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Israel election: how it works, who might win, and why it matters

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is standing for reelection today in one of the strangest and potentially most significant elections in the country’s modern history.

This is actually the second national election Israel’s had in just six months. The last one, held in April, looked like a victory for Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party. But when Netanyahu failed to get enough support from smaller parties to form a government, he was forced to call new elections. So here we are.

The polling for the new election is too close to try to predict a winner. Likud is locked in a tight race with the centrist Blue and White party, which is leading the opposition. The ultimate outcome depends on a lot of things that are really hard to predict, ranging from minor party vote share to post-election parliamentary haggling.

But while the politics of the election are unclear, the policy stakes are gigantic.

During the campaign, Netanyahu promised to annex roughly 30 percent of the West Bank if reelected — a move that would render a future Palestinian state geographically non-viable. The idea of a two-state solution is already in critical condition, with the Palestinian leadership fragmented and Israeli politics moving in an increasingly right-wing direction. If Netanyahu follows through on his annexation promise, the two-state solution will be effectively dead.

The health of Israeli democracy also hangs in the balance. Netanyahu is currently facing indictment on a series of bribery and corruption charges stemming from his efforts to suborn Israel’s free media. If reelected, his first priority will likely be to immunize himself from prosecution — an undemocratic power-grab that would be the latest in a string of Netanyahu policies that have weakened constraints on the executive and protection for minority rights.

Another Netanyahu term could very well push Israel down the dark path of democratic backsliding we’ve seen in countries like Hungary.

“I think there actually is a pretty decent argument to be made that this actually is one of Israel’s most momentous elections,” says Michael Koplow, policy director at the DC-based Israel Policy Forum think tank. “Netanyahu has steadily been doing things that really erode any sense of separation of powers inside Israel and that call the independence of different state institutions into question.”

How Israel’s electoral system works and what could happen this time around

Israeli’s parliament, called the Knesset, awards seats in a proportional fashion: parties get a number of seats determined by what percentage they get in the national popular vote. To qualify for Knesset seats, a party must get at least 3.25 percent of the national vote, a bar that a fair number of different Israeli parties regularly clear.

The result is an incredibly fragmented system. There are 120 seats in the Knesset, which means a party needs 61 for a governing majority; poll averages suggest Blue and White and Likud will each get around 32 in today’s election. The remaining seats will go to a group of smaller parties who run the ideological gamut, from the Arab Joint List and peacenik Democratic Union on the left to the pro-settlement Yamina and Jewish supremacist Otzma Yehudit on the right.

Since 2009, Netanyahu has led a series of right-of-center coalition governments. After April’s election, Netanyahu tried to build another coalition entirely out of right-wing and religious parties, which currently make up a majority of Knesset seats. He ran into trouble, however, when he tried to pair the ultra-Orthodox religious parties with the right-wing secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party.

Yisrael Beiteinu, led by former Netanyahu cabinet member Avigdor Lieberman, opposes many of the special privileges given to religious Jews under Israeli law — and, in particular, demanded a bill undermining the exemption from mandatory military service provided to ultra-Orthodox men.

Netanyahu refused to avoid losing ultra-Orthodox support. But without Lieberman’s support, he didn’t have enough votes for a parliamentary majority. So he chose to call new elections in September with an eye toward winning a more secure majority.

The question of whether he’ll get one, though, is very far from clear. Dalia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster who has consulted for the Democratic Union party, says that, for the most part, the polling numbers don’t show particularly major shifts since the last election. The right-wing bloc aligned with Netanyahu currently has 60 seats (excluding Yisrael Beiteinu) — and the polling suggests it’ll stay around there, with the remainder going to an ideologically broad opposition.

If there aren’t any major changes in seat distribution this time around, then the next government will be determined by bargaining between the leadership of the various political parties. Which means there are all sorts of possible outcomes.

Perhaps the most plausible one, according to observers, is some kind of center-right “national unity” government: a power-sharing agreement between Likud and Blue and White. But even this could take a number of different forms.


Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.
Amir Levy/Getty Images

It’s possible, for example, that Netanyahu would remain prime minister in this arrangement. It’s also possible that Benny Gantz, the head of Blue and White, would get the top job. It’s possible that the two of them would decide to rotate power, taking turns being prime minister (it’s happened before in the Israeli system). It’s even possible that Likud would choose to replace Netanyahu at the head of their party and someone else entirely would get to be prime minister (for reasons I’ll discuss later). The bargaining between the two parties will take a while after the election and there’s basically no way to predict how it will turn out.

A national unity party is only one possible option, however. There are all sorts of other possibilities, ranging from another right-wing coalition to (much, much less plausibly) a center-left alliance. And the range of options is highly sensitive to even small shifts in electoral outcomes.

For example, the extremely far-right Otzma barely missed the 3.25 percent threshold in April’s election, and so got zero representation in the Knesset. If they clear that bar this time around and are able to secure four Knesset seats, then it’s possible the right-wing bloc could end up being large enough to hand Netanyahu the premiership even if Lieberman once again refuses to join.

But if the current polls hold and things turn out the way they have in the past, then today’s voting will only be the first stage of the election. The second stage, the bargaining between the two major parties and smaller factions, could take weeks.

“The smart money is on a deadlock, without either side being able to form a government,” says Koplow. “If there’s a deadlock, there’s going to be a unity government. The question is how long it will take and whether Netanyahu will be included.”

The two huge issues: annexation and Israeli democracy

As inside baseball as the coalition-forming process is likely to be, the outcome really, really matters. Another Netanyahu term could imperil both the chances for a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians and the very survival of Israeli democracy itself.

During the campaign, Netanyahu released a proposal to annex a chunk of the West Bank, the heavily Palestinian-populated area occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. Most of the proposal covers the Jordan Valley, which runs along the eastern edge of the West Bank and marks its boundary with neighboring Jordan. The valley contains both Palestinian population centers, like the city of Jericho, and a number of Jewish settlements.

Netanyahu said in a speech last week that he would not be “annexing even one Palestinian,” despite proposing to take territory that amounts to 30 percent of the West Bank. To adhere to that, he exempted Jericho and nearby Palestinian villages (the orange blob in the map below) from the annexation proposal, opting instead to encircle them with the newly annexed Israeli land (the much bigger blue chunk).

Under this proposal, Jericho would be cut off from the rest of the West Bank Palestinian population (none of whom gets to vote in this election), and the rest of the West Bank would be cut off from the rest of the world, with Israel controlling its eastern border. It would in effect render the very idea of a Palestinian state impossible — a dagger blow to the idea of a two-state solution.

“I’m not sure how you can have a viable state in the 70 percent that remains — and that’s even assuming the Palestinians would ever accept the remaining 70 percent, and I don’t think they would,” says Koplow.

The Blue and White party isn’t too far from Likud on the Palestinians in general and the Jordan Valley in particular, demanding a permanent Israeli security presence there. But a government including them is much less likely to outright seize the land for Israel than a right-wing bloc led by Netanyahu.

And while Jordan Valley annexation isn’t inevitable under Netanyahu — many Israeli observers think this is empty pandering to right-wing voters — others think he’s quite likely to follow through. “He will push on annexation,” says Scheindlin. “The only question is whether he’ll declare it,” or take the land more quietly.

If Netanyahu does follow through on the land grab, it would force Israel down the path toward one of two “one-state” scenarios.

The first option is to give Palestinians living in the West Bank the right to vote and make them full citizens of Israel. That would create an Arab demographic majority in Israel that would threaten its identity as a “Jewish” state (Jews currently make up around 75 percent of the Israeli population inside its internationally recognized borders). Experts warn that situation would be a recipe for violence between Muslims and Jews. It would also be unacceptable to Netanyahu and his right-wing allies.

The second option would be to extend indefinite Israeli rule over Palestinians without granting them citizenship or the right to vote. There’s a word for keeping an ethnically defined part of your population in permanent second-class citizenship: apartheid.

