With the vast majority of votes counted in Israeli elections by the end of April 9, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked set to clinch a fifth term in office, despite corruption charges, criticism regarding his foreign and domestic policies, and a strong challenger. With about 97 percent of the vote counted, both Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White were set to win 35 seats in Israel’s 120-member Parliament. The Central Elections Committee, which oversees the process, said the final tally would not come until April 11. Still, Netanyahu appeared to be the one with a clear path to forming a coalition. His natural allies in the right wing were doing better overall, bringing a possible governing coalition’s predicted total to 65 seats. To create a government, Netanyahu needs to cobble together a 61-seat majority. Speaking to his supporters in the early hours of the morning, Netanyahu said he wanted to thank them “from the bottom of my heart.” “It’s an unbelievable, tremendous victory,” Netanyahu said.
If he remains in power, Netanyahu would be in a much stronger position to fight the charges and draw out the legal process, analysts said. If he forms a new government and survives until July of this year, he will become the country’s longest-serving prime minister, outstripping Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (known for his leadership during the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli War, as well as his involvement in the 1953 Iranian coup). With so much at stake, Netanyahu pulled out all the stops in a campaign that attempted to strike fear into the hearts of right-wing voters that a “leftist” government may prevail, one that could team up with Israeli Arab politicians. Netanyahu pressured small right-wing parties to join with the extreme right-wing Jewish Power party, toxic for even those at the far right of Israeli politics. That appeared to have paved their way to the Knesset, with the new alliance winning five seats, according to the partial results. To woo more conservative votes to his party, he made a last-minute promise to expand Israeli settlements into the West Bank and to ultimately annex much of the territory. The partial results point to the possibility of a more extreme right-wing and religious government than ever before, with ultra-Orthodox parties coming in with around 16 seats.
Overall voter turnout stood at ~68 percent, dipping from ~73 percent in 2015, amid reports of low voter turnout among Israeli Arabs. Making up 20 percent of the population, Israeli Arab voters had been frustrated by a split in the leading Arab factions, while Israel’s controversial Nation State law, bolstered calls for a boycott. Despite the legal challenges he faces and the controversies he has courted, Netanyahu has a die-hard base that will vote for him unquestioningly. Michaela Ben Lulu, a lifetime Likud supporter, called Netanyahu a magician and said she admired his diplomacy, especially his relationship with President Trump. “He loves this nation and the nation loves him,” she said of Netanyahu. “I don’t care about the corruption claims or indictment. He doesn’t need money. He’s straight and trustworthy.”
Throughout his campaign, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed to right-wing voters by making promises to them about issues long expected to be negotiated with Israel’s Arab neighbors. This strategy helped ensure his grip on power but has reduced the chances of a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. “It closes all doors for any possible peace settlement and any chance for the Palestinians to have a state of their own,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist from the United Arab Emirates. While that would cause frustration among the Arabs, there was little they could do about it, he said. “The Arabs are at their weakest. The Palestinians are divided like never before. Israel is stronger than ever and Trump backs it, so Israel can do whatever it wants,” Abdulla further added.
For decades, support for the creation of a Palestinian state was a rare issue met with consensus across the Arab world. Israeli leaders faced limits on the kinds of actions they could take for fear of causing pushback from the Arabs or the US and other Western countries. But that dynamic has faded as the peace process stalled for years and as the Palestinians remain divided among themselves, with different factions in charge of the West Bank and Gaza. The Arab Spring uprisings and their violent aftermath left many Arab leaders more focused on staying in power than on standing up for the Palestinians. Additionally, many Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates have increased diplomatic ties Israel, seeing it as a valuable partner in their fight against both increasing Iranian influence, as well as Shi’a Muslims.
Arab investment in the peace process dwindled even further with the election of President Donald Trump, whose administration has built warm relations with Benjamin Netanyahu while isolating the Palestinians. Leaders of many Arab states did not want to jeopardize their ties with the new administration by pushing the Palestinian cause. The shrinking horizon for a Palestinian state “is concerning, but are the Arab regimes concerned?” asked Michael Young, a senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. “The Saudi and Emirati minds are on Iran, and they are not going to undermine their relationship with the United States and with Israel over these issues.” Syria, which has long opposed Israel’s existence, has been weakened by years of civil war that it could muster no more than formulaic condemnations when President Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Additionally, Iraq (who Israel openly supported during the Iran-Iraq War), has been ground down by years of battle to oust the ISIS from a chunk of its territory.
Dealing with the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more complicated for US allies that made peace with Israel, hoping their agreements would pave the way for a broader deal with the Palestinians. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi rarely speaks of the Palestinians and has embraced President Trump as a rare American leader who does not criticize his human rights record. Jordan, a close Arab ally of the US, has the most to lose from Israel’s rightward lurch. It shares a long border with Israel, has a large Palestinian population and remains invested in resolving the core issues of the conflict, such as the status of Jerusalem and the fate of the Palestinian refugees. “Now, with the new American approach, none of these positions will be respected,” said Oraib al-Rantawi, the director of the Al Quds Center for Political Studies. “Jordan is not happy to see Netanyahu elected again as prime minister of Israel, and we fear that we are headed toward an open conflict between Israel and Jordan.”
Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election will also play into the hands of socio-political groups within the Middle East such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis and bolsters their (correct) argument that negotiating with Israel is futile and will not lead to a resolution to the current political issues facing the Middle East. “Netanyahu will likely form a new, right-wing Zionist government, and we are before a new stage of unprecedented cooperation between America and Israel represented in Netanyahu and Trump,” Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah said in a speech on April 10.
It remains to be seen whether Benjamin Netanyahu will make good on his election promises. Significant Israeli moves in the West Bank could result in new violence with the Palestinians, and many Arabs would automatically support their Arab brethren. Additionally, cozying up to Israel too much could harm the standing of the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in the eyes of their people and perhaps lead to their overthrow. “The Palestinian situation has been written off so many times but it remains a big issue for many Arab citizens,” said Michael Young. “We shouldn’t underestimate how this could be a problem for some of these regimes in terms of their legitimacy.”