Victory of a Vibrant Democracy

Global Centre Stage

Jeremy Saltan analyses the reasons behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party’s surprising surge in the final days before the election and finds out if Israel is on a collision course with her closest allies

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in the process of forming his fourth government after winning 30 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Netanyahu has led Israel’s government for the past six years. He has spent nine years overall as Prime Minister, including three years in the 1990’s. Despite of his long tenure, the recent election results represent Netanyahu’s largest electoral success to date, and he views this success as a mandate from the people in support of his policies.

Israel is still in the process of forming its next government and the process will likely be completed in May. After an Israeli election, the leader of each party in Knesset meets with the President of Israel to nominate a Prime Minister. The leader with the most nominations, representing the most seats in Knesset, is tipped by the President to form the next government. Ten parties make up the new Knesset. Five parties joined Netanyahu’s Likud Party in nominating Netanyahu for Prime Minister to President Reuven Rivlin for a fourth term. Only the founder of the modern country, David Ben-Gurion, has served longer in the top Israeli post.

The makeup of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s next government is expected to include for the first time just his natural partners – the nationalist and religious parties – with the exclusion of centre-left parties. The coalition partners are considered quite significant in determining policy since they will make up a majority of the coalition government, which represents a majority of the parliament. In the past, Netanyahu has brought in a balancing force from the other side into each coalition government he has formed. In his first term, he brought in ‘The Third Way’, a faction that had broken off from the Labor party. In his second government, he kept Ehud Barak, who had served in the previous Olmert government, in the post of Defence Minister by bringing the Labor Party into his coalition. His third government was formed with Netanyahu’s former Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni and popular media personality Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party. The change in policy of forming a government without the centre-left raises questions regarding the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Israel’s relations with the United States and Europe.

Likud’s Surprising Victory

According to the average of the 16 polls, conducted from eight Israeli leading polling companies in the week preceding the election, the Zionist Union, led by Opposition Leader Yitzhak Herzog, was predicted to win 24 seats to Likud’s 21. Those that have grown tired of Netanyahu expressed hope encouraged by the poll numbers, that Opposition Leader Herzog would indeed form the next Israeli government. The polls correctly predicted the Zionist Union numbers, as Herzog did indeed win 24 seats. The polls also correctly estimated, within a margin of error of a single seat, the seats of other political parties outside the nationalist camp. What they did not predict was the last minute movement within the nationalist camp that led to Likud’s surprising surge in the final days before the election when publishing poll analysis are prohibited under Israeli law. Likud’s 30 seats was an unlikely victory. So how did they do it?

Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to make the election about the other party leaders instead of a mandate on his leadership. He chose to make it about “them”, Herzog and Livni, and not about him. Throughout the campaign, Netanyahu opted to focus on Opposition Leader Herzog, Livni and Lapid – the ministers he fired from his previous government, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, and his former Minister Moshe Kahlon, more than contentious domestic issues of the election such as increasing housing prices and the cost of living. He doubled down in the final week of the campaign on the policy of discussing personalities over issues by promising to appoint Kahlon as Finance Minister and Bennett to a senior portfolio, as well as stressing yet again the difference between himself and Herzog-Livni.

His strategy worked particularly well with Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi voters who moved over to Likud in the final days in fear of a Herzog-Livni victory. Those voters were comfortable moving from Bayit Yehudi, their idealistic home, to Likud based on Netanyahu’s campaign promises to Bennett. Bayit Yehudi won 12.39 percent of the vote in what is known in Israel as the “double envelopes” that includes a lot of early voting stations such as military and overseas polling stations, compared to their national average of 6.74 percent.

Impact on the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

The three leading candidates to serve as Israel’s Foreign Minister are all considered hawks and all three are members of the Israeli Security Cabinet that supported a stronger military response during the most recent war in Gaza. The Palestinian side is not likely to be interested in negotiating with any of them. Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett openly opposes the creation of a Palestinian State west of the Jordan River. Likud’s no. 2 Gilad Erdan has also openly opposed the creation of a Palestinian state. When Prime Minister Netanyahu took the negotiations out of Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s hands and gave it to Tzipi Livni in the previous government, Liberman didn’t seem to mind much, displaying his disinterest in negotiations. Both Bennett and Liberman are openly shopping their alternative solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Outgoing Economy Minister Naftali Bennett wrote in a New York Times op-ed that “recent events in the Middle East are a reminder of how the old models of peace between Israel and the Palestinians are no longer relevant. The time has come to rethink the two-state solution”. Bennett instead pushes for a “bottom-up peace” that is meant to “build economic bridges of peace between Israelis and Palestinians”. He calls for “upgrading the Palestinian autonomy” on one side, and “annexing territory to Israel” on the other.

