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Although the Israeli election was held a month ago, I wanted to wait until it was clear what the new government would look like. But first let’s talk about what happened on election day.
On April 9, 2019, 4.3 million Israelis went to the polls for a voter turnout of 68%, which is fairly typical. Turnout among Arab Israelis, which is usually higher than that of Jews, was unusually poor on election day. Initially this was chalked up to a rumored boycott of the election, but it quickly became clear that many had been dissuaded from voting because Likud Party activists had been caught monitoring polling stations in Arab communities with body cameras– they are under police investigation. Ultimately, though, Arab-interest parties didn’t do significantly worse than usual, with Hadash-Taal and Raam-Balad winning a combined ten seats in the Knesset compared to twelve in 2015.
Election results were finalized later that week, and had quite a few surprises– though every Israeli election does. Both Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party and General Benny Gantz’s Blue and White coalition received 35 seats. Both parties became the first in Israeli history ever to win over a million votes, but Likud won the most by a margin of about 14,500– or one third of one percentage point.
International media quite ignorantly heralded this as an unprecedented landslide for Netanyahu, possibly out of despair, and while there is reason to be concerned, there are some silver linings.
First, Netanyahu’s governing coalition holds an even narrower majority than before, at just 65 votes out of 120. Additionally, Netanyahu’s Likud Party already looks very different than it did before, because while Likud voters may love the guy, actual party members are far more ambivalent. When Likud held its party primaries in February, Netanyahu’s intra-party loyalists took a big hit as party apparatchiks generally gave their votes to the Prime Minister’s rivals, including a notorious challenger to the leadership in Gideon Sa’ar. While the party leadership was not voted on, it is not inconceivable to speculate that Netanyahu would have lost.
The Prime Minister’s loss of prestige and political allies within his own party was further compounded when, unhappy with his performance in the primaries, party attack dog and cartoon sack of human garbage Oren Hazan left to form his own party, Tzomet, which received just 2,400 votes.
The news wasn’t much better for Netanyahu’s coalition partners. Although the terrorism-affiliated United Right party did win enough seats to get into the Knesset, it didn’t win enough for any of the actual terrorists to get in. Zehut, a far-right libertarian party feared to draw support away from the left due to its support for legalized marijuana ultimately flamed out in hilarious fashion and failed to get any seats– as did now avowedly-fascist New Right, led by the formerly ascendant Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. During the vote count, Bennett and Shaked remained confident that they would meet the threshold with help from military voters, whose ballots are often counted last. Instead, the Army ended up rescuing the far-left party Meretz.
Despite what sounds like a pretty bad night for the Israeli right-wing, Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies Shas and United Torah Judaism made up for some of these losses by outperforming their poll numbers to win eight seats each.
But the real saving grace for the Israeli right was that one party that wasn’t expected to win any seats did.
Yisrael Beitenu is a far-right party led by Avigdor Lieberman, and has existed in some form or another since the 1990s as an interest party for Russian-speaking Israelis. During the 1990s, nearly a million Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel. Coming in such large numbers with a common language and a general alienation from their cultural heritage due to the repressive policies of the Soviet regime, the community as a whole had an unusually difficult time assimilating into Israeli society, so Yisrael Beitenu was very important in ameliorating that transition.
And having succeeded, Yisrael Beitenu’s voter base has steadily eroded ever since. This is partly out of disillusionment, as while the Russian-speaking community is very aggressively secular, Lieberman’s continual support for the right as a whole has only strengthened the power and influence of religion. This is also partly because Soviet Jews are still arriving in Israel now who lean much, much more to the left as a result of having grown up in the shadow of Vladimir Putin rather than Communism.
What makes Yisrael Beitenu especially important now is that it was their exit from the previous coalition that triggered this election, and with five seats, they are the only thing upholding Netanyahu’s majority, so another dispute with the coalition– say, over the expanding power of religion– could trigger another election within the year, and if Lieberman wants his party to continue having a reason to exist, it would be in his political interest to let that happen.
But failing that, what could the new government accomplish? Realistically very little. Netanayhu’s previous governing coalition was already tenuous; most high-profile bills passed by razor-thin margins if they passed at all. The new coalition is even smaller, visibly more divided, and internally more skeptical of a leader whose primary legislative goals for 2019 are to make himself immune from his impending prosecution in three and now possibly four criminal cases and to abolish the practice of judicial review, effectively gutting the power of the Supreme Court to uphold constitutional or international law.
So don’t be mistaken in thinking Netanyahu “won” this election– he got 26% of the vote last month, which the best he’s ever done, his negatives remain resolutely high, and if not for his incredible vanity, he might actually regret squeaking this one out.
Make sure to check out my next video about what’s going on in the Israeli opposition and what you can do to help it succeed in the future.