By Eytan Gilboa
Despite pending corruption indictments and a formidable opposition party of three former chiefs of staff, Benjamin Netanyahu won reelection for the fourth time in a row and is likely to become the longest serving prime minister of Israel. He demonstrated again magical capabilities in political communication and election campaigns.
Winning elections in Israel is somewhat elusive. It isn’t sufficient for a party to win the largest number of seats in the Keenest. No party in Israel’s history has won a majority of at least 61 seats required to rule by itself. The largest parties have always needed to build coalition governments in collaboration with other parties. Therefore, winning means first and foremost the ability to form a coalition and assemble a majority vote in the Knesset.
In Israel, the president has the authority to invite a Knesset member to form a coalition. After the results are finalized and declared legal, he consults with all the parties and asks them whom they recommend for the prime minister position. He adds up the recommendations and appoints the candidate who has the best chance to form a coalition government. Usually, the largest party receives first this chance. Thus, winning is more critical at the coalition building level.
There have always been two major blocs of parties in Israel: left and right. Center parties emerged for the first time in 1977, and they collaborated with both the left and the right. Occasionally, especially in time of national security or economic crisis, the two leading parties of the opposite camps established governments of national unity. The last government of this type served from 2009 to 2011, under the leadership of Netanyahu and Labor leader Ehud Barak.
In the 2019 elections, the right bloc headed by Netanyahu confronted a center-left bloc headed jointly by Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff, and Yair Lapid, a former prominent journalist, who served as a Minster of the Treasury in a previous Netanyahu government. They and two other former chiefs of staff, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, established Blue and White, a powerful new alliance of center parties
Two big parties, Likud and Blue and White won each 35 seats but the right bloc has 65 seats and the center-left only 55. Although, these results aren’t final as about 200,000 votes of soldiers, prisoners and official Israeli emissaries abroad have yet to be counted, Netanyahu enjoys a large enough margin over Gantz, and next week President Reuven (Ruvi) Rivlin is likely to ask him to form a new coalition government.
The large and the small parties in the two blocs faced a major dilemma shared by many voters. Both Likud and White and Blue wanted to emerge as the largest party in the Knesset. But this could have been achieved mostly at the expense of the smaller parties in each of their respective camps.
A record of 42 parties participated in the 2019 elections, but only about a third won enough votes to enter the Knesset. The vote threshold is 3.25 percent of the total votes, equivalent to four seats in the Knesset. The polls showed several parties in both blocs scoring around this threshold. The dilemma of the big parties was how to come on top as the largest party without losing the smaller parties in their blocs, which could have diminished their chance to establish a coalition government.
This dilemma had significant implications for the respective campaigns. Usually, the large parties attack each other, but since they wished to win as many seats as possible they also had to compete with the smaller parties in their own camps. The smaller parties wanted the large party of their camp to win more seats than the rival large party, but at same time they had to fight for their own survival. Netanyahu partially solved this dilemma by moderating his campaign against the small parties in his right bloc, and by orchestrating a voting alliance between an extreme right party, “Jewish Power” and the “Jewish Home” party. He was severely criticized for using this measure.
The smaller parties in the center-left bloc were more critical of the leading Blue and White. Labor, for example, appealed to voters by saying that Gantz and Lapid may join a new Netanyahu government, and therefore vote for them could be a vote for another Netanyahu government, while they have promised not to do so under any circumstances. This strategy failed. Similarly, many voters in both camps didn’t know until the last minute whether to vote for a small party they like most or for the largest party in the camp which may have a better chance to form a coalition government.
The results showed that the election strategies of the two largest parties worked, while those of the smaller parties failed. Likud and Blue and White both “sucked” votes from the smaller parties inside their respective camps. Labor went down from 24 seats in the previous Knesset to only 6 in the next one. Several parties were on the verge of extinction.
Much of the election campaign was negative, sometime vicious and often personal. Netanyahu used his own online channel (Likud TV) and the social media to conduct an aggressive campaign against Gantz and sometimes against leaders of parties in his own bloc, like Naftali Bennet, the head of the New Right party. After the elections however, the personal attacks are quickly forgotten and former rivals are happy to negotiate terms for building a coalition.
The exact makeup of the new government, the allocation of ministries and appointment of senior officials will take time. Negotiations with potential coalition partners, responding to their diverse and sometimes conflicting demands, and signing an agreement on joint political, social and economic agenda and legislation initiatives are often complicated. Only after the establishment of the new coalition, we will know where Israel would be heading in the next few years.
Professor Eytan Gilboa is director of the Center for International Communication at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and currently serves as Israel Institute Visiting professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, the University of Pennsylvania.