2019 early parliamentary elections in Israel: Has the Netanyahu era come to its end?

The International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses events in the Middle East and the Balkans.IFIMES has prepared an analysis of the situation in Israel in view of the upcoming early parliamentary elections scheduled for 9 April 2019. The most relevant and interesting sections from the comprehensive analysis entitled “2019 early parliamentary elections in Israel: Has the Netanyahu era come to its end?” are published below.

2019 early parliamentary elections in Israel:


Has the Netanyahu era come to its end? 


Israel has scheduled early parliamentary elections for 9 April 2019, when 120 members will be elected to the Israeli parliament (Knesset). The winning coalition will form the 35th government since the country proclaimed its independence in 1948. At the elections 48 political parties will compete for seats in the Knesset. The main fight will be between the incumbent Prime MinisterBenjamin Netanyahu with his right-wing political party Likud on one hand, and the Blue and White alliance led by army generalBenny Gantz and Yair Lapid on the other hand.


Israel's first national elections were held in January 1949, and the newly elected lawmakers changed the name of the Constituent Assembly to the Knesset. The strongest party at that time was the labour party, which remained in power till 1977 when the Likud party took over the reigns of power for the first time.


Israeli political party spectrum is marked by fragmentation, merging of small parties and formation of coalitions before every general or early election in order to reach the electoral threshold for the Knesset. Coalitions are usually formed between the parties from one political spectrum that share common goals and opinions about the political, social and economic situation in the country.  The coalition parties also have a common position on the key issues regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict such as the status of Jerusalem, the future Palestinian state and the return of refugees who left Israel during the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948.


Elections in Israel are based on the nationwide proportional representation, with the entire country representing a single constituency. The election threshold is 3.25%, which is usually equal to at least four seats, while in some cases a party  may only receive three seats.


The leaders of the incumbent ruling coalition unanimously decided to dissolve the parliament and call early elections following the resignation of Defence Minister Avigdor  Liberman in November 2018, when they lost the majority in parliament (61/120) after five MPs from Liberman's Yisrael Beiteinuparty left the coalition. Lieberman resigned because he opposed the ceasefire concluded between the Israeli government and the Palestinian movement Hamas. The second reason for his resignation was the weakening of the coalition due to the proposal for the new army legislation regulating army enlistment of Orthodox Jews, and the third reason were Israeli police investigations against Prime Minister Netanyahu related to several corruption cases. After the elections Israel's Attorney General will most probably indict Netanyahu and his wife on charges of corruption. Israeli legislation does not oblige the prime minister to resign after an indictment is filed.


Benjamin Netanyahu probably believes that his re-election and the new term in office will strengthen his position even in case the indictment is filed. However, he has very few chances to avoid responsibility and imprisonment in case of a final judgement. The Israel's developed, democratic and independent judiciary is known for its full separation from the executive branch of power. Thus, in 2011 Israeli President Moshe Katzav was sentenced to seven years in prison, and in 2014 former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced to six years in prison.


The three generals against Netanyahu


April elections are probably the most important political event of the last decade in Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu is competing for the fifth term in office and will be written in the history of the Jewish state as the longest-serving prime minister. His strongest challenger is the newly established Blue and White alliance (Kahol-Lavan) or the so called coalition of generals. Three former Israeli army chiefs have committed to end the Netanyahu's era. All three generals are former chiefs of staff: the candidate for prime minister Benny Gantz, the head of the Telem party and former Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon, and Gabi Ashkenazi.


General Benny Gantz is the leader of the Blue and White alliance and president of Israel ResilienceParty whose programme promises to continue strengthening the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in light of the Zionist vision, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, while determining and changing the national priorities on the following subjects: education, national infrastructure development, agriculture, law and internal security, welfare policy, and peace and security.


The coalition of generals with strong military technical knowledge is complemented by the Yesh Atid party (There is a future) led by former finance minister and journalist Yair Lapid who was promised the prime minister function in the second half of the office, if the coalition forms the new government.The new political block brings both new and old rules and unwritten codes into Israeli politics. The old rules comprise the military prestige of political leaders, which is the main topic of the election campaign and an important factor for the election of the future prime minister. Another old code is the continuation of the left-wing tradition which had started with Ben Gurion. Former leader of the strong national trade union Histadrut Avi Nissenkorn, who represents Israeli working class, is also high on the list of candidates.


It is hard to define the coalition in the sense of the traditional right-left political spectrum.Of course, Netanyahu's election campaign tries to present the Blue and White alliance politicians as the left-wing coalition, but the reality is much more complicated. Yair Lapid is a centralist politician, while Moshe Ya'alon is a right-wing conservative and former general.


Peace with the Palestinians in the foreground


In view of the above stated it can be said that the Blue and White alliance advocates a more social economy-oriented politics than Likud. It also has a more professional approach to military affairs than the currently ruling party or the Israeli right-wing parties in general.  While Netanyahu's politics are focused on Iran and on the revenge after the potential Iranian attack at Israel, Gantz and his team show a more flexible position on the issue of peace with the Palestinians. Previous experiences have shown that only the strong political leaders with military background have made important steps to reach peace with the Palestinians – such as Yitzhak Rabin with the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians and Ariel Sharon with the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Gantz's government would try to continue the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, since this represents the main barrier for the normalisation and development of diplomatic, economic and strategic cooperation with moderate Arab states, especially the Gulf States (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar).


The main political split and polarisation have already become obvious ahead of the forthcoming elections: on one side there are Israeli right-wing and religious parties such as Likud and other minor parties, and on the other side there is the Blue and White alliance with some small left-wing parties.


In any case, the election results will be very tight. According to some public opinion polls Netanyahu's coalition will win 30 seats while Gantz will get from 36 to 38 seats in the new parliament. Nevertheless, this slight advantage does not mean Gantz will easily form the new government, since the law stipulates that the mandate to form the government is not necessarily given to the leader of the largest party, but to the coalition which the President of the State believes and decides to have the best possibilities to form the government.


In order to form the government Gantz needs a more decisive victory than the current polls have forecasted. Moreover, there are possibilities for splits in the right-wing block. The latter has all the chances to win the election, although none of the right-wing party leaders have rejected the possibility to joint Netanyahu's coalition. In the past decade there were many cases of severe disagreements between right-wing party leaders after winning the elections and during the formation of the government.  The right-wing of the Blue and White coalition can gain some small right-wing parties that want to be in the government at any cost and not end up in the opposition.


Has the Netanyahu era come to its end? 


Netanyahu has recently been indicted of three cases of corruption, which will affect his popularity and the election campaign.  However, this aspect has been overrated in international media, since it will not massively dissuade the right-oriented and conservative Israelis from voting for Netanyahu solely on the grounds of those corruption charges. No indictment can be expected before the elections. Israeli voters' opinions are mostly influenced by security and social issues. The judiciary power is completely independent and will not be misused for narrow political goals. That is why Israel's Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit decided that the eventual indictment would certainly be filed after the elections.


The forthcoming elections will definitely change the composition of the Knesset and the future government. The balance of power between the right- and left-wing is well known and will not come as a surprise.   But the question is whether Netanyahu's era in Israel has come to its end? Will he be superseded by the new political leadership comprised of former Israeli army chiefs and the pragmatic politician of Serbian origin Yair Lapid (the son of former politician Tommy Lapid).


Eventual changes in the government will not affect the country's foreign and security policy. However, the end of Netanyahu's era will give birth to a new Israel, as has already been seen in the past after Begin, Shamir, Rabin and Sharon.  The successors were different from their predecessors in many aspects.


Ljubljana, 8 April 2019