critics argue that he has undermined efforts to secure peace in the Middle East, while allegations of corruption have blighted Israel’s reputation abroad.
Netanyahu has stepped up efforts to win over far-right voters recently, as the neck-and-neck election campaign reaches its conclusion.
Just last week, he announced that he intended to annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank if he wins the election, a prospect that the EU said would be “illegal under international law”.
On Sunday his caretaker government even met in the Jordan Valley, a place where Israeli cabinet sessions are rarely held. The timing of the cabinet’s move was widely seen in Israel as another bid by Netanyahu to swing support from small ultranationalist parties to his right-wing Likud party.
He has also tried to capture the public’s imagination with the release of an almost comical campaign video, where he plays a lifeguard on an Israeli beach, protecting citizens from the threats they face, and poking fun at his political enemies.
Avigdor Lieberman: Israeli kingmaker?
Key to Bibi’s future will be Avigdor Lieberman, the current Minister of Defence and leader of the conservative, secular and ultra-nationalist party, Yisrael Beytenu.
Lola Bañón, a journalist specialising in the Middle East and professor at the University of Valencia, said: “Lieberman will direct the coalition dynamics and will have a decisive weight [in the election].”
Recent polls suggest Likud could tie with the Blue and White coalition (Kahol Laván in Hebrew), which consists of Hosen L’Israel (centre), Yesh Atid (centre) and Télem (right).
In this scenario, the votes cast for Lieberman’s party will be decisive. The bad news for Bibi is that it seems Lieberman has already chosen who he wants to receive the keys to the Knesset.
The ultranationalist and Russian-speaking Lieberman has reinvented himself as a stronghold of secular Israel against the ultra-Orthodox community.
The Israeli electoral system allows parties to award each other “surplus votes”, meaning when a party receives an insufficient number of votes to obtain another seat, they can transfer them to a different party who can make better use of them.
Lieberman and Gantz have signed a vote-sharing agreement, meaning by law whichever party is closer to winning the next seat available will get the surplus votes of the other party.
Lieberman stated that it is a “simple technical issue” and that “they did not plan to risk losing a seat in the Knesset.” Although in reality, the agreement moves the party one step closer towards a possible coalition with Kahol Lavan after the elections.
Religion and politics in Israel: a messy relationship
Religion is endemic to the state of Israel and has been fundamental within the ideology and political actions of Benjamin Netanyahu. In fact, Bibi’s opposition to Lieberman’s secular policy proposals was one of the main reasons that Likud were unable to reform a government.
Specifically, it was Lieberman’s proposed legislation that would require ultra-Orthodox youth to perform military service, a requirement for the rest of the Israeli population.
Currently, ultra-Orthodox Jews enjoy many privileges in the state of Israel, one of which being men are exempt from the 38 months – and women for 18 months – of national service they would otherwise be required to serve.
According to Bañón, military service is a “vital” period for Israelis. She said: “It is long and sacrificed, not always easily carried since it means a whole break in your life.”
Thanks to a high birth-rate and large families, the ultra-Orthodox community is one of the fastest-growing in Israel. Economists have warned that if left unchecked, they will become a burden on Israel’s economy as they will be left with a workforce not prepared for the challenges of the modern world.
Currently, ultra-Orthodox Israelis make up 7% of the country’s adults, but their great-grandchildren will be approximately half of all Israeli children in two generations.
In these elections, the secularism of the state has once again become an item for serious debate, and the entry of a leader like Lieberman could lead to a push for a much more secular Israel.
But for Tal Schneider, a journalist in the Globes Business newspaper, this situation is still far guaranteed. The ultra-Orthodox have joined a Netanyahu coalition in the past, and would undoubtedly do so again considering the alternative.
“The negotiation process, with regard to the state agenda and religion, remains to be seen. Although Netanyahu is unable to form a government, it seems that other parties will aspire to include ultra-Orthodox parties and thus the objective of a more secular government will probably not be achieved.”
Corruption: A stain on Netanyahu’s reputation
As voters head to the polls, Netanyahu will still be saddled with the weight of charges for bribery, fraud and abuse of trust.
In October, he will attend a hearing with the Israeli attorney general, who has made the accusations against the prime minister. If formal charges are filed, he may be forced to withdraw from the electoral process entirely.
The Israeli president considers himself a victim of a “witch hunt” orchestrated by his rivals to put him on the back-foot – and many of his supporters believe him. “He has managed to create this image that is essential, that cannot be substituted,” said Gideon Levy, a Haaretz journalist.
The Palestinians: a non-issue for Israelis?
The last elections in April were marked by hostilities between Israel and Gaza, but Levy says the conflict will only become an electoral issue if there are new escalations.
“Neither Gaza nor the occupation is influencing the elections,” says Levy. “It’s amazing, society lives in denial. Nobody speaks at all about the occupation of Gaza. They only speak if there are (missile) launches, but nobody speaks about the roots of the problem: the blockade of Gaza ”.
Unlike in previous elections, the Arab parties have decided to appear on a single joint list. But Omar Shaban, director of the Palthink for Strategic Studies in Gaza, does not believe that this will improve participation, as Arab citizens are apathetic and angry with the system. Nor will it improve their representation in the Knesset, which they believe will be below 11%.
Friends in high places: Netanyahu’s special relationship
The President of the United States, Donald Trump, said that he may present his plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians before the September 17 vote, having previously stated he would wait until after the elections took place.
Netanyahu said in early September that the plan will be released immediately after the elections.
Netanyahu has used his strong relationship with Trump as ammunition to use against his opponents during his campaign, but experts do not believe that his defeat will change the support Israel receives from the US.
Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem in 2017, which many saw as a tactical strengthening of US/Israel relations. However Levy recalls that Barack Obama, often seen as ‘the most liberal US President in history’ gave more money than any other president has to the Israeli state – in 2014, Obama sent 225 million dollars of military aid.
“Israel’s relationship with the United States is above the leaders,” explains Bañón. “It is one of the strongest in world politics, it is an unbreakable strategic relationship.”
With the clock winding down towards election day, Netanyahu may have never faced a tougher political challenge – and with a strengthened opposition, Israel could be about to witness the end of the line for its ultimate political survivor.