Israel is holding elections today for the Knesset, its 120-member legislature. The conservative Likud Party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s longest serving leader, is facing a tough vote, unsure if the party and its allies will achieve the 61 member majority they need to form a new government.
If this all gives you a sense of déjà vu, don’t worry; you haven’t stumbled upon a glitch in the Matrix (yes, I’m dating myself with that reference). Netanyahu faced this exact situation in April. His party survived that vote, but just barely – Likud and its main opposition, the new Blue and White Alliance (led by various former military officials) each secured 35 seats in the Knesset, but neither was able to put together a 61-member coalition; hence the electoral do-over. Parliamentary democracies can be rough (*glances over at Boris Johnson and the Brexit debacle, recoils in horror*). Netanyahu’s political longevity demonstrates his toughness as a political fighter, but weariness over his long rule, now dogged by several corruption cases against him and his family, may lead Israelis to seek a change at the top.
It’s hard to deny that Netanyahu’s political strategies largely depend on playing to Israeli Jewish nationalism and fears of external and internal threats (an especially potent strategy when deep-seeded territorial disputes like the decade long Israeli-Palestinian conflict obscure exactly what is external or internal). The usual suspects include Israeli Arabs (about 1/5 of the population, and generally opposed to the Netanyahu government that fairly blatantly discriminates against them; among many other things, Netanyahu likes to condemn his political opponents as being willing to ally with Israeli Arabs, as if that is an inherently bad thing), Palestinians and other Arabs in occupied or disputed territories, and hostile nations like Iran.
Ahead of the April vote, Netanyahu made political issues of all these groups. In 2018, his government passed a law declaring Israel “the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” potentially increasing the marginalization of non-Jewish (particularly Arab) Israelis (and contributing to a drop in Arab voting do to disillusionment with the political process). US President Donald Trump helped out Netanyahu with the other two groups. In March, the US became the first country in the world to officially recognize Israeli claims to the Golan Heights, territory seized from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War and controlled by Israel ever since. Then, on the day before the April Israeli vote, the Trump Administration declared that it was putting the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on its list of foreign terrorist organizations. This was yet another unprecedented move, the first time an official branch of a sovereign state was placed on the US list. Netanyahu took to Twitter that night to claim credit for convincing Trump to make that decision, a move that may have gained the Israeli Prime Minister just enough votes to survive.
This time, similar plays are being run. Netanyahu attempted but failed to have cameras installed at polling stations in a move that was portrayed as an anti-fraud measure but was widely seen as an attempt to intimidate Arab voters (if this sounds a lot like the Republican-backed voter ID laws in the American South, congratulations, you’ve been paying attention!). Netanyahu has announced plans to annex part of the West Bank if he wins reelection, taking even more territory from Palestinians. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has been warning that Iran was reconstituting its nuclear weapons site, and a finding by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency of trace amounts of uranium near the alleged site have bolstered those claims. And now, Iran seems to have attacked Saudi Arabia’s oil supply, a move that Israeli sources warned Iran was contemplating back in May.
Today’s vote (and the complex process of coalition building that is likely to follow) will show if these latest moves will be enough for Netanyahu and Likud to hold on to power. Observers from across the political spectrum agree that this election is less about policies (the Blue and White leaders don’t differ that much from Netanyahu on these issues) and more about holding a referendum on Netanyahu’s character and leadership (and potentially his freedom – a Netanyahu victory may allow him to push through legislation protecting himself from prosecution). The Prime Minster is looking to point the spotlight away from himself; we may know by the end of the day if that strategy has worked.