Israel voted for the third time within a year – and again the citizens have not made a clear decision. The right-wing national bloc led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did better than the middle party of Benjamin Gantz. But Netanyahu, who is already celebrating himself as the election winner, is not able to achieve an absolute majority based on the votes counted so far.
Which means that the coalition negotiations could take several weeks – only to fail again in the end. Then elections would be due again, for the fourth time in a row. Already at the poll a year ago, Netanyahu’s party lacked a vote for an absolute majority despite the election victory in parliament.
The fact that Netanyahu received the most votes this time is a danger to the rule of law. Already in two weeks, on March 17th, the election winner as defendant will have to answer in court for three corruption cases involving bribery, infidelity and fraud. The trial in the Jerusalem District Court will take several months, maybe even years. If convicted, Netanyahu can appeal to the Supreme Court.
Such a legal crisis is brewing in Israel. It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu can be entrusted with the formation of the government at all. But the fact that a candidate suspected of serious crimes by the police and attorney general is at the top of the will to vote does not bode well for the reputation of the judiciary in large parts of Israel’s population. Because the man who will defend himself in court could soon be responsible for those institutions that have to ensure the functioning of the rule of law.
Netanyahu is now trying to entice MPs from other parties to get a sufficient majority in parliament. If he brings it to a majority in the Knesset with her help, chances will increase that he will be spared a conviction. Before the election, the prime minister applied for immunity from law enforcement, but ultimately withdrew.
Israel’s society is deeply divided
If Netanyahu remained head of government, he might even be tempted to punish the state’s legal system for daring to try him. Under the guise of judicial reform, he could limit the influence of the Supreme Court, which has emerged as a liberal bastion in recent years.
The elections have shown once again how divided Israeli society is. The protagonists of the election campaign, Netanyahu and Benni Gantz, symbolize diametrically opposite values. Perhaps surprisingly for Europeans, this is not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In principle, Netanyahu and Gantz agree that it could be resolved on the basis of the peace plan that US President Donald Trump presented in January.
The break across the country can be seen in the latest election results in the two largest cities in Israel. A year ago, Likud, the Netanyahu party, and his ultra-Orthodox partner together received more than 60 percent of the vote in the god-fearing Jerusalem, which piously worship as the Holy City. In contrast, Gantz was only able to win over twelve percent of its citizens in Jerusalem.
Tel Aviv in turn ticks completely differently. In the financial center, which also has a good reputation worldwide as a party city, Gantz received almost every second vote, but Netanyahu only 20 percent. The pious and ultra-Orthodox did markedly worse in Tel Aviv than in Jerusalem.
The elections were ultimately about the country’s lifestyle and identity. Whoever chose Netanyahu knew that he would receive the pious along with the right as a coalition partner. He spoke in favor of the dominance of religion, for example on civil law issues.
Followers see Netanyahu as a martyr
The Orthodox also always have an economic interest in ensuring that their politicians are represented again in the future coalition. In doing so, they ensure that their religious schools continue to be funded by the state and that the eleven in religious schools learn nothing about “heretical” subjects such as evolution and grow up without secular subjects, as this would be at the expense of Bible study.
The composition of the Gantz electorate is heterogeneous. The Blue White party, founded just a year ago, consists of four currents and is still looking for a resilient identity. But the exponents and their voters agreed on one point: Netanyahu’s mandate should not be renewed after more than a decade. For them, a prime minister who is charged is a violation of the rule of law.
Netanyahu’s voters, on the other hand, see the charges as neither a flaw nor a danger. On the contrary, they are convinced that Netanyahu is being persecuted by the “left”, the media and the elite. “Bibi”, as he is called by friend and foe, is a martyr to whom she is wronged. The political jack-of-all-trades knew how to swear in those who feel misunderstood and discriminated against.
More: Read here why political uncertainty in Israel could become an economic risk.