Deciphering Israel’s Election Results

It’s been almost two weeks since the Israeli national elections on April 9, and the final results are, well, finally final. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected for his fifth term in office – despite ongoing corruption investigations.

Unfortunately, it’s also a lot more complicated than that. What, you thought a Jewish state would be easy? Pfft.

In the spirit of TC Jewfolk’s coverage of the Israeli elections, let’s take the election numbers step by step to understand what they mean.

The most important thing to know is this: at the end of the Passover seder, it’s customary to say “next year in Jerusalem.” But after this year’s seder, I’m sure most Israelis looked around the table, sighed, and muttered, “dear God, next year without elections. Hell, even the rest of this year without elections.”

Problem is, both are real possibilities.

If you haven’t yet, take a glance at TC Jewfolk’s primer on the elections to learn about Israel’s system of government and process of elections. The most relevant information is that the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) has 120 fixed seats, given to political parties based on what percentage of the vote they get.

There is also a minimum threshold – a party has to get 3.25% or more of the votes in order to enter the Knesset, which is equivalent to 4 seats. But a coalition of parties needs a 61 Knesset seat majority, or more, to create a government. How that coalition gets formed is as much the political battle as the actual elections.

The numbers

Though the elections took place on April 9, it took a full week, until April 16, for the results to be finalized. There were reports of voting irregularity, and two right-wing parties, The New Right and Zehut, were only a few thousand votes away from getting into the Knesset, so they were fighting the results up until the last moment.

It also didn’t help that Israel’s Central Elections Committee did a terrible job updating the official results on its website, and often the website didn’t match up with the results they were telling reporters. When Beresheet, the Israeli lunar lander, crashed on the Moon in its attempt to land on April 11, many Israelis joked that it had been connected to the CEC and crashed as a result.

Here are the numbers:

  • Likud (PM Netanyahu’s party): 35 Knesset seats
  • Blue and White (party of former Israeli generals challenging Netanyahu): 35
  • Shas (Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party): 8
  • United Torah Judaism (Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party): 8
  • Hadash-Ta’al (coalition of Arab left-wing parties): 6
  • Labour (left-wing party that build Israel): 6
  • Yisrael Beitenu (right-wing Russian-speaking party): 5
  • United Right-wing Parties (coalition of far-right settler parties): 5
  • Meretz (left of left-wing party): 4
  • Kulanu (center-right, economy-based party): 4
  • UAL-Balad (coalition of Arab left-wing parties): 4

Polls before the election predicted that Likud and Blue and White were tied with roughly 30 seats each, but heavy last-minute campaigning brought both parties to an unprecedented 35 seats each. For an election that, in effect, was a referendum on Netanyahu, this shows a stark divide.

For a sense of scale: this is the first Israeli election that any party received over 1 million votes, which both Likud and Blue and White managed to do.

On one hand, this is a victory for Israelis who are tired of Netanyahu, because they came out in huge numbers to vote Blue and White. On the other hand, Netanyahu’s Likud went from 30 to 35 Knesset seats, which means that an enormous amount of Israelis don’t care about his ongoing corruption investigations.

Netanyahu now has more legitimacy and more of a public mandate to govern, which makes it much more difficult to prosecute him – or to argue that he doesn’t represent the Israeli public, a majority of which did vote for the right-wing.

There’s good reason for this. Under Netanyahu, Israel is stable, but more importantly, quiet. Terrorism is at an all-time low. Many Israelis don’t want to sacrifice that.

Another important note is that Labour, the party of David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin – the party that ruled Israel for its first 30 years and built the country – had its worst election results ever. From ruling left-wing party, to a mere 6 Knesset seats. We’ll come back to this, but it should be clear that Israel isn’t about to swing to the left anytime soon.

More importantly, the results come out to a 65 seat majority for the right-wing block (Likud, Shas, UTJ, Yisrael Beitenu, URP, and Kulanu), which means that Israel’s next government will, without a doubt, be right-wing.

But whether it can form at all, or how long it will last, depends on the coalition negotiations.

Forming the next Israeli government

After the election results came in, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin met with representatives from each party that made it into the Knesset to hear their recommendations for Prime Minister. Unsurprisingly, the entire right-wing recommended Netanyahu for the post, so Rivlin had no choice but to appoint him on April 17 to form the next Israeli government.

Netanyahu now has 28 days, with a possible two-week extension, to form the next government. And here’s where things really get frustrating.

Though Netanyahu has a 65 Knesset seat majority with the right-wing parties, he has no buffer. All the parties in the bloc, except for Kulanu, have over 4 Knesset seats, so if they back out of the coalition, Netanyahu won’t have a government.

This means that each party has a lot of negotiating power. Likud may have many seats, but if Netanyahu can’t form and stabilize a coalition, that won’t matter.

The biggest problem is Yisrael Beitenu, the secular party representing Russian-speaking immigrants. Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the party, was the previous defense minister until he resigned last November over Netanyahu’s Gaza policy.

