The Israeli elections, explained

Experts on what this week’s results mean for the nation, and the prospects for peace in the Middle East.

Israeli voters went to the polls Tuesday, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeking another term, amid corruption allegations. Despite a strong challenge from Benny Gantz and the new Blue and White centrist alliance, Netanyahu’s Likud Party appears poised to prevail by cobbling together enough seats from allied parties to form a governing coalition. 

Penn Today spoke with two experts on Israeli politics, political science Professor Ian Lustick and visiting Professor Eytan Gilboa, about the election results and what they mean for the Middle East peace process.

Lustick is the Bess W. Heyman Chair at Penn and the author of several books, including the upcoming “Paradigm Lost: From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality,” which will be published this fall. 

Gilboa is the visiting Israeli Institute professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, director of the Center for International Communication, a senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, and a senior fellow at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. 

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What do you think is going to happen with the composition of the government?

Lustick: Neither party has anywhere near the 60 votes they would need. They each have about 35. They’re going to need 25 other seats, 25 other votes in the Parliament and there just aren’t enough votes available to the Blue and White. 

Both of the ultraorthodox religious parties are pretty solidly behind Netanyahu. So you have a coalition that will be at least as strong as Netanyahu had before. There are so many other parties to the right of Likud that are willing to support him; there’s no question he is going to be forming the next government. 

Gilboa: It will be similar to the previous Netanyahu right government. He won four consecutive elections, five altogether, and has experience in building coalition governments more than any active politician. Usually, the small parties make excessive and often conflicting demands for their participation. Netanyahu will have to maneuver among them and get the outcome he wants. I don't believe that the new government would be more extreme than the previous one in both domestic and foreign affairs. 

Netanyahu is smarter and more sophisticated than any of his future partners, and as with his previous government he would use external factors to block or postpone extreme policy initiatives. There will be moderate forces in his future coalition and he has always played well between them and the more extreme elements. Furthermore, what politicians say and promise in election campaigns are often ignored when they have to make difficult decisions.

What, if anything, surprised you about the campaign and the election?

Gilboa: The success of the largest parties, the leaders of their respective political blocs, Likud and Blue and White, to win more seats than any poll and any one had given them. Their strategy to come on top as the largest party paid off and terribly hurt the smaller parties in both their camps. 

If this trend continues, Israel could return to the political system of the earlier years of its existence, when two big parties, representing the right and the left, dominated the political map.

The Labor party which built the country and won every election in the first 30 years of its existence, suffered the worst defeat ever in any Israeli elections. It failed to cultivate charismatic leaders and build a real alternative to Netanyahu and Likud. It lost many seats to Blue and White which presented impressive leaders and a somewhat different agenda for both domestic and foreign affairs. 

The Arab vote was lower than in previous elections. The main reason for this result was the widespread disappointment from the performance of their representatives in the Knesset, not the Nation-State Law.  Arab voters accused the Arab parties of excessive attention to Israeli-Palestinian relations at the expense of finding solutions to problems that affect their ordinary life.  

Lustick: In many ways, this election is no different than many over the past 20 years, where the right wing totally dominates. There hasn’t been a prime minister elected from the center or the left since Barak was elected in 1999, though Ehud Olmert, elected in 2006, was more moderate. 

One thing that’s different is the success this time of even more extreme right-wing parties, especially a new alliance of right-wing groups that features overtly racist candidates and with which the Likud signed a surplus vote sharing agreement.  

That’s extraordinary, that a descendant of Meir Kahane, who was outlawed as a terrorist and a racist, would now be so close to the center of power in Israel.

Another difference is that the Labor Party, the party of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, the dominant party for the beginning of Israel’s history, which at times had as many as 50 seats in the Knesset, has now dropped to single digits.  

Another important element, and it may explain quite a bit of the scale of the outcome, is the drop in the Arab vote. It seemed like the turnout in the Arab sector was very low. That can be attributed to both Netanyahu and Benny Gantz saying they would not negotiate with the Arab party deputies of Knesset. During the campaign, Gantz used anti-Arab rhetoric, alienating votes that he needed. To form a government, Gantz at least needed those Arab parties to be strong and to support him from outside the coalition. 

We may find that more Jews voted for the Arab parties than ever before, out of disgust for the nation-state law that was targeting minorities and out of a kind of deep discouragement with the prospects of any of the two-state solution-oriented parties.

