Israel’s election showed Binyamin Netanyahu’s magic has finally worn off

The unscrupulous campaigner resorted to every trick he could think of but fell short of the majority needed for a right-wing coalition. 

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The smiling taxi driver outside Tel Aviv’s University rail station this morning was in no doubt, telling me happily: “Bibi-Zehu” — Hebrew for “that’s it.” A supporter of Benny Gantz’s centrist Kahol Lavan party, he may have been a little premature in hailing the end of the man who has dominated Israeli politics for a decade. But he was reflecting a sense across the country today that the Netanyahu era is finally drawing to a close. With 92 per cent of the vote counted, the Prime Minister’s Likud party was tied with Kahol Lavan at 32 Knesset seats each (out of 120). 

In the tortuous coalition negotiations that will follow, Netanyahu (Prime Minister from 1996-99 and from 2009 to the present) will do all he can to retain power. But it was clear from the early hours that he recognised the severity of his failure to secure the seats required to form a right-wing coalition with ultranationalist and religious parties. 

Perhaps because Netanyahu needed just such a coalition to pass a law protecting him from prosecution over corruption, this skilful and unscrupulous campaigner resorted to every trick he could think of. The constant warnings to his base, replete with racist overtones, were merely a repeat of his earlier campaign in April’s election. Facebook, however, twice blocked the Prime Ministerial chatbot during the campaign — first because Netanyahu used it to warn against the “Arabs trying to annihilate us”, second due to his illegal use of polling data to reinforce his relentlessly divisive message.

But most remarkably of all, it emerged that Netanyahu came close to launching a military onslaught on Gaza in the hope that he could postpone the election altogether — as has not happened since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The government’s denials were made all the more unconvincing by Haaretz’s revelation that Netanyahu was stopped because of reservations among the military and a warning by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit that such a move would be unconstitutional without cabinet backing.

It is probably too early to judge whether the Prime Minister overplayed his hand. But his liberal opponents should certainly be pleased that Labour, with six seats, and the Democratic Union, including the leftist Meretz, with five, will feature in the new parliament. The quasi-fascist and avowedly racist Otzma Yehudit, which failed to pass the required vote threshold, will not. Even more impressively, the Arab Parties, which reformed as a joint list under the leadership of Ayman Odeh, won 12 seats and are now the third-largest grouping in the Knesset.

Another unambiguous winner, however, was Avigdor Lieberman, the secular, Moldova-born, hard-right settler whose Yisrael Beiteinu party extended its mainly Russian-speaking base to win nine seats (four more than in April). Neither Gantz, the former chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces, nor Likud can form a coalition acceptable to Israel’s political class without Lieberman. This factor is pushing Gantz to seek a “broad unity” coalition with Likud — with or without Lieberman in its ranks.

Gantz, however, has said that he will not form such a coalition as long as Netanyahu remains Likud’s leader. If he maintains this stance, the real battle ahead for Netanyahu may be to fend off rivals, such as the rising Gideon Sa’ar, from unseating him from the party leadership.

No one yet knows the exact composition of such a government, much less how it will conduct itself, not least in response to Donald Trump’s long promised “deal of the century”. Will annexation of parts of the West Bank — extravagantly promised to the ultra-nationalist right by Netanyahu during the campaign — happen? What will the government’s policy be towards heavily blockaded Gaza? And so on.  

If mere arithmetic was the only factor, Gantz and Kahol Lavan could theoretically form a ruling coalition with the two leftist Jewish groupings, the Arab parties, and just one of the two ultra-orthodox religious parties. It was by conjuring such a spectre that Netanyhau sought to animate his base. And this would certainly mean a decisive change in direction for Israel. But as Netanyahu well knows, this remains a distant prospect.

Anything short of that can happen in Israeli politics. But as of now, a possibility remains a grand coalition between Likud and Kahol Lavan — with or without a politician, Netanyhau, whose black magic has finally started to wear thin.

Donald Macintyre is the former Jerusalem correspondent of the Independent.