The Israeli Elections: Netanyahu Wins in a 35-35 Landslide

by | Apr 10, 2019 |

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Tuesday night was the night following the national elections in Israel. It was a nail-biter. The polling stations closed at 10 o’clock, after 15 hours of voting, and the first results of the three major exit polls were released. The results diverged widely.

The two major contenders were Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu and his Likud Party, and former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, leading his Blue & White party. Early in the evening, after the polls had closed, both parties celebrated victory. But as the night wore on it became clear that, although the two parties were in a dead heat, Netanyahu’s Likud party had won a decisive victory. How does that happen?

Here’s How It Works

In order to understand the outcome, it is important to understand, at least a little, the process. It’s complicated. When Israelis go to the polls, they do not vote for a candidate, they vote for a party. Once at the polls, they are faced with a tray of ballots, each one representing the Hebrew initials (or Arabic initials, in Arab towns) of a participating party. Every voter may choose one ballot. That’s it. 

Ballot tray in Israel

Unlike the U.S., Israel does not have two major parties. In this election, there were 43 – yes you read that right – 43 parties, all contending for the right to participate in Israel’s parliament, or as it is called in Hebrew, the Knesset.

There are 120 seats in the Knesset, and the members are elected from closed party lists by a national constituency. That means that every party elects its own list of candidates from party ranks. The candidates are ranked according to the number of votes they get. Netanyahu, for example, received the most votes within his party and is therefore #1 on his party list.  The voting is not based on Israeli regions or cities. Every member of Knesset represents the entire population of Israel.

After the lists are completed, it is time for Israeli citizens to have the final say in a national election. Now, a party can only be elected to the Knesset if it receives at least 3.25% of the national vote, which will guarantee the party at least three, but usually four seats (or mandates) in the Knesset. The results of the election are commonly represented by the number of seats that the party receives in the national vote tally, and the seats are assigned according to each candidate’s position on the party list. So if a party has, let’s say, 10 people on its party list, but only receives 4 mandates, then only the first four people on its list will be seated.

In the 2019 election of the 21st Knesset, an election that brought more than four million voters to the polls, the votes for the Likud party and the Blue & White party appeared to be incredibly close – slightly more than 13,000 votes apart at the last count, with Likud in the lead. But each party won 35 seats.

In the end, the two parties were not nearly as close as the numbers would suggest. And this is why:  Neither party won a majority. Both parties won approximately 26% of the popular vote, with Likud only slightly ahead.

Now when there are 43 parties contending in an election, winning a majority is nearly impossible and it has never happened in Israel. The best that any party can do is to win a strong plurality. And then, following the election, it is the candidate that is best able to cobble together a coalition with smaller parties that will create a majority and be the acknowledged winner.

In this case, Netanyahu has already won the allegiance of a block of right-wing and religious parties, whose combined mandates, together with Likud’s, will total at least 65 seats, when the final vote tally is reached. A left-wing block that would have supported Gantz as Prime Minister, including the Labor and Meretz parties, did not total more than 45 seats. That 20-seat gap is huge and decisive.

And there is one more thing: The final decision regarding the next Prime Minister ultimately lies with the President of Israel, a largely ceremonial position that, in this case, can decided the future of the country in a close election. Once the dust has settled a bit, President Reuven Rivlin will meet with the leaders of all the parties that cleared the electoral threshold, and they will each recommend a person to be Prime Minister. Then it will be President Rivlin who, in the end, will determine which candidate will be most likely to succeed in forming a coalition of at least 61 out of the 120 elected Knesset members.

Israel has never had a single-party government. And that hasn’t changed. At the moment, on the day after the election, with some 97 percent of votes counted, Netanyahu appears to be safely on the path to forming a majority governing coalition. The process is messy, and it is certain to be full of tense negotiations that may take days or weeks. But Netanyahu is an old hand at this, and behind the scenes, he is a street fighter who knows how to get his way.

In the opposition, the Blue & White party will likely be joined by four left-wing and Arab parties combined for just 20 seats. It is not insignificant that Arabs participate, not only in the electoral process itself, but in the governance of the nation. It speaks, to those who care to listen, to the truth of Israel’s democratic philosophy that gives a voice to all of its people. This is not propaganda, this is reality.

