Benjamin Netanyahu won Israel’s election
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to hold on to power, winning what will be a record fifth term in office despite having faced a bruising reelection fight.
The preliminary results from Israel’s Tuesday election have Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party getting 35 seats out of a total 120 seats in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament). While Likud didn’t win an outright majority of seats, that’s typical in Israeli elections.
Party leaders generally become prime ministers by cobbling together a parliamentary majority with the help of smaller parties. In this case, a group of smaller right-wing parties expected to back Netanyahu seems to have captured 65 seats, enough to give him a 10 seat majority over the rival center-left bloc (the exact numbers could change as the remaining two percent of votes are tallied).
Netanyahu is now set to be the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history — even longer than David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister often described as “Israel’s George Washington.” And the ramifications of his fifth term could be enormous, both for the health of Israeli democracy and the fate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The prime minister is facing a pending criminal indictment on bribery and fraud charges by Israel’s attorney general that’s likely to come down later this year. And now that Netanyahu has all but secured a victory, it’s possible his coalition could pass legislation protecting him from prosecution while in office, in essence letting him get away with his alleged crimes for the time being.
What’s more, Netanyahu made a stunning last-minute campaign promise over the weekend to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank if re-elected — extending full Israeli sovereignty over settlements widely considered illegal under international law. If he follows through, it would be the most radical rejection of a negotiated two-state solution by any Israeli prime minister in modern history. It would also generate a massive crisis both for Israel and the broader Middle East.
In sum, this is a very, very big deal.
So what happens now?
First, Netanyahu needs to figure out exactly which parties he’s going to include in his coalition.
He could reach out to Gantz to try to form a more centrist national unity coalition, but his post-election comments suggest he won’t do that. Instead, he seems likely to work with almost exclusively right-wing parties to build a hard-right majority. The exact set-up of this government will be decided in the coming month or so.
After that’s all sorted out, the most immediate issue will be the looming indictment. Netanyahu is expected to try to build support for a proposed law that would immunize him from prosecution while in office. If he fails and the indictment comes down this summer as expected, his coalition could very well fracture under the pressure — leading to a new Likud prime minister or potentially new elections.
Netanyahu’s electoral victory, in other words, doesn’t mean he’s out of the woods yet.
“This is one station in a journey Netanyahu is going to go through in the next few months,” says Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. “The real game is about the indictment: whether he gets immunity from it, whether he can survive indictment and keep the coalition going even while on trial — those are the real questions.”
The second big question is about Netanyahu’s promise to begin annexing West Bank settlements.
It’s hard to overstate how significant this move would be if Netanyahu follows through with it. Israel would be asserting permanent control over land most countries on the planet believe belongs to the Palestinians. It would immediately cause a rupture in Israel’s relations with many countries around the world, potentially even Arab dictatorships that have been quietly working with Israel against Iran.
And for Palestinians, it would be catastrophic.
“Such a move would likely signal the death knell of the two-state solution and move Israel closer to a formal apartheid reality on the ground,” says Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at Brookings.
The fate of these two big issues, indictment immunity and West Bank annexation, could also be linked. It’s conceivable that Netanyahu could trade annexation for immunity: offer hard-right parties a guarantee that annexation will happen if they vote to pass an immunity bill.
If that happens, it would be a double disaster for Israel: Not only would the prime minister be shielding himself from facing justice for the foreseeable future, undermining a basic tenet of democratic accountability, he’d also be moving toward turning what’s supposed to be a temporary occupation of Palestinian land into permanent seizure.
This would be a move both toward authoritarianism and apartheid.
It’s not yet clear if that dire scenario will come to pass. But Netanyahu’s victory means the threat both to Israeli democracy and Palestinian freedom is higher than ever before.