Image Source: Vox
The Israeli 2019 election was not an average election. Prime Minister Netanyahu faces indictments for numerous corruption charges. However if his Likud party were to achieve enough votes to elect him as Prime Minister, Netanyahu would become Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister. In this manner the Israeli 2019 elections were a referendum on Netanyahu, and whether the Prime Minister’s crimes were enough to outweigh his popularity among Israelis and his campaigning skills.
This election was also preceded by the passage of the Nation-State Basic Law a year before, which maintained that Jewish citizens are the only ones with the natural right to self-determination in Israel (effectively demoting non-Jewish citizens to second-class status).
A few days before the vote, Netanyahu announced that, if re-elected, he would officially annex portions of the West Bank, a flagrant violation of international law. As such, this election year was also a referendum on minority rights, the peace process, the rule of law, and the strength of the Israeli right overall.
The main opposition to Netanyahu in this election did not come from the historic Labor party. Instead former IDF cheif Benjamin Gantz with his new center coalition party Kachol Lavan was the main competition. While most polling put Likud and Kachol Lavan in a neck and neck race, most predicted Netanyahu would be the one to form the government due to the strength of other coalition-ready right and religious parties (Haaretz).
Indeed this is precisely what happened.
Likud and Kachol Lavan each won an impressive 35 seats. However, while Gantz received recommendations to build a government from parties representing 45 knesset seats, Netanyahu received 65 from the right wing parties. What is rather astonishing is that Labor, the party that dominated Israel’s government uninterrupted from the state’s founding until the 70’s, and has been the main opposition to Likud since power shifted, found itself at a historic low at only 6 seats, down from 19 at the end of the previous government.
Indeed, Gantz largely attained his power by cannibalizing the left and centrist parties. Many voters on the left and center abandoned their traditional parties and voted for Gantz. What this implies is that the traditional leftist parties have been failing to present a meaningful and captivating alternative vision for Israeli voters, and that their base really just dislike Netanyahu and vote for the opposition. Meaning that if they see a better opportunity to dethrone Netanyahu being provided by another party, they will vote for that party, which in this case was Kachol Lavan. While there are many examples of failures on the part of the parties to campaign effectively, this defeat falls in-line with a larger trend of atrophy for the Israeli left.
While Netanyahu’s strength did come at the cost of a few seats from the further right parties (The New Right party let by Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennet just barely missing the 3.25% voter threshold), the religious-right largely left this election unscathed. The Israeli right proved their strength and reacted to the prospect of Netanyahu being unseated or a centrist-center-left government by voting for Likud and right-religious parties in droves.
While Netanyahu will have more free reign in the new government, his coalition partners will have a powerful new leverage on the Prime Minister. Netanyahu is still facing indictment charges for corruption and in order to prevent him from being convicted while in office is hoping to pass an immunity law. His coalition partners would vote for this law that Netanyahu desperately needs in return for backing a policy proposal that they desire. In this case, it seems likely that the further right and religious parties would ask Netanyahu to make good on his West Bank annexation promise in return for the immunity law (Times of Israel)
In the 2019 elections, Israelis showed they are willing to overlook corruption and rule of law, with the majority remaining enamored with the “strongman” characteristics of Netanyahu. Israelis showed that they have little hope or care for the peace process with the Palestinians and that militaristic policies of illegal annexation are popular and viable elective policies. If Israel does go forward with annexation that would mean it would formally incorporate into its territory regions where some residents are granted citizenship and others not based on their ethnicity. In such a scenario, rather than being a simile or a description for the facts on the ground in the occupied territories, Israeli would actually become an apartheid state.
In seemingly another blow to Israeli democracy, the low turnout from Israeli-Arabs (partly influenced by overt suppression tactics from Likud/Bibi (Haaretz) ) as a response to the nation-state law and breakup of the Arab Joint-List (see my previous blog post) shows that the democratic ideals of pluralism enshrined in Israel’s founding document are waning as the conservative Jewish majority is increasing their power domestically.
In conclusion, what this election implies is that Israeli democracy is in a state of decay. The simple act of voting does not make a democracy, it carries with it certain values and ideals such as rule of law (especially for those in power), pluralism, and equal rights, that must be adhered to. As Israel abandons these ideals, the future of its democracy remains in question.