Politics & Policy

The Polls Are Tight, but Netanyahu Is Still Likely to Secure Another Term

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Gali Tibbon/Pool via Reuters)
The more important question, for both Israel and the U.S., is what comes after next week’s Knesset elections.

The Israeli people might be ready to rid themselves of Benjamin Netanyahu as their prime minister after ten years and three consecutive terms in office.

Netanyahu is headed into next week’s Knesset elections burdened by three pending corruption indictments and the ennui that any politician engenders after such a long career in the national spotlight. The Likud party leader’s problems are compounded by the fact that his chief rival, Benny Gantz, is widely respected and carries no political baggage. Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, heads a new coalition, the Blue and White party, which includes three former top Israeli generals as well as the country’s leading centrist party, headed by former journalist Yair Lapid.

Until a few weeks ago, Gantz’s Blue and White seemed perfectly situated to take advantage of Netanyahu’s legal woes and the collapse of the once-dominant Labor party. But with only a week to go before the voters make their choice, Gantz’s prospects have dimmed. While polls show that the Blue and White and Likud are still locked in a tight race for first place in the multi-party election, even if his party wins the most seats in the next Knesset, Gantz’s chances of putting together a viable governing coalition appear to be remote. The variables involved in Israel’s complicated proportional-voting system will be decisive, and the most likely outcomes all involve Netanyahu remaining in power.

The key to understanding how Israel elects its leaders is in its proportional-voting scheme, which has voters cast one ballot choosing one party from a number of different options. Those parties among the many running for the Knesset that get at least 3.25 percent of the votes cast get a proportional share of the 120 seats in the parliament. But the latest polls give 14 separate parties, including the Likud and the Blue and White, a reasonable chance at getting past that mark, and no party in Israel’s 70 years of independence has ever received a majority. Which means that winning the election is not so much a function of finishing first as it is of the ability to put together a 61-seat coalition.

That’s why Gantz’s chances of succeeding Netanyahu remain dismal despite his coalition’s small lead over Likud in the current average of major Israeli opinion polls.

As things stand now, the smaller far-right and religious parties that are aligned with Netanyahu and Likud stand to win anywhere from 63 to 69 seats. While only a quarter of Israelis are likely to choose the Likud, a clear majority will probably vote for either Netanyahu’s slate or one that is pledged to help him form a government. By contrast, Gantz seems to have no hope of amassing a coalition of like-minded or merely anti-Netanyahu parties that could get to 61 seats.

There’s no mystery about why Netanyahu and his allies are likely to amass a comfortable majority.

While the corruption charges lodged against him would seem to be disqualifying, the prime minister’s supporters see them as either of negligible importance or politically motivated. No one can deny that under his stewardship, the country’s economy has grown and thrived. And most importantly, there is a consensus that stretches from the center-left to the center-right that his caution about the peace process is warranted.

Indeed, the reason why Blue and White has replaced the more left-wing Labor party as the main focus of opposition to Netanyahu is because Gantz’s stands on the peace process are virtually identical to those of the prime minister. Sure, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo in the West Bank, but most Israelis believe that allowing an independent Palestinian state there would create a disaster akin to the one that unfolded after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

Though most Israelis are comfortable with Netanyahu’s strategy of managing the status quo while eschewing vain efforts to resolve a problem they regard as insoluble at the moment, President Trump’s itch to broker the “ultimate deal” in the Middle East could have a huge impact on post-election negotiations to form a governing majority. Trump’s White House would clearly prefer that Netanyahu remain in power. But the Middle East peace deal that his foreign-policy team has put together and plans to unveil some time after the Israeli election will have a major impact on Netanyahu’s hopes of assembling a government: The close relationship between the two leaders will almost certainly be tested by allies to Netanyahu’s right, who can be expected to pressure him to say no to some aspects of Trump’s proposal.

That Trump’s peace plan will fail seems certain. The Palestinian Authority has already indicated its refusal to accept anything from a Trump administration so closely allied with Israel. P.A. president Mahmoud Abbas has already rejected far more generous schemes than those likely to be offered by Trump because they involved recognition of the legitimacy of a Jewish state. Confident that Abbas will again reject a U.S. peace offer, Netanyahu is intent on backing Trump even if some aspects of the plan drawn up by Jared Kushner are unacceptable to the prime minister’s right-wing allies. That’s why he’s likely to want his next coalition to be more centrist, lending weight to speculation that he will seek to make a deal with Gantz rather than his existing partners. If Gantz refuses to play ball, Netanyahu will be right back where he started, caught between the White House and an Israeli right inclined to reject Trump’s plan no matter what.

The more significant question is whether another Netanyahu government would undermine the still-robust support for Israel in the United States. Netanyahu can count on the ongoing affection of conservative American Jews and Christians who strongly support the Jewish state. But he is broadly unpopular among liberal American Jews and Democrats more generally, who sympathize with the Israeli left.

While Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both sought at one time to persuade Israeli voters to defeat Netanyahu, Trump has done the opposite, making gestures — such as the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the recent acceptance of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights — that were as broadly popular with the Israeli public as he himself is. But there is little doubt that any of the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders will take a dimmer view of Netanyahu in particular and Israel in general should they defeat Trump next year. Since, unless his legal troubles force him from office, a reelected Netanyahu would still be prime minister in 2021, a Trump loss could easily set up a crisis in relations between the two nations.

That said, it would be a mistake to think such a crisis could be averted by Netanyahu’s defeat next week. The policies of Gantz would not differ much in substance from those of the prime minister. The gap between the views of most Democrats and those of most Israeli voters is such that the future of the U.S.–Israel relationship will rest more on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election than on the outcome of the election Israelis hold next week.

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