Lieberman has a bill that promotes ultra-Orthodox drafting into the Israeli Defense Forces, which he is adamant on passing without it being watered down. The ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, want nothing to do with the bill.

This is part of a wider secular-religious political war in Israel. Most ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel are exempt from the mandatory army draft, and receive millions of shekels in taxpayer money to fund religious schools. Many are not part of the workforce, and, particularly in Jerusalem, live in extreme poverty.

With a very high birthrate, the ultra-Orthodox are part of Israel’s demographic time-bomb, a fast-growing population of the country that drains more resources than they provide. The ultra-Orthodox view, however, is that the study of Torah and Jewish law is a service to God and the Jewish people that is just as necessary, if not more so, than draft and economic concerns.

Though Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties have sat in a coalition before, they put Netanyahu in a tight spot. Lieberman has 5 Knesset seats, without which Netanyahu will only have a 60 seat coalition – not enough to form a government.

If he wants, Lieberman can force another round of elections and, in the process, potentially give someone other than Netanyahu the chance to form a government.

So Netanyahu has no choice but to pass the draft bill…except that the ultra-Orthodox parties have 16 Knesset seats. They won’t accept the bill, and can also refuse Netanyahu the chance to form a government.

Where coalition negotiations will go is anyone’s guess. At the end of the day, no one wants another round of elections, and everyone wants to be in the government.

But the allure of power might not be enough this time around. Although, Netanyahu has worked his way out of tighter spots, and he is a brilliant politician. Maybe his time hasn’t run out yet.

If he succeeds in forming a coalition, the ultra-Orthodox parties will have a field day. No Jewish religious pluralism, no support for Reform or Conservative movements, no Kotel deal, and potentially more laws passed that ban opening stores and operating buses on Shabbat.

There’s a lot you can do with 16 Knesset seats. Israel will undoubtedly become more of a religious theocracy over the next few years unless a major power shift happens.

The trends: democracy and vanishing left-wing

The 2019 Israeli elections showcase two main trends. One is obvious, and the other might not exist.

What’s obvious is that the Israeli left wing is dying, and unfortunately that might not be an exaggeration. Blue and White, the conglomerate party of former Israeli generals that challenged Netanyahu, does have politically diverse Knesset members, but the party is more much more center than it ever was left.

The real Israeli left is Labour, the party that built Israel and received only 6 Knesset seats, Meretz, the left of left party that barely made it into the Knesset with 4 seats, and the conglomerate of Arab left-wing parties that together have 10 seats.

Altogether, 20 seats out of the Knesset’s 120 seat total are left-wing. That’s not a good look, but it makes sense.

The Israel Democracy Institute, an Israeli think tank that releases a Democracy Index study every year, reported that over 63% of Israeli Jews aged 18-34 see themselves as right-wing, while only 47% of of Israeli Jews over the age of 35 consider themselves on the right.

Basically, a comfortable majority of young Israeli Jews aren’t politically left. While that doesn’t mean that as they age, they won’t lean to the left, the Israeli right-wing is going to stay in power for a while – with or without Netanyahu.

The short answer to why this is the case: The second intifada, from 2000-2005. With the breakdown of the 1990’s Oslo peace process, a massive round of Palestinian terrorism hit Israel. Buses, cafes, and malls blowing up on the regular. There are stories that some parents would send their kids on two different buses to get to school so that if one was bombed, one child would still be left to the family.

There’s no memory of the hope for peace with Palestinians that existed in the 90’s, only the terrorism, fear, and death of the intifada, along with the wars with Gaza after Israel disengaged from the strip in 2005.

In light of that, I personally have a hard time believing that the left will salvage itself, at least for the foreseeable future.

With all the political power on the right, that brings us to the second trend: the death of Israeli democracy.

I’ve heard and read a variety of opinions about the supposed death of Israeli democracy, which is much more relevant as a conversation than a talking point.

The truth is that Israeli democracy, as a system where people vote to elect representatives, is very much alive. The 2019 elections saw around 63% turnout from the entire country, and while the low Arab-Israeli voter turnout is a complicated discussion on its own, Israeli citizens voted and freely elected parties to the Knesset.

By these standards, saying Israeli democracy is dead is a flat-out lie.

But the nagging question for many people is, how long does a single leader govern the country before it stops being a democracy and turns into an autocracy?

Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli right-wing have openly attacked the press, undermined the legitimacy of the Israeli police and Attorney General, and hammered away at the supreme court’s independence – among many problematic things.

Now, there’s talk that Netanyahu will try to pass a law that grants him immunity, as Prime Minister, from being indicted for serious corruption charges. If the Prime Minister is above the law, then the checks and balances of a democracy fail.

To keep it in perspective, there are similar concerns about checks and balances in the United States, United Kingdom, and other countries right now. But only time will tell where Israeli politics decide to swing next.