International Spotlight: 2019 Israeli Election and Aftermath
Last week, a politically divided Israel emerged from its second election in six months. The people first voted for members of their unicameral legislature, the Knesset, on April 9. Initially, it seemed like a victory for incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but his right-wing Likud party only came out with 35 of the 120 seats. After his plans for a coalition with other conservative parties fell apart, a new election was called on Sept. 17. Its’ results, however, have also failed to deliver a clear mandate. As Netanyahu vies for power against his main rival, Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White alliance, the country faces an uncertain political future.
Netanyahu has long been a fixture of Israeli politics, serving as Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999, then from 2009 to the present. He is known as a pragmatic politician willing to shift his policies and rhetoric to appeal to right-wing allies. Most recently, he has emphasized a hardline stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If reelected, Netanyahu has pledged to annex Jewish settlements within the West Bank. To his supporters, this is the only solution to demographic divisions in the region. But his critics argue that Israel’s annexation of such a large, noncontiguous amount of territory would render the creation of a Palestinian state impossible, putting the region at risk of further instability.
In the lead-up to the recent elections, the prime minister has received a great deal of negative press for both political moves and scandals. He stoked controversy when he passed a Basic Law - the equivalent of a constitutional amendment - which contained aggressive proclamations, including that “the exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.” The Basic Law has angered and disenfranchised Muslims, Druze, Christians and other non-Jewish groups that constitute roughly one fourth of Israel’s population. Netanyahu’s popularity has also been damaged by multiple allegations of bribery. He denies all allegations, and he is set to make his case during a pre-indictment hearing on Oct. 2-3.
Standing opposed to Netanyahu is political newcomer Benny Gantz, who served as Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces from 2011 to 2015. The media has portrayed him as a straight-laced military man whose centrist policies and modest character stand in contrast to his opponents’ hardline rhetoric and personal scandals. The platform of his White and Blue alliance is in many ways a repudiation of Netanyahu’s ruling style. Grantz seeks to crack down on political corruption, legalize same-sex civil unions, increase funding for education and loosen restrictions on public activity during the Sabbath.
Gantz also favors a negotiated settlement with Arab leaders. Palestinians, however, have showed little enthusiasm for the prospect. They are skeptical of Gantz’s lack of stated supported for a two-state solution, along with his advocacy of continued Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem, which Israel and Palestine both claim as their capital. Many Palestinian leaders also resent Gantz’s position of commander-in-chief during 2014 Gaza War, which resulted in over 2,000 Palestinian casualties.
The September election gave 33 seats to Blue and White and 31 to Likud. 61 are needed for a majority, and the rest are split between a diverse range of factions, including Arab parties, members of the “Ultra-Orthodox” Haredi Jewish sect, and leftists. These results leave no indication of any obvious coalition. Nearly anything is possible for Israel’s political future. The most likely kingmaker is Avigdor Liberman of the secular right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, who is currently seeking to negotiate a unity government where Gantz and Netanyahu will take turns serving as Prime Minister. Previously, Gantz had refused to form a coalition with Likud as long as Netanyahu is leader. However, recent talks between the two have shown that he may be willing to reconsider. At the time of this writing, little is certain, but a middle-of-the-road solution between the major centrist and conservative factions is seen as the most likely outcome.