Israel’s 2019 Election: Questions and Answers

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When are the elections?

April 9, 2019

Why were elections called at this time?

The last Knesset was due to complete its four year term in March of 2019, meaning that new elections would have to take place by the end of 2019. Several factors may have influenced Prime Minister Netanyahu to dissolve the Knesset and hold elections slightly early, in April, rather than later in the year.

Following Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as Defense Minister in November 2018, and the withdrawal of his Yisrael Beiteinu party from the governing coalition, the coalition was left with just 61 seats — a slim governing majority of only 1 seat. That slim majority left the government highly unstable, unable to pass certain contentious pieces of legislation. Other parties in the coalition, like HaBayit HaYehudi, had also threatened repeatedly to leave, further destabilizing the government.

Another likely factor was Prime Minister Netanyahu’s concern over his potential indictment on serious corruption charges. Following long investigations into Netanyahu in several different cases, police have recommended that Netanyahu be indicted. While Israel’s attorney general reviews the evidence and prepares to decide whether to move forward with an indictment, Netanyahu fears for his long-term political survival. He may have hoped that in calling an election early, voters could go to the polls before an official indictment is announced. In the event that he is indicted before the election, a major electoral victory could also help to shield him from the consequences and allow him to remain in office while the cases move through the courts.

So if Netanyahu is indicted before Election Day, does he have to resign?

Short answer: No. Legally, a prime minister cannot be forced to step down, even if he is indicted for a crime. Nor has Netanyahu given any indication that he would voluntarily step down.

Only intense pressure by other leaders and members of his Likud party, or by leaders of other right-wing parties likely to form a government with Likud, could succeed in forcing a resignation. Based on all indications to date, such pressure is very unlikely.

What is the most likely election outcome — what do the polls look like so far?

The early polls indicate a large, comfortable lead at the top for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party. Likud was the largest party in the last Knesset, with 30 seats. The largest opposition party, the center-left Zionist Union, had 24 seats — but has since been broken up, after a steady decline in the polls. Currently, Likud is polling between 30 and 33 seats — with no other party topping 15.

It’s possible, however, that the situation could evolve if a new alliance of centrist or center-left parties forms between now and February 21, when the parties must finalize their election lists. One poll has shown that if centrist leaders Benny Gantz and his Hosen L’Yisrael party ran on a joint ticket with Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party, they would garner 28 seats and pose more of a significant challenge to Likud. And one poll showed that in a head-to-head matchup, 38 percent of voters would prefer Gantz as prime minister, as compared to 41 percent for Netanyahu — a tight margin which indicates Gantz’s popularity and potential.

If Prime Minister Netanyahu is indicted, it’s also possible that Likud’s standing in the polls would be damaged — with other parties on the right and center reaping the benefits. Ultimately, any new government will have to include a fairly diverse coalition of parties — which means that even the smaller parties could have a significant impact. If smaller left and centrist parties perform better than smaller right-wing parties, or vice versa, that will greatly impact what the overall ideological makeup of the next coalition could look like.

What are the main issues that will help decide the election?

With so many political parties, many different issues impacting a diverse range of communities can have an impact on Israeli elections. Here are some of the most important:

Security: Israeli voters tend to put a heavy emphasis on questions of security, and many vote for candidates or parties who they believe will do the most to keep them safe and counter Israel’s enemies. For much of his political career, Prime Minister Netanyahu has successfully presented himself as the candidate who is “toughest” and best-equipped to handle Israel’s foreign and defense policy. In this election, his right-wing critics will argue that Netanyahu has not done enough to “punish” Hamas and cut down on violence in Israel’s southern region, next to Gaza. Critics from the left will contend that Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and the occupied territory are only exacerbating conflict and making Israel less secure. Any flare up in armed conflict with Hamas could have a significant electoral impact.

Settlements and the Palestinian Issue: Attitudes towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the two-state solution and the settlements lie are central to Israeli politics and help to define where parties lie on the left-right spectrum. Right-wing voters, particularly in the national-religious camp, will continue to push for policies that expand settlements, entrench Israeli control of the occupied territory and move in the direction of annexation.

Democracy and the Nation-State Law: In recent years, the Netanyahu government has taken a number of steps which seem to undercut Israeli democratic institutions and principles. One such action was the passage of the controversial Nation-State Law. The law emphasized Israel’s status as a Jewish state but also was seen by some as discriminating against non-Jewish Israelis, relegating them to a second-class status. There is increasing concern among both Jewish and non-Jewish voters that Israel is moving in a more authoritarian and undemocratic direction. Several of Netanyahu’s leading challengers have already stated that they would seek to remove or amend the Nation-State Law. On the right, critics of the law have been portrayed as insufficiently nationalist or Zionist.

Socio-Economic Concerns: While the Israeli economy is relatively strong and has experienced years of steady growth, many voters continue to face difficulties. The high cost of living, and in particular the high cost of housing in many major cities, is a significant concern. Voters in more underdeveloped areas on the “periphery” may feel neglected by the economic decisions and resource distribution of government policymakers in Jerusalem.

The Future of Prime Minister Netanyahu: Netanyahu has now served as prime minister for almost ten consecutive years and thirteen years overall. While he remains the country’s dominant political figure, his policies and efforts to cling to power have also become increasingly polarizing. Faced with major corruption investigations and the prospect of indictment in the near future, Netanyahu has aggressively lashed out at his critics and portrayed this election as a referendum on his personal performance as prime minister. How Israelis feel about Netanyahu’s achievements, tactics and alleged crimes will play a major role in deciding the outcome.

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