Now that the preliminary results of Israel’s election are in, the real fun begins as the various parties make their recommendations to President Ruvi Rivlin about who should form the next government and the coalition negotiations commence. But before the jockeying starts, here are the important takeaways from the vote results and one prediction about what comes next.
If Bibi weren’t facing indictments, the next government would look a lot different
With Likud and Kachol Lavan taking 70 seats between them, the actual tragedy for Israelis is that there is a clear right of center consensus with the ability to get real things done beyond the influence of smaller special interests, such as the Haredim, but that national unity government will never be formed. The once-and-future Prime Minister Netanyahu has one priority now, which is to form a government that will pass an immunity law allowing him to avoid indictments entirely, or one that at the very least will not pressure him to immediately step down once indictments are served. That is not a government that is comprised of Kachol Lavan and perhaps Kulanu for some extra margin, but one that is going to be a witch’s brew of ultra-nationalists and Haredim on top of the most extreme voices in Likud that demands a range of narrow sectarian goodies in order to shield Netanyahu from the long arm of the law.
Kachol Lavan’s dream scenario was to beat Likud by five seats or more, leading Likud to jettison Netanyahu and join a unity government under Benny Gantz. That dream is dead and buried, but so is the dream of any unity government at all because Kachol Lavan, after running a campaign around the central premise that the one thing that needed to be changed was Netanyahu, cannot turn around and protect Netanyahu from prosecution. Not only would a unity government reflect the broad consensus in Israel, it would have a chance to reformulate policy toward Gaza, introduce some separation of religion and state, and perhaps begin to reverse the toxic populist trend that has taken hold of Israeli politics and society. Were there no Cases 1000, 2000, and 4000, and were new investigations about the submarines affair and Netanyahu’s shady stock deals with his wealthy cousin not on the horizon, such a government would actually be a possibility. But it’s difficult to see that as a real option now as opposed to a hopeful what could have been.
Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked badly misread their electorate
In some ways, this is the most surprising outcome of this election given the tandem’s political savvy and reputation for making the extreme right trendy. Bennett and Shaked gambled that breaking away from the religious Zionist camp and forming a new right-wing party untethered to religious Zionist settlers would not cost them electorally and give them more freedom to operate without the constraints of Jewish Home rabbis under which they chafed. That gamble obviously did not pay off as their old voters stayed with the party rather than the politicians, and combined with Netanyahu using every trick in his box to drive right-wing voters away from the satellite parties and toward Likud, it looks like Bennett and Shaked will be kept out of the Knesset by the thinnest of margins.
The impact of this goes beyond this election though. Bennett and Shaked did not form Hayemin Hehadash in order to run a Likud satellite party forever, but in order to eventually take over Likud in the post-Netanyahu era. The idea was to form a party that looked like Likud, comprised of both religious and secular voters united by a right-wing ideology, and use that as a jumping off point to either merge with Likud down the road or fold the party after growing it large enough and just join Likud directly. That plan may not have been fatally damaged, but it is now lying in pieces. Bennett and Shaked needed to demonstrate a strong showing and pressure Netanyahu into giving them the Defense and Justice ministries, which is what they campaigned on, and likelihood of the latter is much slimmer now given the absence of the former. In some ways, this is actually the most important story of this election, since it kneecaps two of the right’s most plausible – and most ideologically radical – future leaders. Had they gotten eight or nine seats, I would have bet money on seeing a Prime Minister Shaked within a decade. I won’t be taking that bet today.
It will also impact the style of leadership on the right more generally. Bennett and Shaked were attempting to put a gentler and shinier face on what was actually a very extreme platform. It is another one of the reasons they left Jewish Home behind them and tried to build something new that was untainted by past associations or reputations. The lesson that many will take from this, whether it is the Likudnik Miri Regevs and Yarin Levins of the world or the Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit extremists who proudly lean into their extremism, will be that trying to cover up far right ideas with a happy and edgy sheen is not necessary. It turns out that simply owning the extremism plays better with voters who are attracted to those policies, and that is going to impact Israel’s political discourse going forward.
If American Jewry feels marginalized now, just wait for what is coming
American Jews have spent the past few years upset about what is taking place in Israel. They are upset about the situation in the West Bank and Gaza, upset about the increasing influence of Haredi and Haredi-light parties, upset about the increasing appeals to extremism and racism in Israeli politics. By every measure, the next government will be worse on all of these issues.
A Likud government with the Union of Right-wing Parties as a partner is not going to be easing Israel’s hold on the West Bank. A Likud government dependent on the settler right’s five seats and the Haredi parties’ sixteen seats is not even going to make cursory nods toward religious pluralism, seek to reform the rabbinate or limit its influence, or pay lip service to the requests of American Jews. Any hope of amending, let alone repealing, the nation-state law is going to be a cruel joke. The dominant theme of this government is going to be hardline religious policies that erase the already barely visible line between state and religion, and it will make American Jews feel more marginalized in the Jewish state than they already do. It will not help that a number of ministries will end up going to Shas and the Union of Right-wing Parties, which will make the public face of these policies particularly jarring and hardline as well. It is easier to dress things up behind Naftali Bennett’s smile than it is to do so behind the messianic glow emanating from Bezalel Smotrich’s eyes.
The prediction: Benny Gantz will be a non-factor by the next election cycle
Kachol Lavan pulled off a monumentally impressive feat. The party literally did not exist two months ago, was cobbled together with a four-headed hydra at the top and a list of future MKs running the full gamut of Israel’s political spectrum, did little to distinguish itself on policy and instead ran on the central premise that Netanyahu’s policies were generally fine but that he and his decision-making process were not, and managed to give Netanyahu the closest scare he has had since becoming prime minister. But the factors that make this feat so impressive are the same ones that are going to lead to Gantz’s downfall.
Kachol Lavan is ideologically incoherent with too many cooks in the kitchen, has had its central reason for being shattered, and Gantz will be the head of the opposition despite having not one minute of political experience beyond this campaign. Even if he does not get bored and frustrated and decides he wants to stick around, there is no reason to think that his voters will stick with him or that he will be a remotely effective foil to Netanyahu. Many of the people who cast a strategic vote for Gantz as a protest vote against Netanyahu are going to desert him and return to their previous political homes, and that will create pressure in whatever remains of Kachol Lavan to move on from the leader who could not get the job done this time around. Don’t be surprised if the leading alternative to Likud in the next election is headed by Gabi Ashkenazi or Yair Lapid, because while Gantz did indeed accomplish something momentous, it won’t be enough to pave the way for a long and distinguished political career.