The Israeli prime minister appears to have won reelection. Now he has to beat legal charges.
This piece was written for Israel’s April 2019 election results. In the second 2019 election, in September, Netanyahu did notably worse — and, in fact, might lose power depending on how coalition negotiations go.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to hold on to power, winning what will be a record fifth term in office despite a bruising reelection fight.
The preliminary results from Israel’s Tuesday election have Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party getting 35 seats out of a total 120 seats in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament). While Likud didn’t win an outright majority of seats, that’s typical in Israeli elections.
Party leaders generally become prime ministers by cobbling together a parliamentary majority with the help of smaller parties. In this case, a group of smaller right-wing parties expected to back Netanyahu seems to have captured 65 seats, enough to give him a 10-seat majority over the rival center-left bloc (the exact numbers could change as the remaining two percent of votes are tallied).
Netanyahu is now set to be the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history — even longer than David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, who’s often described as “Israel’s George Washington.” And the ramifications of his fifth term could be enormous, for both the health of Israeli democracy and the fate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The prime minister is facing a pending criminal indictment on bribery and fraud charges by Israel’s attorney general that’s likely to come down later this year. And now that Netanyahu has all but secured a victory, it’s possible his coalition could pass legislation protecting him from prosecution while in office, in essence letting him get away with his alleged crimes for the time being.
What’s more, Netanyahu made a stunning last-minute campaign promise over the weekend to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank if reelected — extending full Israeli sovereignty over settlements widely considered illegal under international law. If he follows through, it would be the most radical rejection of a negotiated two-state solution by any Israeli prime minister in modern history. It would also generate a massive crisis for Israel and the broader Middle East.
In sum, this is a very, very big deal.
Israel’s election results reveal why Netanyahu won
The story of Netanyahu’s victory is pretty simple: Israel is a center-right country, and Netanyahu rallied enough right-wing voters to defeat the center.
Since the collapse of the peace process in the early 2000s and the rise of the Hamas government in Gaza after Israel’s withdrawal from the territory, the Israeli public has drifted further and further toward skepticism about peace and the outside world.
Political scientists have documented strong evidence that rocket attacks and suicide bombings lead to increased vote shares for right-wing parties, suggesting that the unending Palestinian conflict has led to a complete collapse of support for Israel’s left-wing peace camp.
Labor, the center-left party that dominated Israeli politics for the country’s first 50 years of existence, hasn’t won an election since 1999. The preliminary results have them winning a dismal six seats this time around.
Netanyahu’s past 10 years in office, and especially the past four, are both a consequence and a cause of this right-wing drift.
Since 2009, the prime minister has become more and more right-wing in a bid to protect his flank from other right-wing challengers, a strategy that’s both substantively dangerous and politically effective.
Under the prime minister’s leadership, policies that would not have been considered in the past — like the annexation of part of the West Bank or a law defining Israel as a “Jewish” nation-state in a fashion that excludes the country’s sizable Arab minority — have either been proposed or enacted.
The leading opposition to Netanyahu this time around wasn’t a leftist party, but rather a new centrist party, Blue and White (named for the colors of the Israeli flag). Led by Benny Gantz, a retired general and former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, the party aimed to dodge the kind of weak-on-security attacks that Netanyahu had long deployed against left-wing rivals.
Gantz ran a campaign that focused heavily on his security credentials and staffed the top tier of his party with other ex-military men. But his tough-guy positioning evidently wasn’t compelling enough to overcome Netanyahu and his Likud party’s appeal.
Netanyahu’s campaign focused on his long record of guiding Israel through conflict and security crises, but also on his close relationships with right-wing, nationalist leaders like Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Of these global Netanyahu friends, one was especially important: President Donald Trump. Not only is the US Israel’s closest ally, but under Trump, the US both moved its embassy to Jerusalem and, just before the election, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights — both unprecedented moves that were big wins for Netanyahu.
Likud’s strong performance was buoyed by the success of a number of smaller religious and conservative parties, including one party — United Right — that includes one faction so far-right and anti-Arab that observers have characterized it as “fascist.”
Netanyahu also benefited from what looks like a collapse in turnout among Israel’s Arab minority, who were vital to the hopes of the broader left. It’s hard to say yet why this happened, but it’s worth noting that Likud activists tried to smuggle in cameras to document alleged “election fraud” by Arab voters on the day of the vote. Hadash Ta’al, the leading Arab party, saw it as an attempt to menace their voters and deter them from voting — one that may have been effective, especially coming on the heels of a campaign that relentlessly marginalized Arab voters.
“The anti-Arab tone has been a constant backdrop to the election campaign and even Netanyahu’s opponents are afraid to challenge it,” writes Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist and reporter at Israel’s left-wing Haaretz newspaper.
Israel’s election results appear set. So what happens now?
First, Netanyahu needs to figure out exactly which parties he’s going to include in his coalition.
He could reach out to Gantz to try to form a more centrist national unity coalition, but his post-election comments suggest he won’t do that. Instead, he seems likely to work with almost exclusively right-wing parties to build a hard-right majority. The exact setup of this government will be decided in the coming month or so.
After that’s all sorted out, the most immediate issue will be the looming indictment. Netanyahu is expected to try to build support for a proposed law that would immunize him from prosecution while in office. If he fails and the indictment comes down this summer as expected, his coalition could very well fracture under the pressure — leading to a new Likud prime minister or potentially new elections.
Netanyahu’s electoral victory, in other words, doesn’t mean he’s out of the woods yet.
“This is one station in a journey Netanyahu is going to go through in the next few months,” says Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. “The real game is about the indictment: whether he gets immunity from it, whether he can survive indictment and keep the coalition going even while on trial — those are the real questions.”
The second big question is about Netanyahu’s promise to begin annexing West Bank settlements.
It’s hard to overstate how significant this move would be if Netanyahu follows through with it. Israel would be asserting permanent control over land that most countries believe belongs to the Palestinians. It would immediately cause a rupture in Israel’s relations with many countries around the world, potentially even Arab dictatorships that have been quietly working with Israel against Iran.
And for the Palestinians, it would be catastrophic.
“Such a move would likely signal the death knell of the two-state solution and move Israel closer to a formal apartheid reality on the ground,” says Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at Brookings.
The fate of these two big issues, indictment immunity and West Bank annexation, could also be linked. It’s conceivable that Netanyahu could trade annexation for immunity: offer hard-right parties a guarantee that annexation will happen if they vote to pass an immunity bill.
If that happens, it would be a double disaster for Israel: Not only would the prime minister be shielding himself from facing justice for the foreseeable future, undermining a basic tenet of democratic accountability, he’d also be moving toward turning what’s supposed to be a temporary occupation of Palestinian land into a permanent seizure.
This would be a move toward authoritarianism and apartheid.
It’s not yet clear if that dire scenario will come to pass. But Netanyahu’s victory means the threat to both Israeli democracy and Palestinian freedom is higher than ever.
Alexia Underwood contributed reporting to this piece.