Despite a strong performance by challenger Benny Gantz, it appears likely that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has secured a fifth term in office. Much about Israel’s future, however, is still yet to be decided. In the coming months we can expect plenty of bargaining, uncertainty, and instability over not just the government of Israel but some of the core elements of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
With 97 percent of the vote counted in Israel’s elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s party and his main challenger, Blue and White, were tied, with 35 seats each, out of 120 total in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. While that may sound like a blow to Netanyahu, in reality it leaves his party with more seats than the 30 it has in the current parliament. What’s more, it leaves a coalition of right-wing parties closer to forming a government. If Netanyahu’s Likud and its further-right partners can reach a deal with smaller religious parties, they stand to gain 65 seats; if Blue and White unites with traditional left parties as well as the two Arab parties that entered parliament, they will still have only 55.
All of that means we’re far from knowing what Israel’s next government will look like. The first step will come when final results are certified and President Reuven Rivlin chooses which party to ask to form a government. Normally, that would be the one with the most votes — as of this writing, Likud was ahead by with 13,375 ballots. Gantz told Blue and White’s supporters to remain hopeful on Wednesday, noting “a possibility of electoral shifts” — though analysts suggest that’s unlikely.
But Netanyahu, don’t forget, is awaiting indictment on multiple counts of bribery, fraud, and corruption. So it is unclear how sturdy a government formed under his leadership can be. The smaller religious parties that hold the key to his preferred right-wing coalition will ask for major concessions in funding, Cabinet positions, and stances on issues that are important to those Orthodox communities but highly unpopular with more secular Israelis.
He might prefer to see whether he can tempt Blue and White into forming a centrist coalition. Gantz said during the nastily fought campaign that he would not enter such a coalition. Will he change his position, perhaps on the assumption that the criminal case will soon force Netanyahu to the side? Or will he wait, on the assumption that we could end up right back where he is now if the cases against Bibi go to trial?
All of that will be revealed in the coming weeks. The things we now know for certain are not hopeful for Israelis nor for others who see a vibrant left and a concern for the peace process as keys to the country’s long-term future. Overall voter turnout was down, suggesting that neither Netanyahu’s corruption nor the three-general front that Blue and White led with inspired Israelis to think voting mattered. Turnout was down even more steeply among Israel’s Arab citizens, after a campaign in which Netanyahu explicitly made common cause with far-right parties that support the expulsion of Arabs and the annexation of more Palestinian territories by an expanded Jewish state. This was certainly to the disadvantage of attempts at forming progressive coalitions, and broadcast clearly what activists have been telling anyone who will listen — that Palestinians have lost faith that a two-state solution is a real possibility and that the Israeli left can deliver it.
And votes moved even further toward the center-right, with the historic progressive party Labor losing more seats to Blue and White and slumping further into second-tier status.
A Netanyahu return to power, if that is what comes to pass, may actually relieve U.S. Democrats of some short-term dilemmas; they can continue to blame the lack of progress in peacemaking and protecting the rights of Palestinians on Netanyahu, rather than confronting the uncomfortable fact that, according to polls, a majority of Jewish Israelis no longer support a two-state solution.
For President Trump, on the other hand, Netanyahu’s win may be too much of a good thing. From recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights to declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, Trump took a number of actions in recent weeks that were intended to boost Netanyahu at home — all of which Bibi trumpeted in Hebrew, though not in English, as having been done just for him.
But Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights — which he announced without telling his own staff in advance, and against the strong protests of his own lawyers who see problematic parallels with territory Russia seized from Ukraine and elsewhere — drove an inspired Netanyahu to a new extreme. At the end of the campaign, he pledged that if elected, he would move to annex part of the West Bank — the heavily populated territory Israel seized in war, but which has been presumed for more than two decades to be the heart of a future Palestinian state.
Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners want this dearly and have been pushing him to this end for all the long years he’s been in government. Until now, he had never given in to their exhortations — perhaps because he does not want to deal with the aftermath of local anger and global condemnation, perhaps because he cares more about his own political survival than any policy goal, perhaps because he previously believed Washington would oppose such a move.
Now, though, no one is sure if Trump would oppose it. Shalom Lipner, who worked for seven consecutive Israeli prime ministers, wrote last week that Netanyahu would be “looking to invoke American displeasure as the reason he can’t deliver on his promise.” The reasons for Washington to oppose annexation still hold — a violation of international law with knock-on consequences elsewhere; severe consequences for U.S. relations with Arab and Muslim states and possibly for U.S. service members and counter-terrorism operations in Muslim-majority countries; and the demolition of the notion that progress toward a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine is right around the corner. The risk, however, is that Trump may see it only as a quick applause line with conservatives and a way to create awkwardness for Democrats. All of that is reason for Washington — while Israel’s own political system offers up so little in constructive responses to the country’s existential dilemma — to hope for outcomes in coalition negotiations that don’t give the Israeli right the upper hand. That’s different from hoping that centrist and progressive Israelis can make a new start, but it looks to be the best hope we’ve got.