The results are in – Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, looks poised to form a coalition and serve his fourth term as Israel’s head of state. Despite the polls’ indication that Netanyahu’s Likud may take a hit from its left-wing challenger, the Zionist Union, Netanyahu’s late surge proved effective, earning his party a decisive 30-seats.
But a deeper look at the results tells a different story. This was not, as the headlines suggest, an unequivocal victory for Netanyahu. A comparison between the coalition we are likely to see and the outgoing coalition tells a complicated story, one that may not bode well for Netanyahu or for Israel at-large.
Here is a general comparison between the 2013 elections and yesterday’s elections:
The general takeaway here is that Israeli politics became much more consolidated in this election. Besides the splitting-up of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, this election saw an unprecedented alliance of the Arab parties, the joining of Labor and Hatnuah, and the shift of many voters from fringe parties towards the two major parties (Likud and Zionist Union). This shift is a sign of the bitterness of the campaign, and the urgency many voters felt this time around.
Nevertheless, this shift left the general composition of the Knesset virtually unchanged. By grouping together parties of the same ideology, things do not look much different:
Indeed, 2015 saw major internal shifts, but not many ideological shifts. However, this did not just occur out of thin air – there were many things that happened throughout the campaign that caused this picture to stay the same:
Netanyahu was forced to race to the right. As the polls kept showing a loss for Likud, Netanyahu was forced to blur the line between himself and the other right-wing parties, which in turn caused himself a great deal of damage. His speech to the U.S. Congress was, in part, a move to appear tough on Iran, but it hurt his image in the U.S. The day before the election, he removed his long-held support for a Palestinian state, putting him at odds with many international leaders. Finally, his comments about Arab voters on election day angered many within Israel and internationally. Although these tactics seem to have worked, they did not come without costs.
Isaac Herzog emerged as a viable alternative to Netanyahu. Herzog, the leader of the left-wing Zionist Union, was a marginal figure in Israeli politics before this election. However, his surge in the polls caused him to gain international attention, and he emerged as a serious alternative to Netanyahu. Now, as a member of the opposition, he will have a much stronger voice against Netanyahu’s policies.
Arabs were mobilized. The decision by a member of Netanyahu’s government to raise the electoral threshold (the amount of votes needed to gain representation in the Knesset) – which many in the Arab community saw as an attempt to keep out the small Arab parties – along with Netanyahu’s comments about Arab voters allowed the Arab parties to become more unified and experience significant gains.
Yet now, with the election over, the game turns to forming a coalition. It looks as though the centrist Kulanu will join the coalition after much speculation, and the Zionist Union will lead the opposition, giving us a general picture of what the new Israeli government will look like. Here’s a comparison to the last government:
This new coalition is a bit smaller and far more fractured, and may be difficult to hold together. Here’s why:
There are more parties. Quite simply, that means more interests and more energy keeping everyone together. That isn’t necessarily a problem, but in this case it may well be, because,
There are many internal conflicts. Kulanu, a centrist party, is run by a former Likud minister, who in the past turned down offers to serve with Netanyahu and yesterday called Netanyahu’s remarks about Arabs “inappropriate and regrettable.” In addition, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Leiberman, has a history of conflict with Netanyahu, and their parties split before this election. Finally, Netanyahu kept the ultra-Orthdox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, out of his last coalition, and his plan to require the Orthodox to serve in the military angered many in those parties. In short, this coalition is sure to have its issues, and it is unclear if, and how long, it can hold itself together.
On the other hand, the coalition may also be easier for Netanyahu to hold together because:
He doesn’t have to deal with left-wing or centrist parties. The right-wing is all alone in this new government. Despite some possible internal conflicts, it is also very much possible that Netanyahu will have no trouble moving forward with his agenda.
This different view of the expected coalition (by ideology instead of party) reveals its own set of issues:
The new, expected coalition is more right wing and more religious. While the election results did not hand a resounding mandate to the right-wing – and the overall makeup of the Knesset did not change much ideologically – Israelis are going to end up with a resoundingly right-wing government anyway. That could mean a much more divisive political culture in Israel, and could make governing the country a difficult task if the public rallies against Netanyahu’s government.
On the other hand, the opposition is much more unified. With no left-wing parties in the coalition, the opposition is now dominated by centrist and left-wing parties. Along with Herzog’s greatly enhanced public image, this can mean a much stronger opposition to Netanyahu’s policies.
Finally, this coalition will isolate Israel even further on the international stage. This coalition now stands firmly against a two-state solution, which puts it at odds with the U.S. and European Union. This right-wing, religious coalition will only isolate Israel further, intensifying Palestinian efforts to punish Israel at the United Nations and International Criminal Court. In Europe and the U.S., where leaders were already frustrated with Israel’s reluctance to make peace with the Palestinians, a jump to the right will not be warmly received.