Israel voted yesterday in its second general election of 2019, a gambit attempted by right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aimed at breaking the impasse after the April election, which was caused by irreconcilable policy differences between the religious parties representing ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose core vote is very secular Russian immigrants.
The two key numbers in an Israeli election are 61 – the winning line in a Knesset (parliament) of 120 seats – and 3.25%, which is the vote share threshold needed to get any seats. In April, lots of parties were just under or just over the 3.25% threshold, and fear of falling below it led to a frenzy of party mergers during the summer. I looked in detail at how those played out among Labour’s Israeli sister parties in a recent LabourList piece.
The key outcome of the election was that Netanyahu has failed for the second time to build a 61-seat majority for his centre-right and religious bloc of parties. They are likely to have 55 seats, whilst the centre-left and Arab bloc of parties will have 56, leaving Lieberman exactly where he wanted to be, as kingmaker with 9 seats. Netanyahu’s Likud doesn’t even look like it will be the largest single party, with a projected 31 seats (down 4), behind the centrist Blue and White coalition, led by former head of the armed forces Benny Gantz on 32, down three (a peculiar feature of Israeli politics is a long tradition of retired senior generals become centrist or left-wing politicians).
A key factor was that turnout rose by 1.5% to 69.4%, despite predictions of voter fatigue in a second election. This was driven by increased turnout among Arab citizens of Israel, partly because the Arab parties united into a single Arab List, raising community morale, and partly a backlash against Netanyahu’s efforts during the campaign to energise his right-wing base with calls to annex parts of the West Bank and alarmist rhetoric about Arab turnout, which became a self-fulfilling prophesy. The Arab Joint List emerged as the third largest party, up 3 seats to 13 compared to its constituent parts in April.
The other big winner was secularism. Demands to reduce religious influence on day-to-day life in Israel, such as running public transportation and keeping supermarkets open on the Sabbath, were a key part of Lieberman’s platform, and his party nearly doubled in strength to get 9 seats from 5 last time. Blue and White is also seen as a party with a clear secular agenda. The religious parties Shas and United Torah Judaism got 9 and 8 seats respectively, up one for Shas and unchanged for UTJ.
Whilst a new coalition of right-wing parties that supports annexation of settlements in the West Bank, Yamina, got 7 seats, the far right Jewish Power party didn’t get any seats at all.
On the left, all the excitement around new leaders, defections and mergers for both Labor (with the centrist Gesher party), and the more left-wing Meretz, now in a “Democratic Union” with former Labor PM Ehud Barak, ex-Labor rising star Stav Shaffir and the Greens, came to absolutely nothing. Labor-Gesher surprisingly emerged slightly ahead, on the same 6 seats it had in April, whilst the Democratic Union got 5, up 1.
But the two left parties could end up in government. In fact, anything could happen during what will now be complex coalition negotiations – a national unity government involving both major parties; a centre-left coalition with Lieberman and with the Arabs providing an Israeli version of “confidence and supply” from outside; but never underestimate Netanyahu’s ability to broker some new, unexpected deal.
For the moment, what is clear is that this is a big setback for the PM, failing to reach 61 seats for a second time and blocked in quite a personalised way by his old ally Lieberman. After ten years continuously in power and surpassing David Ben Gurion’s record for longest total service as PM, for the first time the end of the Netanyahu era looks a distinct possibility.