Prime Minister Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu is set to become Israel’s longest-ever serving leader after scoring an unprecedented fifth victory in Israel’s election. Despite the fact that he was challenged hard by former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and his Blue and White party, who emerged neck-and-neck with Netanyahu’s centre-right Likud, the mathematics of Israel’s proportional representation system allows for the formation of a right-wing coalition that will keep Netanyahu in power for another four years.
Although matching Netanyahu in the popular vote, the problem for Gantz was simple: for all his military experience and gravitas, Gantz was always merely the establishment candidate who was ‘not Bibi’. And whether or not he wished to present himself as something else, his persona and party never really emerged from that moniker. Consequently, the election became about whether to back Netanyahu or oppose him, and not about whether the Blue and White political platform was superior to that of the Likud. Accordingly Gantz, although an able and intelligent man, established no platform of his own which could swing enough voters from the right of Israel’s political map. In fact the opposite has happened, with Likud gaining more votes than at any time since Ariel Sharon led the party in 2003.
The result is that the Israeli right has consolidated into a slightly more cohesive bloc, at the expense of Moshe Feiglin – a politician who split from Likud - and his Zehut party, but more importantly The New Right party led by political heavyweights Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. At the time of writing Feiglin, Bennett and Shaked are out, not helped by some bizarre campaigning from both Feiglin and Shaked which has served to muddle the messaging of both and reduce their credibility as national figures. But for Bennett, whose influence was crucial to the stability of Netanyahu’s government in recent months, and who had increasingly presented himself in the role of international statesman, this is a steep fall from grace. The final count of soldiers’ votes cast in this election could provide Bennett with enough support to get him past the 3.25% threshold required and save his party from total ignominy. But regardless, it is clear that Bennett’s gamble to forge on his own has backfired, and badly.
The Union of Right Wing Parties (which won five seats) will no doubt demand ministerial positions, and seek to ensure Bibi keeps his commitments to the settler movement on lands occupied by Israel during the Six Days’ War of 1967. But, for now, there is no one who can ‘out-Bibi’ the prime minister, on matters of security and domestic policy. And as a result, Bibi is in a far stronger position than he was on the eve of the vote.
Netanyahu’s most immediate problem is to find a way to protect himself from the slew of criminal investigations and potential corruption charges that have been attached to his name in recent months. He may opt to push through legislation to prohibit prosecution for a serving minister for as long as the new government is able to function. But in the long term this would not protect the prime minister from a potential trial and the threat of a custodial sentence, should he be convicted. It is likely that the early months of this new government will be characterised by Netanyahu’s attempts to pass legislation aimed at protecting himself retroactively from any deed which may incur prosecution, to the consternation of his political allies and foes alike.
In the arena of security and foreign policy – so often the main talking point of elections in Israel – there is unlikely to be any meaningful movement on the Palestinian issue. In a move designed to cut through his right-wing opponents, Netanyahu promised to formally annex the West Bank settlements to Israel. Quite whether this was merely a pre-electoral bluster remains to be seen; with a Donald Trump administration that claimed to recognise Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights seized from Syria in 1967, there is no reason why Netanyahu would think a similar attitude would not apply to Israeli-occupied land east of the Green Line (the border between Israel and Jordan pre-1967). There are around 14 months left until President Trump goes into full campaign mode for his own re-election, and a strengthened Netanyahu will have more leverage than usual to create political realities for Israel’s control of Palestinian land.
This is a complex risk calculation, and Netanyahu’s moves to shut the door for good on domestic right-wing pressure about the status of the occupied territories would have lasting and deleterious effects to Israel’s regional position. But never has an Israeli prime minister been presented with such a permissive government in Washington to pursue a right-wing agenda. The window of opportunity is small, and so the temptation to force a de jure recognition of facts on the ground may prove too strong for the emboldened Israeli leader to resist.
Cementing Israel’s growing ties with Arab neighbours will also be a focus in the year ahead. Much has been made of Netanyahu’s trips around the Arab world, the increasing frequency of contacts, and deepening security cooperation particularly with Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and Oman. The narrative of the Israeli right is that such trips and close connections prove that the Palestinian question is no inhibitor to Israel’s wider integration into the Arab world. These ties serve the additional purpose of cementing a bloc of regional states that are atavistically opposed to the further encroachment of Iran into the Arab World, thereby enhancing a regional security architecture that is likely to work ever-harder to constrain Tehran at every possible turn. An outcome that finds strong support in Washington.
But should Netanyahu proceed with his campaign promise and begin annexing the West Bank, he will undo much of the goodwill that has emerged between Israel and the Arab World of late. With Iran and Turkey both espousing the Palestinian cause in ever-louder tones, it seems impossible that Saudi Arabia in particular could accept unilateral moves by Israel to assert sovereignty on land that Arab states view as belonging to Palestinians. This will be a huge challenge for the Israelis, yet Netanyahu may calculate that so great is Gulf hostility to Iran that Israel can have its cake and eat it, by absorbing international and regional condemnation about a legal annexation move, while further entrenching Israel’s formal diplomatic roots in a region that until now largely shunned the Jewish state.
Netanyahu’s ability to tap-dance between domestic and international pressure has always been one of his greatest strengths. He failed to maintain that balance during his first premiership, but his second stint has been far more successful, winning one electoral cycle after another and skilfully working the international system to avoid or limit global opprobrium about Israel’s seeming unwillingness to move forward with a peace process.
At this point he is likely to end up as Israel’s longest serving prime minister, outlasting even David Ben Gurion, the founder of the state. The only danger to his political future is his own hubris.
Michael Stephens is Research Fellow for Middle East Studies at RUSI.
BANNER IMAGE: Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Ukraine, 2018. Courtesy of Кабінет Міністрів України/Wikimedia/Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine/CC BY 4.0
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.