Liberman’s plan focuses on the transfer of territory on both sides including a transfer of populations. He told Haaretz: “As for Israeli Arabs, any agreement must include a plan for territorial and population exchange”. To clarify, he calls for moving the heavily populated Israeli-Arab cities into a future Palestinian State and annexing the larger Jewish settlement blocs into Israel.

Of the three candidates, many consider Netanyahu’s new no. 2 Gilad Erdan, who won the Likud primary election a few months ago, the most moderate choice. Erdan spoke at the Herzliya Counter-Terrorism Conference following Operation Protective Edge. His main message was that one of the fundamental lessons of the Gaza fighting was that despite efforts over the years to minimise the significance of territory for the country’s security, territory does matter. The outgoing Interior Minister said, “From a diplomatic perspective, I think to continue to talk about Palestinian nationalism with the same determination and confidence as was done 10 or 15 years ago is not responsible”. His solution seemed very similar to the out-of-the-box thinking that Bennett and Liberman are pushing: “We have to change the hard disk and not lean all the time on the same old solutions”.

The Palestinian leadership is expected to reject the ideas of these three candidates.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is in the 11th year of his four-year term. There are no scheduled elections for the Palestinian Presidency or the Parliament because of the fear that holding an election will lead to a more extremist party taking over just as Hamas did in Gaza. Despite Hamas not participating in the 2012 municipal elections, Abbas’s Fatah Party was unsuccessful in gaining a majority of seats in many districts in an election against smaller parties. In the election that they should have won by a landslide, Fatah dropped to second place in certain cities.

It is possible given the projected makeup of the next Israeli government and a weakened Palestinian government that has delayed democratic elections indefinitely that the United States and Europe choose to place the Palestinian issue on the back-burner and focus on other issues in the region. The likelihood of progress on this issue is small.

Impact on Israel’s Relations with the US and Europe

The future relationship between Israel and the west will not focus only on the Palestinian issue. Iran will be a major factor. On the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu might be considered more moderate than some of his coalition partners, but on the Iranian issue, there is a consensus. Netanyahu’s coalition partners and even some elements within his expected opposition support him on Iran. The United States and Europe are not going to be pleased when they see a united Israeli front against their position.

The two ultra-orthodox parties have a long-time policy of staying away from international politics and supporting the position of the Prime Minister. Netanyahu’s three other expected coalition partners are all former members of his own inner circle. Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett was Netanyahu’s former Chief of Staff, Yisrael Beitenu’s Avigdor Liberman was Netanyahu’s former Prime Minister Office Director-General, and Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon was Chairman of Likud’s powerful Central Committee and a top Likud Minister in Netanyahu’s second government. In the past, all three have been very supportive of Netanyahu on Iran.

Does this mean that Israel is on a collision course with her closest allies? Not necessarily. Netanyahu is not looking to burn any bridges, and, given his coalition partners, any unilateral moves by the international community in response to Israeli policy will probably cause more harm than good to the western agenda.

Israeli nationalists are not happy with external elements determining their security interests. Don’t expect them to back down. If the world decides to respond to the election results in Israel after the new government formation with unilateral moves and isolation, they will find that unlike his previous coalitions, Netanyahu has the support he needs to operate as he wishes against Iran.

The new Israeli government is probably not the one that the international community was expecting or desires, but that is what happens in a vibrant democracy. You have to honour the will of the people and respect the majority.

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Jeremy Saltan

Jeremy Saltan is a veteran Knesset Insider, Campaigner and leading Political Analyst. He is a regular contributor on Voice of Israel, a local municipality politician and is one of Israel’s top poll analysts. He has run political campaigns in English and Hebrew for municipality, party institution, primary and general elections. Jeremy’s in-depth opinion pieces have been published, quoted, appeared or credited in numerous publications including the Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, Israel National News, Jewish Press, IBA News, Voice of America, Daily Beast, France 24, Washington Post, BBC, Al Jazeera, Daystar and Foreign Policy among others.

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