More of the same in Israel

Touted as the most consequential in the history of Israel, the legislative elections held on 9 April would seem to have fallen short of expectations, whether we look at them in terms of the turnout or the results. Aside from a few nuances and the uncertainties regarding the formation of a new government, the one overall conclusion we can draw from these elections is that we can expect to see more of the same, in other words, more fait accompli tactics being deployed by Israel and more hardships for the Palestinians.

To start with, only 68 per cent of the 6.3 million potential voters turned out, as compared with 72 per cent in 2015. And nowhere was the fall in participation more marked than among the Arab-Israelis – around 20 per cent of the Israeli population – in the face of elections that promised to bring no good and nothing new. The adoption, on 19 July, of the law declaring Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people, crushed any last hope held by the 1.8 million Palestinians living there of becoming equal citizens, and goes some way towards explaining why only a fourth of Arab-Israelis turned out to vote. If we add to this the failure to preserve the unity of the Joint List – which Arab-Israelis presented in 2015, and through which 13 Knesset members were elected, making it the third political force in the Knesset – and the splitting of the vote between two alliances – Hadash-Ta’al (which has secured six Knesset members) and Raam Balad (which has secured four) – further weakening their chances of defending their interests, the conclusion appears even clearer.

As for the results, the tie between Likud – led by Benjamin Netanyahu – and the Blue and White alliance – led by former army general Benny Gantz, leader of Hosen L’Yisrael (Israel Resilience Party), alongside Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, and Moshe Ya’alon, leader of Telem, was in line with the forecasts. They each won 35 seats. Likud had 30 during the 20th Knesset, whilst the only party represented from the Blue and White alliance was Yesh Atid, with 11 Knesset members.

There are few surprises as to how the remaining 120 seats in the Knesset have been shared out, save for the disappearance from parliament of the far-right Zehut, of Moshe Feiglin, and the HaYamin HeHadash (New Right) party, of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked (both former Likud leaders), both of which failed to reach the 3.25 per cent electoral threshold.

Also in line with the predictions is the historically poor performance of the Labour Party (HaAvoda), which has secured no more than six seats (compared with the 24 it had in its alliance with Hatnuah).

Equally foreseeable has been the Jewish religious parties’ success in mobilising their followers to provide them, as usual, with a strong presence in the national parliament, and guaranteeing them a place in any ministerial cabinet formed. Both the Ashkenazi Yahadut Hatorah party (United Torah Judaism) and the Shas (Sephardic Guardians of the Torah) have obtained eight seats, increasing their representation by two and one, respectively.

A Netanyahu or Gantz government coalition?

In light of the numbers, which once again confirm the impossibility of a monochrome government, the formation of a new ministerial cabinet is open to a range of possibilities. No one of them can be ruled out, as all will depend on the skill shown by Netanyahu and Gantz over the coming days in garnering support from the 61 Knesset members required, at least, to be appointed prime minister. But it is ‘Bibi’ who is holding the most and the best cards needed to return to office and to become, in July, Israel’s longest-serving leader, overtaking Ben Gurion.

But the path is not totally clear, nor does the future promise to be bright if he gets there. First of all, let us not forget that Netanyahu has reached this point already worn down by a tenure with more dark than bright spells. On a personal level, he is already facing indictment in three judicial cases (which could soon become four). Whilst this does not appear to have damaged his results in the election, it could seriously compromise his future, forcing him to dedicate precious time and efforts to emerging unscathed from the bribery, fraud and breach of trust cases opened against him by the attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit.

The series of political gifts Donald Trump has given his main ally in the Middle East, clearly aimed at strengthening his political options, takes on particular relevance in this context.

The US president not only decided to brush aside international law with his designation of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the transfer of the US embassy to the city, but went on to throw in a few extras, such as closing down all contact with the Palestinian Authority, cutting all funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and, in a move even more contemptuous of international law, recognising the Syrian Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Netanyahu has obviously made good electoral capital of these gifts – awaiting the offering expected to come wrapped up in the so-called peace plan that Trump is concocting – but their political fallout will now have to be dealt with, given that none of them serve Israel’s real interests.

In addition, Netanyahu himself, in his eagerness to rally votes, has made promises that he will find hard to keep without also endangering national interests. On the eve of the elections, he pledged to annex the settlements in the West Bank. We are talking about no less than 400 settlements (housing at least 400,000 settlers), all deemed illegal under international law, as they violate the law of occupation. Netanyahu, who is most likely to be the new prime minister, succeeded in securing the votes of those settlers with a pledge that, if honoured, will sound the death knell of the idea of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict (an idea only still formally defended by a tenth of Israel’s parliamentary parties).

Nor is he going to have an easy time – if he finally opts for the same bedfellows that supported him during his latest tenure – handling government coalition partners who are sure to up their demands. The ambitions of the religious parties could prove particularly tricky, should this scenario play out. They have managed, so far, to block the controversial law under which yeshiva students would be forced to do military service, and are likely to increase their requests for funds for their own activities and to force the rule of religious norms over secular laws, in a largely secular society.

And all this against the background of an economic environment that does not bode well, in the short term, for the wellbeing of Israel’s 8.9 million citizens, be it due to the protraction of the conflict in Syria or Iran’s insistence on making itself visible. Also worth highlighting, to complete the picture of the man most likely to be the new prime minister, is the bad company he has kept of late, all clearly leaning towards the extreme right that has inevitably ended up branding Netanyahu himself, despite the anti-Semitic positions some of these friends of convenience may take.

In short, the only genuinely novel and major development was that, on 11 April, Israel pretended to join the United States, Russia and China in managing to land a spacecraft, the Beresheet (Hebrew for ’genesis’), on the surface of the moon. And that is, indeed, something new.

This article has been translated from Spanish.