While (nearly) half of Israel would wish it otherwise, Binyamin Netanyahu is this morning celebrating the fulfilment of the only goal that has driven him in recent months, perhaps years: to stay in office at all costs. Barring some seismic upset, he will now become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history despite facing three criminal indictments for corruption and at least the possibility of another.
After 95 per cent of general election votes were counted, Netanyahu’s party was tied with that of his only challenger for the premiership, former military chief of staff Benny Gantz, at 35 seats each. But while he could have sought a broad coalition with Gantz, Netanyahu indicated in the early hours that he was seeking one with his “natural partners” on the right. They now include the overtly racist Union of Right-Wing Parties, which won five seats and is unmistakably the most extreme party in Israeli politics.
But the achievement of Gantz, a political virgin, whose new Blue and White party came from nowhere to become Likud’s chief opponent, cannot be overestimated. Many centrist and soft-left voters, in despair at Netanyahu’s endurance, appear to have defected from Labor to Gantz, an Israel-born general from central casting and the son of Holocaust survivors. Labor, which ran Israel almost unchallenged from 1948 to 1977, and dominated it under Yitzhak Rabin in the early Nineties, suffered its worst-ever result (winning a mere six seats and five per cent of the vote).
But Netanyhau’s triumph, with the right-wing bloc commanding 65 out of 120 seats, did not come easily. This most ruthless of campaigners used every means available to shore up his nationalist base. The potentially illegal distribution by Likud of 1,300 cameras to activists at polling stations in Arab areas, seemingly to intimidate voters, was only the latest tactic to minimise opposition gains.
Netanyahu deftly courted far-right voters by — for the first time — raising the prospect of formally annexing parts of the West Bank (whether he ultimately intends to or not). In this he was aided by Donald Trump, who having ratified Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, announced on Monday night that the US was proscribing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation.
The Israeli prime minister tweeted that this step fulfilled “another important request of mine”. But he did so only in Hebrew, judging perhaps that to do so in English might have appeared hubristic. Trump is preparing to unveil his long-trailed Israeli-Palestinian “peace plan”, one that Netanyahu surely hopes will enrage the Palestinians more than his own right flank.
There were modest consolations for the Israeli left, so much reduced over the last 15 years. Meretz, the most left wing of the Jewish parties, managed to win four seats. With the votes of right-leaning Israeli soldiers still to be counted, final tallies remain uncertain. The preliminary figures suggested that the two Arab groupings, Ra’am-Balad and Hadash-Ta’al, retained four and six seats respectively (a fall of three seats since 2015 after a severe fall in Arab turnout).
Initial results also suggest that the Zakut party of Josef Feiglin, who disguised his own ultra-nationalist views behind a haze of libertarianism — including a pledge to legalise cannabis — has confounded predictions by failing to secure Knesset entry. And Naftali Bennet’s far-right New Right party also failed to win parliamentary seats, according to the current count.
But this will be welcomed by Netanyahu, for whom Bennet is a rival. The biggest component of his prospective right-wing coalition is likely to be the ultra-Orthodox parties, who care more about cash for their constituency than ideology.
Netanyahu cannot now be certain that the Knesset will pass a bill immunising him from prosecution, as his supporters hoped. That means he could still face trial — and a potential fall from office — within months. But in the short term he has more room for manoeuvre than he could have reasonably expected. Despite Gantz’s impressive advance, this was Netanyahu’s night.
Donald Macintyre is the former Jerusalem correspondent of the Independent