The New Israel Fund will provide you with regular updates on what you need to know about the most important issues facing Israeli democracy playing out in the 2020 Knesset elections.
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Israel’s Third Round: More Deadlock
On March 2, Israelis cast their ballots for the third time in twelve months. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party earned 36 seats, while the Blue and White Party, led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, earned 33.
On election night, Netanyahu called the preliminary results “a victory against all odds.” However, the initial appearance of a near-majority win for Likud’s right-wing bloc faded as more votes were tallied.
That’s because in Israeli politics, the “winner” is not determined by the party with the largest number of votes. What matters is whether a party can assemble a coalition of at least 61 out of 120 Knesset seats. While Likud improved its standing since September, there was no clear victor on Monday. For the third time, a majority eluded Netanyahu.
With 99.9% of votes counted, the right-wing bloc of Likud, the ultra-Orthodox parties, and the far-right parties garnered 58 mandates, three seats short of a majority. The center-left bloc, led by Gantz, commands 55.
Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Israel Beiteinu Party remains a “kingmaker,” able to make or break a majority with his seven seats. He recently indicated his intention to recommend Gantz to form the next government, making it clear he favors ending Netanyahu’s time as prime minister.
By that measure, the only majority in the Knesset is a 62-seat anti-Netanyahu majority.
Facing inconvenient results, Netanyahu has tried to spin the result as Likud having won a “Jewish majority.” Gathering his right-wing bloc in Knesset for a televised meeting, Netanyahu portrayed his 36 seats as a victory by tallying up the results by blocs, while leaving out all of the Arab MKs of the Joint List. Netanyahu’s racist and undemocratic trick of subtraction suggested that the opposition has only 47 seats (rather than 55).
He further claimed that any attempt to oppose his premiership — whether by trying to form a minority government or pass a bill that would prevent any indicted MK from serving as prime minister — was “subverting the will of the people.”
But Netanyahu cannot so easily wipe away the actual results. Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, responded to Netanyanu in an interview, “I’ll teach you what democracy is: it’s government by the majority of citizens, not the majority of the Jewish [citizens].” In constitutional terms, there is no such thing as a “Jewish majority.”
So what was different this time around? Voter turnout was the highest since 1999.
Likud rallied. In the final weeks of the campaign, Netanyahu made the case that Likud could attain a majority by turning out the 300,000 Likud voters who stayed at home in September. On election day, Likud’s lead over Blue and White was partly delivered by those voters who skipped last election, in addition to votes drawn from rival right-wing parties.
Arab voters turned out. Nearly 65% of Arab citizens voted in this election, a significant increase over the 49% last April and 59% in September. Despite a full year of unrelenting demonization by the right-wing voices, chief among them Netanyahu, the Joint List won a record-breaking 15 seats, making it the third largest party. Voter turnout in the Triangle (the areas envisioned by the Trump plan as being “transferred” out of Israel) was especially high, as voters were presumably motivated by the prospect of being kicked out of their own country.
New Lows. In the final week of the campaign, the Likud engaged in what the Israeli media is calling “mafia-style tactics,” some of which violated Israeli election laws, and which may have contributed to Likud’s advantage over Blue and White.
- Doctored video: Likud published a doctored video of Benny Gantz. In the original, he calls on Israelis to vote for Blue and White, but in the doctored version, he appears to call on Israelis not to vote for Blue and White. Israeli election law bars campaigns from publishing disinformation, and the Central Election Commission ordered Likud to remove the misleading video.
- Secret recordings: Reportedly, Netanyahu, via his personal lawyer, orchestrated the surreptitious recording of a Blue and White campaign adviser. According to the report, Netanyahu contracted with an Israeli business intelligence firm to gather damaging information about his rival. Just days before the election, a recording of the Blue and White adviser calling Gantz “a danger to the people of Israel” was leaked to the press. Israeli law enforcement is opening a criminal investigation into the matter.
- False Accounts: The Democratic Bloc, an NGO that monitors anti-democratic trends in Israel, uncovered 15 suspicious Facebook profiles linked suppressing Arab voters and encouraging them not to vote, including by spreading rumors about Arab MKs’ personal lives. At the request of the Democratic Bloc, Facebook removed seven of the accounts.
- Blackmail: To form a majority of 61, Netanyahu needs three individual MKs to defect to the right-wing camp. In an effort to entice Blue and White MK Omer Yankelevich, Likud has reportedly threatened to leak sensitive personal information about her unless she joins a Likud government.
The Central Elections Commission will deliver the final tally to President Reuven Rivlin on March 10. Given the split results, it’s not clear to whom Rivlin will give the first chance to form the next government.
If it’s Netanyahu, we can expect that he will seek — by any means necessary — to assemble a right-wing government that delivers annexation in the West Bank in exchange for blunting the legal proceedings against him.
In this Groundhog Day election, prior rounds have already told us what we can expect as the basis for a right wing government led by Netanyahu: assaults on the judiciary, including a bill to override the Supreme Court, and possible attempts to replace the Attorney General with a more pliant one who might indefinitely delay Netanyahu’s criminal proceedings.
This entire process will unfold as Netanyahu takes the stand in his criminal trial for charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of public trust, set to begin on March 17. If the Israeli public can count on anything, it’s that Prime Minister Netanyahu, emboldened by a few more Knesset seats, will do everything in his power to subvert that judicial process.
NIF Director of Policy and Strategy