Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election victory suggests the government he forms in a record fifth term is likely to espouse more nationalistic views and show little inclination to negotiate peace with Palestinians.
Netanyahu finished neck and neck with his main opponent, former army chief of staff commander Benny Gantz, but has a larger number of political parties, many on the far right, willing to align with him to form a coalition and assume leadership of the government.
The Blue and White alliance led by Gantz conceded defeat Wednesday, a day after voters went to the polls.
The prime minister’s right-wing bloc will not be substantially larger than the one he has had up to now, but it is likely to include much more extremist figures after Netanyahu used the campaign to court fringe parties that advocate Jewish supremacy and what some critics consider racist ideas.
Although Netanyahu, 69, emerged the victor despite possible criminal indictments hanging over him, Gantz managed a formidable challenge, proving that the veteran prime minister is not invincible.
“Netanyahu should have won this in a cakewalk,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said in an interview.
“The Israeli economy is humming along, security is strong — this should have been a landslide for him,” Plesner said, “but [he] barely made it to the level of a general who no one really thought of a few months ago.”
President Trump, who figured prominently in the Israeli campaign, swiftly congratulated Netanyahu, using his common nickname, Bibi.
“The fact that Bibi won, I think we’ll see some pretty good action in terms of peace,” Trump said on the White House lawn. “Everybody said you can’t have peace in the Middle East with Israel and the Palestinians. I think we have a chance. And I think we have, now, a better chance with Bibi having won.”
But the new, hard-right political constellation in the incoming government appears to make any major diplomatic moves toward Palestinians unlikely.
If anything, the new Israeli government seems less likely to entertain a long-awaited peace plan that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been drafting, even though it is thought to give very favorable terms to Israel. The Trump administration has said it would release the plan after the Israeli election.
Bezalel Smotrich, whose Right-Wing Union includes Jewish supremacists and was cobbled together for the express purpose of helping Netanyahu, announced Wednesday that he would refuse to sit in “any government that discusses the Trump Peace Plan.”
Trump has been an unwavering champion of Netanyahu ever since taking office, showering him with praise and offering him concessions. Just days before the election, Trump went against the tide of international law to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a fertile plateau that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War.
And when Netanyahu last weekend threatened to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank, the Trump administration refrained from criticizing him. Such an action, in addition to being illegal under international law, would bury any chance for a future Palestinian state, the two-state solution that until now had underpinned U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
Netanyahu is also probably hoping the far-right parties will be able to shield him from prosecution on looming corruption charges. To that end, the votes had not yet been fully counted when Environment Minister Zeev Elkin, a Netanyahu ally, announced he plans a bill prohibiting the indictment of a head of government. Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing.
Another potential casualty from Israel’s election may be the already strained relations the Israeli government has with large groups of American Jews. With the increased presence and influence of ultra-Orthodox members and Zionist settlers, American Jews probably will not see a liberalization of religious rules, said Michael Koplow, policy director of the Washington-based Israel Policy Forum, an advocacy group that supports the two-state solution.
Koplow called the incoming Knesset a “witch’s brew” of the “most extreme voices” in a gambit to shield Netanyahu from legal prosecution.
“It’s also going to make things even worse with American Jews, for whom the most controversial issues have been religious pluralism and the Otzma deal,” Koplow said on Twitter. He was referring to the inclusion of a party many consider racist in the campaign.
Netanyahu’s opponents vowed to continue fighting him. The incoming Knesset could provide stiff opposition from Gantz’s centrist Blue and White bloc.
However, the Blue and White coalition, formed on an ad-hoc basis with many egos and little ideological cohesiveness, will struggle to stay unified. And as a neophyte party, how it will legislate is difficult to predict.
“How hard will they push for peace? How much pushback on legislation?” said Yael Patir, the Israeli director of the liberal Jewish advocacy organization J Street.
The left fared poorly in the election, as did the Labor Party, once practically synonymous with the state of Israel. It plummeted into single digits in terms of parliamentary seats.
Final official results from the voting are expected Friday. Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White coalition are in a dead heat, each having been awarded 35 parliamentary seats.
To form a government, an Israeli leader requires the support of 61 members of the 120-member Knesset. Neither major party is close to that figure.
But for Netanyahu, the shape of the puzzle looks clear. He will be able to inform Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who must formally appoint the leader who will form the next coalition, he has the support of 65 Knesset members, counting on the right-wing and nationalist parties.
Gantz, who has the backing of only 10 members outside his party — four from Meretz, a left-wing party, and six from the Labor Party — has no easy path to forming a government.
While accepting defeat Wednesday, his deputy, former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, vowed at a rally, “We will turn the Knesset into a battleground.”
“We did not come here to end the 2019 campaign,” he declared, but “to open the 2020 campaign.”
For the taciturn Gantz, 59, a political neophyte who founded his party only two months ago with the sole goal of unseating Netanyahu, the bittersweet results reflected a remarkable if painful triumph, matching the votes gained by the veteran prime minister.
Special correspondent Tarnopolsky reported from Jerusalem and Times staff writer Wilkinson from Washington.