Israelis go to the polls on September 17 for the second time in six months to try to break a deadlock resulting from deep divisions within the electorate over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and variety of domestic issues, especially the relationship between religion and state. The results are not likely to produce significant shifts in Israeli politics or foreign policy.
How did we get here?
In April, Netanyahu’s Likud Party won thirty-five seats in the Knesset, as did a coalition called Blue and White under the leadership of retired Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Israel’s president tapped Netanyahu to form a government. Coalition negotiations stumbled when the parties Netanyahu needed to join the government refused to compromise on several critical issues. Rather than allow Gantz an opportunity to try to form a coalition, Netanyahu forced new elections.
Who is running?
The primary contenders are Netanyahu’s Likud Party and the Blue and White coalition. Israel’s weak Labor Party would likely join a Blue and White government, but also, under certain circumstances, could join a Likud-led government. Religious parties will likely continue to be important to Netanyahu’s government-formation strategy.
Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beitenu party and a former minister, could be the kingmaker. He has stated that he will support a unity government between Likud and Blue and White and remains resolute on requiring the military draft of ultra-Orthodox men and ending the chief rabbinate’s requirement that Russian immigrants prove their Jewishness through DNA tests. If Yisrael Beitenu does at least as well as it did in April, earning five seats, Lieberman will likely be a central figure in determining the governing coalition.
Will Netanyahu stay in power?
Netanyahu, now the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, hopes to remain in office despite a pending indictment for fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. Blue and White has said that it will not sit in a government with Netanyahu if he is indicted, and there are rumors that even within Netanyahu’s Likud Party there are some members who prefer another leader. In response, the party leadership demanded that members sign a declaration that they would not seek to replace Netanyahu.
During his tenure, Netanyahu has overseen the expansion of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and fortified Israel’s control over Jerusalem and its environs. Blue and White has challenged his national security credentials, criticizing him for seeking temporary agreements with Hamas rather than destroying the group in the Gaza Strip. In response, Netanyahu is trying to convince Israelis once again that only he can be trusted with their security. In addition to the focus on Netanyahu and his legal troubles, the opposition campaign has highlighted domestic issues such as the relationship between religion and state, the economy, corruption, and social welfare.
What’s at stake?
If Netanyahu wins and secures a coalition, it seems all but certain that Israel will annex parts of the West Bank. Supporters of a two-state solution have pinned their hopes on Blue and White, but the policy differences between Gantz—along with his partners Yair Lapid, Moshe Yaalon, and Gabi Ashkenazi—and Netanyahu are not as great as some analyses suggest. On the core issue of the conflict with the Palestinians, none of them have endorsed Palestinian statehood and all envision retaining Israeli settlements in the West Bank and maintaining a military presence in the strategically important Jordan Valley. Lieberman is the exception. He supports a two-state solution and the transfer of Palestinian citizens of Israel to the newly created Palestine.
Regardless of the outcome, not much will change for the Palestinians or the issues of import for Israel around the region. It seems unlikely that a Blue and White–led government would alter settlement policy, though Gantz would not support outright Israeli annexation of the West Bank. Any Israeli governing coalition would continue to try to nurture Jerusalem’s ties with the Arab world, especially given the confluence of interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel on Iran.
Despite the close working relationship between Netanyahu and President Donald J. Trump, American interests will likely remain unaffected if the prime minister loses. The Trump administration is focused on Iran and combating extremism, two areas where Israel plays an important role. In the context of U.S.-Israel relations and American relations to the Palestinians or other actors in the region, the elections do not matter much at all.