The Reforming of Netanyahu’s Israel

Netanyahu celebrating with his supporters
© picture alliance/dpa | Ilia Yefimovich

The Israeli public voted on November 1, for the fifth time in three years for two alternative governments. This time, Netanyahu’s bloc managed to get 64 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats, finally gaining the majority he needed to form a government. Now with a clear majority for his camp, Netanyahu was given the complicated task of forming a government.

How Did Netanyahu Manage to Win?

In the last few months, it became quite clear that these elections will be decided by which bloc has a higher voter turnout, and if they manage to save the smaller parties from disappearing, and thus wasting votes. With a final voter turnout of 71.3%, the highest number since 2015, it was evident that voter turnout has increased for both camps. Even among Arab voters, who traditionally have much lower numbers, turnout increased to 53%. But this increase has proved to be a double-edged sword for the Anti-Netanyahu bloc.

The total rise in voter turnout also raised the amount of votes needed to get into Knesset, a minimum of 3.25% out of total votes. While Netanyahu’s allies formed political unions before the elections to protect their bloc’s small parties, the smaller parties of the opposing bloc, namely the left-wing and Arab parties, refused to merge. As a result of this reluctance to merge, PM Lapid had six different endangered parties in his bloc, coming into these elections.

Finally, the left-wing Meretz party and the Arab Balad party, both in the Anti-Netanyahu bloc, were left out of the Knesset, due to the raised 3.25% threshold. Resulting in half a million votes wasted, and shifting the balance from a 60:60 stalemate to a solid 64 seat victory for Netanyahu’s bloc.

Netanyahu’s Old and New Allies

During the last three years, Israeli politics reorganized into a sort of “Two Bloc System”. This system legitimized all political actors if they were willing to support one of the blocs. Some critics claim that Netanyahu had too much success in forming the ultranationalist block and legitimizing the ultra-nationalist Jewish Power party. Together with the Religious Zionist List, Jewish Power has gained 14 seats in these elections. Almost half of Netanyahu’s Likud party. Previously a persona non grata, Itamar Ben Gvir, head of Jewish Power lead a very successful campaign, addressing public security concerns and promising police and military reforms. Due to his strengthening, he is expected to have a major role in the upcoming government.

In addition to these two far-right parties, Netanyahu is also expected to add the two Ultra-Orthodox parties to his new government. This upcoming government will put Netanyahu in an inconvenient situation. Throughout his many years as prime minister, Netanyahu has always added at least one moderate party to his government. This “Scapegoat Party” was tasked with blocking all the far-right populist legislation that Netanyahu couldn’t afford to object to himself.

These moderate parties predictably defended Israel’s liberal institutions, only to later be categorized as weak left-wing parties and shrink down, as Netanyahu continued to be the undisputed leader of the Israeli right-wing.

Champion of Liberal Democracy

It seems this strategy will have to change. After the results of the elections became clear, all potential partners from the Anti-Netanyahu bloc clarified that they will not join Netanyahu’s government. Even the centrist Blue & White party, that has previously joined a government with Netanyahu and survived being his scapegoat, clearly stated that they will not support the upcoming government.

This leaves one man, capable of being the champion of liberal democracy in the coming government, capable of blocking dangerous far-right legislation – Netanyahu himself. Unlike all his previous governments, Netanyahu can no longer play the double game of supporting populist far-right demands publicly and then aiding his moderate allies in blocking any legislation. This time, Netanyahu will have to choose.

Netanyahu’s choice is even more difficult to make because all his allies can dissolve his government. This means that each political actor in his coalition has a de facto a veto power. Even if Netanyahu chooses to embrace his role as the champion of liberal democracy, he must be willing to risk his position as prime minister.

What Can We Expect?

Netanyahu is expected to strive to find some sort of compromise between demands for reform from his allies and the expected public backlash. To succeed, Netanyahu must correctly anticipate and avoid drastic changes to Israel’s liberal status quo that might cause the public to turn on him. In return, he would need to offer his allies alternative reforms, so that they are willing to compromise.

While there are some volatile changes that Netanyahu might choose to reject, such as canceling the annual Pride Parade in Tel Aviv, it is safe to assume that the coming government will reform the Israeli Justice system. The Israeli justice system has been vilified over the years, not unlike Netanyahu’s scapegoats, and is seen by many in the far-right as a left leaning institution bent on limiting the government’s power.

Netanyahu himself has been at odds with the justice system ever since he was indicted on November 21, 2019. It is still unclear whether Netanyahu will abuse his newly regained power to affect the outcome of his trial, but his government will work to reform what they see as a rotten and biased justice system.

Another change we can expect will be in this government’s approach to the conflict and its Arab citizens. Jewish Power campaigned on “bringing back law and order” and must deliver if it doesn’t want to shrink back into irrelevance. During his campaign, Ben Gvir promised to increase police budgets and efficiency, but also to introduce immunity to police and soldiers dealing with Palestinians, make the law more lenient towards police violence and to instate the death penalty for terrorists. While it is still unknown what exactly will be implemented, it is safe to assume that he will insist on significant reforms for both the IDF and the Israeli police.

Final Note

The impact of these expected reforms will not go unnoticed by the Israeli public, as many voice their concern for the future of Israel’s liberal democracy. While the Israeli public is quite used to elections being concluded with a Netanyahu victory, to many, this time it feels different. The usual disappointment of the Anti-Netanyahu camp in Israel has been substituted with an air of fear and despair.

This makes the coming government’s challenge even greater, as they will have to find a way to alleviate these fears. This would prove even more difficult if the government wishes to also live up to the expectations of its demanding voter base.