Israel’s 2019 Election: Questions and Answers

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When are the elections?

September 17, 2019.

Why were elections called at this time?

After a surprising failure to form a coalition government following elections held on April 9 this year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu orchestrated a vote to dissolve parliament and hold new elections rather than grant another leader the opportunity to form an alternative coalition. It was a dramatic turn of events after a period of ongoing political instability sparked by the resignation of Israel’s Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, in November 2018.

Lieberman’s resignation, and the withdrawal of his Yisrael Beiteinu party from the governing coalition, left Netanyahu with just 61 seats – a slim, unstable governing majority of just one seat. That instability, combined with Netanyahu’s potential indictment on corruption charges, is likely what led the Prime Minister to call a slightly early election for April 2019.

Netanyahu faced off against a strong, centrist challenger in the form of former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and his newly created Blue and White party. After the results were counted following the April 9 vote, it appeared Netanyahu had fought off the challenge and would be set for a historic fifth term. President Rivlin granted Netanyahu the opportunity to commence coalition negotiations but talks eventually broke down, with Avigdor Lieberman again placing himself center stage. The Yisrael Beiteinu party leader loudly refused to back down from his secular party’s demand for limits to the blanket exemption from military service given to ultra-Orthodox Israelis, a total non-starter with the religious parties Netanyahu also needed in his coalition.

That impasse, combined with the legally mandated deadline for Netanyahu to ink a coalition agreement, led to a dramatic midnight vote in the Knesset as Israel’s parliament voted to dissolve itself and bring on new elections — a first in Israel’s turbulent political history.

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?

There’s no telling how this unprecedented second election might play out. The April 9 vote delivered 35 seats to Likud and 35 seats to Blue and White. Of the remaining 50 seats in the Knesset, a slim majority landed with right-wing parties, giving Netanyahu a parliamentary advantage (albeit one which ultimately fell apart).

Although the September elections have been scheduled to be held just 161 days after the original April 9 vote, there’s every reason to believe that this contest could feature some notable new dynamics.

Depending on your perspective, the narrow April defeat has made the broader center-left either more energized than ever — or more desperate than ever. The chance at redemption may be a strong motivating factor for center-left leaders, pushing them to set aside differences and run on joint slates. The splintered Arab parties, Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad, are facing increasing pressure to run on a joint list as they did to great success in 2015.

For his part, Netanyahu’s reputation for political inviolability and Machiavellian maneuvering has clearly been dented by the failed negotiations. After such a calculated and tightly-planned election campaign earlier this year — featuring an AIPAC speech, international tours, a centerpiece Trump-Golan announcement and hundreds of cameras at Arab polling stations — Likud’s September campaign may be a more opportunistic, fierce and impulsive fight. It is likely that there will also be attempts on the right to unify parties and form joint lists, with several far-right groups having failed to gain entry to the Knesset in April after falling short of the minimum threshold.

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 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. In the final days of the April campaign, Netanyahu himself pledged to annex settlements in the West Bank in his next term, a commitment which was welcomed by the right-wing parties and later played a role in coalition negotiations. Annexation is therefore likely to play a more prominent role in this second election.

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.