Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won a decisive electoral victory at the polls despite tying with main rival Benny Gantz, former chief of staff in the Israel Defense Forces. While both the ruling Likud Party and challenging Blue and White Party each are scheduled to receive 35 mandates in the 21st Knesset, the results are not nearly as close as the 35-seat figures would indicate.
For Netanyahu, who faces possible indictments for breach of trust in the coming year, the Israeli voting public gave the embattled 10-year prime minister an unequivocal endorsement. Likud received more mandates than during any previous election in which Netanyahu has led the party—a stunning five-mandate increase over the party’s total in the 2015 election. More Israelis than ever before voted conclusively to keep Netanyahu the nation’s leader. The 35-seat total indicates just how strongly the electorate believes that he is the best-positioned person to handle the extensive security, economic, socio-religious and geopolitical challenges facing Israel in 2019 and beyond.
Yet the story of these elections is not simply in the head-to-head statistical dead heat between Likud, and Blue and White. Rather, the real statistic that will send Benny Gantz into the opposition is the size of the Israeli voting blocs each larger party sits atop.
For Netanyahu, the block of right-wing and religious parties totals at least 65 mandates before the last votes are tallied. The left-wing block that would have clearly supported Gantz as prime minister, including the Labor and Meretz parties, only totaled 45 mandates. The 20-mandate gap between the two major voting blocs represents an unequivocal victory for Israel’s right-wing, making the actual results look much more like a landslide than a tie.
Each of the right-wing parties that passed the electoral threshold, including the United Right national religious party, the Yisrael Beiteynu Russian-immigrant party, the center-right Kulanu party, the United Torah Judaism Ashkenazi religious party and the Shas Sephardic religious party have all indicated that they will recommend Netanyahu as premier to Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin.
The remaining 10 mandates outside of the right- and left-wing blocks belong to the two Arab-Israeli parties. Since the foundation of the state, no Arab party has ever sat in a coalition government, whether that government was led by Israel’s right or left. In 2019, that remains no different. Both Arab parties told their voters in the run-up to the election that to them, there was no difference between Israel’s left and right. During the campaigns, both Likud and Blue and White indicated that they would not turn to the Arab parties to help form a government.
Even if the Arab parties would recommend Gantz to be prime minister without any intention of formally joining a Gantz-led government, the right-wing block would still have a sizable 10-seat advantage.
One of the major lies of the Israeli election cycle was that virtually all news outlets, except for JNS, included the projected Arab mandates within the left-wing block. This was done intentionally to give left-wing voters the sense that the election was closer than it was. According to almost all polls leading up to the election, Blue and White never had a mathematical chance to form a government. Their only hope would have been a sizable electoral victory over the Likud and the defection of right-wing parties towards a left-right unity government.
The formation of Blue and White was an attempt among multiple parties in a scattered center-left who sat in opposition to Netanyahu’s previous governing coalition to join forces in an attempt to defeat the prime minister. Time will tell whether Blue and White will stay together, or will collapse like many other one-and-done political creations in Israeli electoral history. Meanwhile, since Likud rose to power under Menachem Begin in 1977, it has been a right-wing mainstay and the most dominant force in Israeli politics, much of that time with Netanyahu at the helm.
None of the nine other parties received more than eight mandates. So even among the significantly larger right-wing bloc, more than half of the votes went directly to Netanyahu—a clear demonstration of the bloc’s confidence that the issue of who would emerge victorious as prime minister was more important than the ideological considerations of the smaller parties.
Furthermore, two parties to the right of Likud, including the New Right party of ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, and the Zehut Party of Moshe Feiglin, failed to pass the 3.25 percent electoral threshold that is equivalent to four Knesset mandates. (By the time of this writing, New Right sat just a few thousand votes below the threshold and may still squeeze into the Knesset.) Zehut received approximately 2 percent of the national vote. As such, while failing to cross the threshold, an extra four to five right-wing mandates were lost and redistributed among all parties entering the next government. Should New Right ultimately succeed, the right-wing’s victory will be even larger.
Israelis rallied around Netanyahu despite the Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s announcement that he would recommend indictments in three separate breach-of-trust cases pending hearings tentatively scheduled for later this summer. Netanyahu has maintained that in each case, his side of the story has yet to be heard—by the public and by the prosecution. At the same time, a statistic published by the Israeli Democracy Institute indicates that in cases where the attorney general recommends an indictment “pending a hearing,” such cases are dropped by the prosecution 39 percent of the time before any formal charges are made.
That Netanyahu’s largest electoral gain comes despite the public’s knowledge of allegations of wrongdoing demonstrates that many Israelis don’t believe the charges are dramatic enough to remove one of Israel’s most successful prime ministers from office. Some believe that the allegations are just part of a political attempt to oust him. In the laundry list of issues the prime minister needs to address, including an upcoming peace plan to be offered by the United States, the Iranian threat, worldwide diplomatic relations, and growing tensions at the borders north and south, his conduct with relation to attempting to secure better media coverage or accepting gifts from wealthy friends seems to rank relatively low compared to real political challenges.
And while Netanyahu may need to divert a portion of his time in the months ahead to clearing his name—and may ultimately be charged or even convicted—today it’s business as usual for what is sure to be the longest-serving Israeli prime minister since David Ben-Gurion. Netanyahu will now go on to form a comfortable 65-mandate government, while the 45 seats of the left-wing block join the 10 seats of the Arab block in the opposition. The Israeli electorate has spoken.
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of JNS.