In the End, What Does It All Mean?

The election is over now, the loser has conceded defeat, and it is time to evaluate what Netanyahu’s victory means.

The Times of Israel called Netanyahu “A divisive force of nature who commandeered the airwaves, took over the vegetable markets, monopolized social media and even called potential voters out of the sea at Netanya beach on election day. Netanyahu simply refused to be beaten.”

Netanyahu is a man on a mission, and yes, his mission is tied to hubris and the assurance of his legacy. But it is also driven by his love for his country, his people, and their future security in a world that considers them disposable. So perhaps he may be forgiven for the aggressiveness of his campaign.

His long friendship with President Donald Trump was no doubt also a factor in his victory. Israelis are tired of constant attacks by Palestinian terrorists, and by Hamas rockets from Gaza. Israelis have simply had enough. And those that couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Netanyahu, did the next best thing by voting for those who would most likely partner with him in a coalition.

When President Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights late in March, and then named Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization in early April, it did not hurt Netanyahu’s chances at the polls.

And, finally, just before the elections, Netanyahu promised the Israeli voters (and warned the rest of the world) that if he is Israel’s next Prime Minister, he will place all of the Israeli towns (also known as ‘settlements’) on the West Bank under Israeli sovereignty, so that they will all be officially a part of Israel, and Israel will no longer consider it “occupied territory”.  This undoubtedly affected the vote as well.

Despite the euphoria hanging over the Likud camp following their historic win, there are also clouds hanging heavily over Netanyahu’s blunt force approach to the election campaign. Likud hired activists to install hidden cameras in Arab polling stations, a tactic that may have negatively influenced the Arab turnout. And there was also a disgraceful effort by his campaign to depict his key rival, Benny Gantz, as mentally unstable.

No less serious is that even as he prepares to build a majority coalition and continue to run the country, he is still facing an indictment for fraud, breach of trust, and bribery. Although Netanyahu has denied these charges, the indictment stands and will undoubtedly lead to a trial. There is a suspicion that he will condition some of his coalition ministerial appointments to a bill that would prevent legal action against a sitting Prime Minister. But at the moment, it is only a rumor.

More important, from a security standpoint, is this: Israel is reminded every day of the real threat from the attacks of Iran-supported Hezbollah in the north, by the growing menace of Hamas rocket attacks in the south, and the unceasing terrorist attacks from within. Netanyahu has promised to deal firmly with these threats. The fact that he has the strong support of the U.S. President behind him was no doubt a factor in his victory and will help him continue to build a strong defense against all threats.

America and Israel Share Common Paths

There are many similarities between the environment today in Israel, and that in the US.  From the divisiveness between right and left that seems to grow every day and threatens to split the population into warring factions, to the personal attacks from the left against Netanyahu  and Trump, to the crisis on the southern borders of both countries: Israel and the U.S. seem to be moving in parallel tracks, something that may bind them even closer in the future.

In the case of both Trump and Netanyahu, the attacks from the left are complicated by accusations of corruption – accusations that have plagued them both for the last several years. That is something they will both have to balance with their leadership of nations in perpetual crisis.

But in Netanyahu’s case, that issue is apparently overshadowed by the faith that the Israeli people seem to have in his ability to present a strong front against the dangers presented by hostile neighbors and the terrorist threat from within. 

Netanyahu now has another opportunity, in his unprecedented fifth term as Prime Minister of Israel, to make some landmark choices that may change the face of the region. He has promised that he will. Now it is time, more than ever, to show the world what he can do.  Image Crédit: Roy Alima/Flash90

Ilana Freedman

Ilana Freedman is a veteran intelligence analyst with more than thirty years in the field. She was trained in Israel, where she lived and worked for sixteen years. After returning to the U.S., she served as CEO of Gerard Group International in Massachusetts, providing major corporations and government agencies with intelligence-led support for their homeland security programs. Her global network of specialists and field assets has provided her with an ongoing resource of critical, real-time intelligence and domain expertise. Today, Ilana is an independent consultant and author of hundreds of articles on terrorism and the geopolitical landscape. She has written four books on Islamic terrorism, and is currently working on a comprehensive book on China - past, present, and future.

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