20 Maggio 2019

Israel 2019: Bibi the Magician, the elections and the road ahead

di Nicoletta Enria

 Scenari internazionali


On the 9th of April 2019, Israelis headed to the polls for a snap election after Benjamin Netanyahu lost his parliamentary majority, casting their vote for the 21st Knesset[1]. In these elections, despite the opposition from his new rival Benny Gantz who had set out to make history in the polls, Benjamin Netanyahu effectively maintains his nickname the Bibi the Magician, by winning a fifth term, making him now the longest-standing prime minister of Israel, longer than Israel's very founder David Ben Gurion. With a rollercoaster of an election season, with Benny Gantz signing up to contest Netanyahu on the last day and soaring in the polls and Netanyahu's promises to annex large parts of the West Bank and battling corruption and bribery cases - this election was peppered with shock and intrigue. So, who are the contenders, what were the results and what do they mean?


Who were the contenders?


To begin with, who even ran and what ideals do they represent? The two front-runners were Netanyahu's Likud party and Benny Gantz's Blue and White alliance. The incumbent Likud, Israel's right-wing flagship party, opposes a Palestinian state and promotes a neo-liberal economic agenda. Blue and White (B&W), named after the colours of Israel's flag, was the real political novelty. It is a new centrist coalition put together by Israel Defence Forces former chief of staff Benny Gantz by merging his Israel Resilience Party with Yair Lapid's established centrist Yesh Atid. The B&W created momentum as it predominantly campaigned on opposing Netanyahu and his alleged corruption. Netanyahu now faces several counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust that have become known as Case 1000, Case 2000 and Case 4000.


Other parties on the right include The New Right and Jewish Home-Jewish Power, sporting hawkish defence policies and a rhetoric to match, along with Israel Beiteinu, which similarly supports hard-line defence policy whilst also championing the interests of around 1.5 million Russian-speaking Israeli citizens. Kulanu is a centre-right party focused on Israel's high cost of living whilst Zehut is a libertarian party. On the left, Labor once was the left-wing flagship and largest party but took a hard hit in these elections, whilst Maretz was as conventionally left-wing a party can be whilst still remaining Zionist.


More fringe parties that remain very significant are the ultra-orthodox Haredi parties, United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Shas. UTJ is the Ashkenazi Haredi party, while Shas is the Sephardi Haredi party. Whilst still relatively small, they both carry a significant amount of influence, as they both promised to stand by Netanyahu after receiving multiple concessions from Likud previous governments. One bone of contention remains their opposition to the Haredi draft law, which seeks to conscript the ultra-Orthodox into the Israeli army, a duty from which they are currently exempt and staunchly against.


Nearing extinction, a number of Arab parties participated in the elections. The main cause of the electoral catastrophe is the plummeting turnout of Arab-Israeli citizens. The swing to the right of the Jewish public debate summed up to corruption scandals and reported counts of voter suppression, thus fuelling disillusionment with Israeli democracy. Nonetheless, two parties still made it to the Knesset: Hadash-Ta'al, which focuses on supporting Palestinian statehood and advocating for Israel's Arab community, and Balad-Raam, which supports Israel transitioning to being a non-Jewish state.


What were the results?


Netanyahu and Gantz both gained 35 seats, but Netanyahu remains far better positioned to form a majority coalition government as Gantz can count on fewer potential coalition partners. The polls were so tight between the two that Benny Gantz had even given a victory speech upon seeing the exit polls, to only wake up to the bitter news of Netanyahu's victory. In fact, this is Likud's best result out of the past five elections, as an overall 55% of the voters chose to vote for right-wing parties. The left, much like in many states across western democracies, suffered a crushing defeat, with the Labor plunged to a historic low of six seats. This is partially due to the B&W success in draining its traditional left-wing voters by offering a bright new face and a fresh hope of dethroning Netanyahu. Another remarkable result was that of the anti-Arab alliance who made it into the Knesset for the very first time.


What is a likely coalition?


On 13 May 2019, Netanyahu asked and obtained a longer mandate from President Reuven Rivlin to form a ruling coalition. Whilst a two-week extension is the norm, it does shed a light on the delicate balancing act Netanyahu has to play in picking the right cabinet members to maintain a cohesive majority and avoid new snap elections. The most likely coalition on the radar is a pro-Netanyahu bloc, filled with right wing, centre-right and Haredi representatives, who would form a right-wing coalition in parliament. Their first priority would then probably be to pass legislation granting Netanyahu immunity from judicial investigations, while annexing parts the West Bank remains a debatable but daunting possibility. Others have speculated about national unity government with figures of the Blue and White opposition list, the Haredi and some right-wing - but this looks increasingly unlikely.


Indeed, the future of government negotiations is left at the mercy of Likud's allies. In case any of them drops out of the negotiations or resigns later on, Netanyahu will be short of a majority, which would trigger new elections. Negotiations to balance the demands of right-wing parties of varyingly extreme convictions, whilst trying to maintain Netanyahu's beloved status-quo, means walking on thin ice. Yet, Netanyahu has good cards to play as, if fresh elections were called, smaller right-wing parties might suffer a cashback and be forced into a coalition with Likud in a weaker position.


What do these results mean?


Indeed, the right-wing triumphed in this election. The fact that Netanyahu managed to pull through such significant support, despite being in the midst of a corruption scandal, sends a clear signal of where public opinion stands. He was definitely able to capitalise on through bombastic statements, such as the comments on a future annexation of the West Bank, and rubbing shoulders with strongmen like Putin and Trump. The US President, after moving the US Embassy to Jerusalm, went as far as recognising Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights just two weeks before the elections.


However, it could be argued that no candidate proposing effective reforms to change the status quo could believably win. In fact, while the only credible challenger, Benny Gantz, would have represented an innovation with respect to Netanyahu, they both fundamentally agree on the key drivers of Israel domestic design, based on Jewish primacy, and assertive foreign policy, ready to recognise Arab Sunni countries as viable partners against Iran. The argument that these elections are projecting Israel in a far-right extremist path it was not on before seems a little short-sighted considering that the coalition in power will remain the same. Claims that these elections have deadened peace prospects for Israel-Palestine seem blind to the already grim and ever-worsening reality on the ground and the complete absence of dialogue (and credible counterparts) in both the West Bank and Gaza.


The tumultuous road ahead remains for the creation of any viable opposition that offers an alternative path for Israel to eradicate division, inequality and human rights issues, which cannot happen without a rethinking of Israeli identity, institutional setting and regional role. With an ever-changing geopolitical landscape, Netanyahu is picking up more supporters and tightening his grip on maintaining the status quo. As Donald Trump's "Deal of the Century" on the Middle East Peace Process is due for release at the end of Ramadan, Israel-Palestine is the same uphill battle, and it is very much the same driver steering the car - the one and only Bibi the magician.


Immagine: President Donald J. Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel at the United Nations General Assembly (2 ottobre 2017). Crediti: The White House, U.S. Federal Government / Public Domain Mark.


[1] The Knesset is the unicameral parliamentary assembly of Israel, whose system of Government is based on parliamentary democracy.

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