On 9 April, Israelis will go to the polls to elect a new 120-member Knesset (parliament). Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of Likud, called the snap election last December amid increasing infighting within his right-wing ruling coalition. He had publicly expressed hope of serving out all four years of his fourth term, which began in 2015. This would have made him the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, beating the record of the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, who held the office for a cumulative 14 years. But Netanyahu is now fighting for his political life, and for his freedom.
Most European countries likely hope that a new centrist leadership will improve their relations with Israel
The push for an early election
Netanyahu’s move towards an early election took few observers by surprise. Since December 2016, he has been at the centre of three separate police investigations into alleged fraud, bribery, and breaches of public trust. If found guilty, he could serve jail time – as one of his predecessors, Ehud Olmert, did on similar charges.
With the investigative net closing around him, Netanyahu appears to have seen an early election as his last “get out of jail free” card. An election victory could allow him to make the case that a renewed democratic mandate should take precedence over the investigations – that, since the Israeli public knew of the allegations, it would be anti-democratic of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to prosecute him. For now, Netanyahu has succeeded in delaying formal indictments against him until after the election. A new government could potentially allow him to push through legislation that shields him from a future trial.
Yet the spectre of imminent prosecution was not the only factor that pushed Israel into a new election. Accusations that the government was being too soft in response to unrest in Gaza led to the resignation of then defence minister Avigdor Lieberman and his right-wing party Yisrael Beiteinu – leaving Netanyahu’s coalition with only one seat between it and the loss of its Knesset majority. The prospect of a divisive fight over new legislation on ultra-orthodox military enlistment threatened to further erode the ruling coalition.
Netanyahu has had a transformational effect on Israel by promoting a mixture of right-wing Jewish nationalism and anti-establishment populism. His outgoing government, widely viewed as the most right-wing in Israel’s history, has overseen a gradual rightward shift in Israeli politics and society.
Domestically, Netanyahu’s government has tried to constrain what it calls the judiciary’s “liberal activism” by advancing legislation that would prevent the Supreme Court from striking down laws it deems unconstitutional. The government has also sought to restrict and discredit left-wing civil society groups, many of which continue to fiercely speak out against Israeli policies in the occupied territories. And it has extended Israeli law to settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, de facto annexing these areas to Israel. Simultaneously, the government has exploited – and, in many instances, actively promoted – anti-Arab sentiment.
Perhaps its most controversial action has been to push for a law, passed in July 2018, that characterises Israel as a Jewish nation state. Critics of the law allege that it puts the country’s Jewishness ahead of its democratic character, downgrading the status of its non-Jewish citizens, particularly its Arab community.
Netanyahu has also raised Israel’s international profile. At the heart of this approach has been an unprecedented alignment with the US under President Donald Trump. And, during Netanyahu’s premiership, Israel has made significant diplomatic and economic inroads into Africa, South America, Asia, and, perhaps most noticeably, the Gulf. The country has leveraged shared antipathy towards Tehran – including through strong support for Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal – to gradually normalise its relationships with Gulf Arab states, despite having no official ties with them. Netanyahu’s October 2018 visit to Oman highlights these shifts in regional dynamics, as does recent criticism of the Arab world’s refusal to establish relations with Israel from Anwar Gargash, the Emirati foreign minister.
This diplomatic campaign has come at the expense of efforts to resolve Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians through a two-state solution, a project that Netanyahu has historically opposed and now delayed indefinitely. The Trump administration has given Israel tacit permission to advance its settlement project in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel sees the administration’s May 2018 decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, as important diplomatic victories (despite the fact that both moves are in violation of international law and past UN Security Council resolutions).
Netanyahu has also largely succeeded in neutralising European policy on the Middle East peace process. He has achieved this partly through an emerging alliance with right-leaning European governments such as those in Hungary, Romania, and the Czech Republic, which have blocked EU action in the area. Yet this effort to divide EU countries has soured Israel’s relations with western European states.
The death of leftist politics and the rise of the generals
During Netanyahu’s fourth term, the Israeli left has faced an existential crisis, with the Labour Party’s share of Knesset seats projected to drop. The collapse of the left is due to both the strong rightward shift in Israeli life and the perceived weakness of the party’s leadership. Labour has attempted to recover its former position by moving to the right – adopting Likud’s talking points on security, the Palestinian issue, and foreign policy – but this has not worked. The left’s decline seemed to have removed any real political opposition to Netanyahu.
Nonetheless, his hopes of a relatively unchallenged re-election run were dashed when retired general and former military chief of staff Benny Gantz announced his candidacy. Gantz merged his recently founded Hosen L’Yisrael with centrist party Yesh Atid, led by former TV presenter Yair Lapid, to form the Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) Alliance. The group has since been joined by former defence minister Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi (both of whom are retired generals and former chiefs of staff).
Kahol Lavan has, however, avoided running a policy-heavy campaign, preferring to instead focus on personality politics. One consequence of this is that its political ideology has been difficult to pin down: while Netanyahu has attacked it for being “weak, leftist”, the group’s membership is firmly rooted in centrist and centre-right politics, and there are several right-wing figures on its electoral list.
Main themes of the election campaign
Israel has developed a love-hate relationship with Netanyahu during his cumulative 13 years in power. Many Israelis see Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, as having used the premiership to amass personal power and wealth. The Israeli media is filled with salacious stories detailing her alleged abuse of government staff and predilection for extravagant uses of state funds – which are also subject to a police investigation. Yet many Israelis credit the prime minister with having protected the country and improved its international standing. In recent polls, he has regularly outperformed other candidates in favourability ratings.
The election has become a race between Likud and Kahol Lavan. However, smaller parties on both the left and right will play an important role in the formation of the next government. Given that several of these parties are currently hovering around the electoral threshold for entering the Knesset, there is currently a large degree of uncertainty about the new political landscape that will emerge on 9 April.
Future policy direction
Regardless of whether Netanyahu stays or goes, there is unlikely to be a substantial break in Israel’s foreign policy trajectory under the new government, even if there are some noticeable cosmetic changes to it. Most European countries likely hope that a new centrist leadership will improve their relations with Israel, which have suffered under Netanyahu, and will provide new openings for engagement between them. And, to a certain extent, this hope may be fulfilled. But it would be wrong to expect a radical shift in, for example, the Middle East peace process.
Both Kahol Lavan and Labour have broadly echoed Likud’s rhetoric on Syria, the dangers of the Iran nuclear deal, and the need to reduce Tehran’s regional influence. And, like Likud, these parties have moved away from the established parameters of a two-state solution and de-prioritised the resolution of the Palestinian issue. Asked about peace in a recent interview, Gantz said: “we must maintain the Jordan Valley as our eastern security border; we can’t withdraw to the ’67 lines as we knew them … and Jerusalem will forever stay the united, in practice capital of Israel.”
A new plan proposed by the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies may provide a template for a centrist policy on the Palestinians and generate hope of an Israeli drive for peace under Gantz and Lapid. But, ultimately, this could be more akin to a shift in rhetoric than to a bold course correction towards meaningful negotiations on a two-state solution. In this situation, Israel will continue moving towards a one-state reality that is destructive for all sides, with unequal rights for Palestinians living under Israeli military control.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.