Netanyahu’s Final Act?6 min read

For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, much like those affected by the novel

Coronavirus, the only goal is to survive. Mr. Netanyahu, the leader of the conservative Likud

Party, has thus far survived corruption allegations and three elections to decide his fate. After

elections in April and September of 2019, both his Likud Party and the centrist Blue and White

party were unable to form a successful governing coalition. A third election held last month still

has not yielded a clear path forward. This instability has come partly as a result of Israel’s

Proportional Representation electoral system, which gives small parties with very diverse

interests significant influence in coalition building. Given the outbreak of the Coronavirus in

Israel, the political instability of Israel looks unlikely to subside in the near future.

To give some background into Israel’s electoral system, citizens elect members of

parliament through a Proportional Representation (PR) system. In Israel, there are no separate

electoral districts; the entire country forms one district (Reynolds 57). While this electoral

system minimizes the number of wasted votes and is highly proportional, it can lead to highly

fractured parliaments. In fact, no party in Israel has ever obtained a majority on its own

(Ibrahim). Indeed, there are a number of very conservative religious parties that are often in

coalitions, giving them a significant voice and making coalitions difficult to maintain (Reynolds

59). In fact, Israel’s election in April 2019 came early partly a result of a disagreement between

Likud and conservative religious parties over a bill for military service exemption in orthodox

communities (Sachs).

In April 2019, Israel held elections for its 120 member Knesset. As mentioned earlier, the

election was originally scheduled for a later date, but disputes led the government to call an early

election. The results were highly close, with Likud winning 26% of the vote and 35 seats, while

Blue and White also earned 35 seats. At the time, it appeared that Likud would be able to form a

majority with other conservative and religious parties, giving Netanyahu a record fifth term as

prime minister (Lubell). However, Likud was unable to form a legislative majority. A number of

MPs were skeptical of joining a coalition with Netanyahu, who had been accused of corruption,

including accepting expensive gifts from influential members of society and offering favors in

exchange for favorable press (Benjamin Netanyahu: What Are the Corruption Charges). Hence,

new elections were called in September.

The second election in September did not provide any clearer results. Blue and White

earned 33 seats in the Knesset, while Likud earned 31. Despite attempts by Netanyahu to woo

right-wing voters, including launching an escalation in the Gaza Strip, no coalition was formed

(Sachs). In fact, Netanyahu’s rhetoric may have boosted turnout from Arab voters opposed to his

plans, leading to further fracturing of the Knesset (Bateman 2019). After more failed

negotiations, an unprecedented third round of elections were called for the following March.

After the third election in March, Blue and White’s coalition finally won a majority of

seats. Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue and White, was able to form a 61-seat coalition with an

Arab party coalition, an ultranationalist party, and a few left-wing parties (Holmes). This

coalition was from the start problematic as Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the ultra-nationalist

Yisrael Beiteinu party, said he would never form a government with Arab legislators (Holmes).

In spite of their policy differences, the coalition formed due to their common goal of ousting

Netanyahu and putting him on trial. During this time, Gantz proposed legislation that would

disqualify Mr. Netanyahu from serving as prime minister due to his corruption charges

(Goldenberg).

However, as the Coronavirus worsened in Israel, Gantz changed his mind and struck a

deal with Netanyahu in a power-sharing scheme. Gantz, despite his previous pledge to never

form a coalition with Netanyahu, agreed to allow Netanyahu to remain as prime minister for 18

months but face a corruption trial in the future. As a result, many in Gantz’s coalition denounced

him and left the party (Bateman 2020). As of April 13th, the two sides still had not reached a

deal and asked for extension. If no deal is reached, the Knesset has 21 days to approve a new

prime minister. Failing that, a fourth election will be called (Kershner).

The highly volatile year of Israeli politics illustrates the downside of Proportional

Representation. Israel is especially vulnerable to extremist parties, making coalitions very

unstable. A party that earns the minimum threshold of 1.5% to earn seats in the Knesset can

make the difference in forming a coalition (Reynolds 60). This, in theory, can create benefits,

especially if the party represents a historically overlooked minority. In the case of Israel,

however, the demands of small, niche parties have made forming a coalition a nightmare. Now,

in a public health emergency, the cracks of their electoral system are showing. Israel’s lack of

leadership and inability to form a government will undoubtedly harm their response to the

Coronavirus.

Moving forward, despite the rather stable results of the last 3 elections, a fourth election

may look vastly different. Support for both Likud and Blue and White had been fixed at around

25-30% of the vote, but the collapse of Blue and White may give Likud the ability to capitalize

on weaker opposition. There is also the question of Coronavirus. In this case, who citizens blame

will matter greatly in their vote choice. Voters may look to Netanyahu as a stable leader, his

many faults aside, because of his lengthy tenure. With a fresh mandate on power, Netanyahu

may absolve any corruption charges against him and continue to reshape Israel. To do so would

be an incredible feat, one that few pundits saw possible. This begs the question: are Israelis

willing to vote for autocracy?

Works Cited:

Bateman, Tom. “Israel Election: Netanyahu Rival Gantz ‘Agrees Emergency Unity

Government’.” BBC News, BBC, 26 Mar. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-

52057177.

Bateman, Tom. “Israeli Elections: What Do the Results Reveal?” BBC News, BBC, 21 Sept.

2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49768172.

“Benjamin Netanyahu: What Are the Corruption Charges?” BBC News, BBC, 21 Nov. 2019,

www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-47409739.

Goldenberg, Tia. “Netanyahu, Rival Report ‘Meaningful Progress’ in Unity Talks.” AP NEWS,

Associated Press, 13 Apr. 2020, apnews.com/d8b5279b8a84c694b1a66b3c338abfe1.

Holmes, Oliver. “Israel’s Opposition Head Benny Gantz Wins Support to Form Government.”

The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15 Mar. 2020,

www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/15/israels-opposition-head-benny-gantz-winssupport-

to-form-government.

Ibrahim, Arwa. “Israel Election: Five Key Things to Know.” Palestine News | Al Jazeera, Al

Jazeera, 11 Sept. 2019, www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/israeli-general-election-

190910070711397.html.

Kershner, Isabel. “Israeli Election Rivals Seek Deadline Extension to Form Unity Government.”

The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Apr. 2020,

www.nytimes.com/2020/04/13/world/middleeast/israel-election-netanyahu-gantz.html.

Lubell, Maayan. “Explainer: Israeli Election – with the Final Count in, Who Won and Who

Lost?” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 12 Apr. 2019, www.reuters.com/article/us-israelelection-

parties-explainer/explainer-israeli-election-with-the-final-count-in-who-wonand-

who-lost-idUSKCN1RO1IC.

Reynolds, Andrew, et al. Electoral System Design: The New International IDEA Handbook.

International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2008.

Sachs, Natan. “The End of Netanyahu’s Unchecked Reign.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media

Company, 19 Sept. 2019, www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/09/israel-steps-backtwo-

brinks/598384/.

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