The media likes to make elections look exciting, so it had to make this look like it was going to be close. In order to make it look like a horse race, the press reported on two blocs that were relatively even: The right-wing block with 60 seats and the center-left block with 55 to 60 seats. What was fascinating is that when they referred to the center-left bloc, the Arab parties were included—non-Zionist, and in one case, anti-Jewish state, parties. In the past, Arab votes and Arab political parties have never been publicly regarded as comprising part of one of the two main political formations in the country.  

Increasingly, moderates in Israel face the dilemma faced by the formerly segregationist Democratic Party in the United States. Everyone knows now that the party’s success absolutely depends on turnout and support among minority voters, so they must be courted. Regarding Arabs that is, or at least will be, the case in Israel, because the Arab population is growing rapidly. That is also why we see more intensive right-wing efforts to suppress the Arab vote, such as challenging their parties’ legality and filming Arabs as they vote. 

In coming decades, how many Arabs vote, and which Arabs will be able to vote, will be a determining factor in Israeli politics, and I’m referring not just to Arabs that are citizens of Israel now but Arabs who are inhabitants of places Israel is in the process of annexing, not just the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem but portions of the West Bank, and areas that Israelis control, don’t think they’ll annex, but will eventually absorb anyway, such as the rest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. 

What does this tell you about the Israeli electorate?

Gilboa: It went further to the right. There are two reasons for that tendency that has been developing especially in the last decade. First, the voters have been extremely disappointed with the failure of the peace process. The grim predictions of Likud about the situation in Gaza after the Israeli unilateral withdrawal turned out to be true. Gaza didn't become the Singapore of the Middle East. Instead, under Hamas it became a constant source of violence and terrorism. 

There is a genuine concern that a similar pull out from the West Bank would create there another hostile and violent Gaza. When the left kept repeating the obsolete peace slogans of the Oslo process, it lost credibility. Secondly, despite the world economic crises of the last decade, the Israeli economy has been booming.

Lustick: The Israeli electorate is pretty solid. It doesn’t move much and it’s going to take a long time for it to move as population changes occur and as the future political rights of all the people who live under the Israeli state get re-determined. 

Because the United States has never held Israel’s feet to the fire over policies that U.S. presidents have disagreed with, such as settlements and discriminatory policies toward non-Jews, Israeli politicians who would always say ‘we have to compromise because it’s the sensible thing to do and the United States will force us to do it eventually,’ those moderates have always been proven wrong. And the Israeli electorate has learned that it might as well vote for politicians that appeal to their fears and their fantasies about what the country can do, without consequences. Israeli voters have been taught the country can take all the territory it wants, deprive Arabs of the right to be involved in Israeli political life, and also have a high standard of living with full U.S. protection. 

So why compromise or support politicians who favor compromise? American policy, although it’s not been designed to make Israel intransigent and extreme in its demands, has had that effect. 

Inside that, there are two other things. One is Israelis, a plurality of Israeli Jews, who think that the future of the Palestinians is not an issue they should pay any attention to. Palestinian movement is strictly controlled, making millions of them nearly invisible to Israelis. Life in Israel is not uncomfortable day to day because of Palestinian suffering. The economic situation is very good, so many Israeli Jews see no reason to change that by changing the government. In that context, charges of corruption and incivility, as we see in the United States just as we see in Israel, are not of themselves likely to be decisive.

The Trump administration has said it would release its peace plan after this election. Do you think that will happen soon, and what will that look like?

Gilboa: I expect it to be released, if at all, only after the forming of the new coalition government because the rightist potential partners may not agree to serve in a government that would endorse even parts of this peace plan. 

After getting from Trump the cancellation of the Iran nuclear deal, the transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and recognition of Israel's sovereignty in the Golan heights, and after describing Trump as the greatest friend Israel has ever had at the White House, Netanyahu would not be in a position to reject his peace plan. Netanyahu would rather rely on Palestinian rejection, which they have already said they would do.     

Lustick: I don’t know whether they’ll unveil it. I don’t think they will. I think they’ll continue to tinker with it. It’s not really a peace proposal, it’s a continuation of cooperation between the Trump administration and the Israeli government. 

It is something that will almost certainly not use the term ‘Palestinian state,’ and in that sense, if it were to be put forward, it’s kind of a positive thing because the idea that there still could be a negotiated two-state solution is a mirage. That was the problem with the Obama administration’s policies; it pretended there was an opportunity for a two-state solution when there was not, just because it was politically convenient to do so.

President Trump is in the odd position of making it more or less formal that there is no possibility of a two-state solution, and that can start shifting the attention not to Israel ending its control over Gaza and the West Bank, which is not going to happen, but to the question of the transformation of Israel into a country that grants equal rights to all people who live within it.