But this isn’t the only threat to Israel’s future in this election. The second comes from Netanyahu’s authoritarian instincts at home.

Under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel passed a law last year declaring that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people” — an exclusive vision of national identity that excludes Arabs and other non-Jewish minorities. The country also passed a law aimed at silencing NGOs that monitor the Israeli military’s human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories, and another law removing a significant check on the prime minister’s power to take the country to war. His last two reelection campaigns have focused on demonizing and marginalizing Israel’s Arab minority.

One of the single clearest examples of authoritarian drift in Israel is Netanyahu’s efforts to co-opt the media. A hallmark of democratic backsliding is the government exerting control over independent media outlets, as a compliant media allows the government to get away with other kinds of wrongdoing.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has either gotten cronies to buy up independent media outlets or pressured other publications into shutting down through punitive tax policies. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has taken a less subtle route, jailing journalists and seizing control of the country’s independent newspapers.

Two of the legal cases against Netanyahu, known as Case 2000 and Case 4000, allege that he has attempted a smaller-scale version of these anti-media actions.

In Case 2000, Netanyahu allegedly attempted to strike a deal with the owner of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest newspaper: He would pass a law limiting circulation of one of its rivals, the already pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom, in exchange for more favorable coverage in the Netanyahu-skeptical Yedioth.

In Case 4000, Netanyahu allegedly manipulated regulatory powers in order to benefit Bezeq, a major Israeli company. In exchange, the Bezeq-owned news organization Walla gave the prime minister more favorable coverage. Unlike Case 2000, this apparently went beyond the conspiracy stage, with Netanyahu trading regulations for good press over a five-year period.

Earlier this year, Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced plans to prosecute Netanyahu on bribery and “breach of trust” charges for these media conspiracies. In response, his allies in the Knesset have floated a bill that would functionally immunize Netanyahu from these charges while in office.


Israeli children wrap themselves in rally banners at a 2019 election rally.

A rally held by the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism in Jerusalem.
Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

So far, Netanyahu has not had enough support to push such a bill through. But if he emerges with a more pliant Knesset, it’ll likely be at the top of his to-do list. An immunity law would represent a double blow to Israeli democracy, both legitimizing the prime minister’s efforts to neuter the media and blocking an independent check on wrongdoing by the premier. It would not yet put Israel in the company of faux-democracies like Hungary and Turkey, but it would push the country in that direction, continuing Israel’s slide down what feels like a very slippery undemocratic slope.

If reelected, Netanyahu is also expected to push a bill that would allow the Knesset to overturn Israel’s High Court rulings. This would not only help Netanyahu protect himself from legal troubles but also help him cement support on the Israeli far-right, which has long hated the court for its rulings protecting Palestinian and minority rights.

Blue and White is very much on the opposite side of Likud on these democracy issues. They have campaigned as guarantors of Israeli democracy, defenders of the system against Netanyahu’s corruption. It’s unlikely that a national unity government would allow Netanyahu to keep going down this undemocratic road; in fact, Blue and White might force Likud to dump Netanyahu from the top job as one of the terms of a unity coalition.

A Netanyahu-led right-wing coalition, by contrast, would be much more likely to go down this road. Netanyahu’s allies would encourage his worst instincts on both the Palestinians and democracy at home.

“There is no law that says that a sitting prime minister must step down while indicted. There’s going to be political pressure to do so, and so he going to need to keep all of his political allies on board,” Koplow says. “Things like High Court override and West Bank annexation are probably the two likeliest asks from the parties to his right if he wants to remain in power.”

This outcome would be a catastrophe for Palestinians and Israelis alike. The prime minister would simultaneously be dismantling checks on his power within the country’s recognized borders and moving Israel toward apartheid outside of them. Palestinian suffering would deepen, while the world’s only Jewish democracy would be in mortal peril.

This, ultimately, is what’s at stake in this election. It’s not merely about the political survival of one legally embattled incumbent; it’s about whether to arrest Israel’s slide toward authoritarianism and apartheid or send it into overdrive.


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