Israel’s Election Sticks Netanyahu Between Indictments And Gridlocked Government

Benjamin Netanyahu failed to get a clear victory in Israel's vote. What happens now?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not concede defeat after the country’s election on Tuesday, but when he took the stage in Tel Aviv following the vote to address a few hundred supporters, it was clear that he had lost something. As he vowed to wait until the final results of the deadlocked election, he blamed the media, Arab parties, the left ― everyone but himself.

Israel’s election ended with a tie between Netanyahu’s Likud party and the centrist Blue and White party led by former military officer Benny Gantz. Each won around 25% of the vote with most of the ballots counted. Neither will achieve a majority and neither has any clear path to forming a coalition, leaving the country in a political stalemate for the second time this year after an election in April failed to form a government. The next step will be a scramble between parties for alliances as President Reuven Rivlin decides in the coming days which leader will get the first chance to form a governing coalition. 

Netanyahu now faces one of the direst situations of his political career ― and one that could end his run as Israel’s longest-serving leader. He is also facing criminal indictments for fraud, bribery and breach of trust that could land him in jail if he lacks the immunity given to the prime minister’s office. 

He may even have to deal with possible backlash and calls for a change in leadership within his own party if the gridlock drags on, and will be forced to negotiate with bitter rival and ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, who is set to win enough seats to play kingmaker for a potential next government. The two have clashed over Netanyahu’s inclusion of ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties in his coalition, and Lieberman rejected an offer from Netanyahu to become defense minister following elections in April.

Although it’s possible Netanyahu finds a way to stay in office ― potentially in a unity government that shares rotating leadership with Gantz ― the election suggested that his power to eke out victories is slipping away. Netanyahu resorted to desperate measures in the final stretch of the campaign, vowing to annex large parts of the West Bank, playing on far-right nationalist sentiment, ignoring election laws and attempting voter suppression measures. Facebook suspended an automated messaging bot on his official page a week before the vote for hate speech after it spread warnings of “a secular leftwing weak government that relies on Arabs who want to destroy us all – women, children and men.” 

Although it’s possible Netanyahu finds a way to stay in office, the election suggested that his power to eke out victories is slipping away.

Netanyahu essentially doubled down on his campaign from the election earlier this year, which featured him denouncing the corruption allegations against him as a “witch hunt,” aligning with racist and homophobic far-right parties to prop up his bid and stating that “Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people – and only it.”

This time around, Netanyahu again targeted Israel’s Arab minority as he warned they would steal the election, and he attempted to pass a law that would have allowed filming at polling stations. Likud officials even claimed on Election Day to have installed facial recognition cameras at voting stations in Arab areas, but Israeli media disparaged their accounts as inaccurate and intended to intimidate voters.  

Netanyahu also leaned heavily on his relationship with President Donald Trump during the campaign, posturing himself as the only candidate who could extract favorable deals and policies from the White House. A Trump 2020 flag waved in the crowd during Netanyahu’s speech after the vote. He additionally visited Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the weeks before the election, and as he has done in previous campaigns, tried to present himself as an indispensable figure on the world stage. 

But faced with intensifying corruption scandals, a more united opposition and waning appeal, Netanyahu could not pull off the same last-minute surge that has saved him in the past. His repeated attacks against Israel’s Arab population may have also backfired, as turnout among Arab voters increased over 10% from the last election. The leader of the coalition of Arab parties, Ayman Odeh, took a jab at Netanyahu after the vote by saying “incitement has its price.” 

The next few weeks, and potentially months, could determine whether Netanyahu winds up as prime minister or prisoner, with his pretrial hearing in the corruption cases scheduled for the start of October. On Wednesday, Netanyahu canceled a trip to speak at the United Nations and meet with Trump to focus on his problems at home. His rival Lieberman has reiterated calls for a unity government following the election, but Gantz has previously rejected serving in such an administration as long as Netanyahu is facing indictment. If no government can be formed, Israel will head into an even more unstable future as it is forced to hold a third election in less than a year.

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