Explained

Elections in Israel Explained: Your Ultimate Guide to Netanyahu's Next Political Battle

Israelis are headed to the polls in 2019 and though the threat of an early election has passed for now, Netanyahu could still break up the government at any moment

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a polling station in Jerusalem during the local elections, October 29, 2018.
Emil Salman

Israel will have a general election in 2019. The only question is when.

The threat of an early election, sparked by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s surprise resignation from the government last week, was seemingly lifted Monday when key coalition members announced they would not be stepping down, citing security concerns.

Listen: Why Netanyahu wants truce in Gaza and to delay elections as much as possible

That leaves Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a super-slim Knesset majority of one. It also puts the fate of his governing coalition at the mercy of his partners, namley Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett who is competing with the prime minister’s Likud party for right-wing voters, and has spoken in favor of harsh Israeli military action against Hamas, increasing the risk of a renewed conflict preceding any future election.

Although the government has until the fall of 2019 before its term officially ends, Netanyahu could decide to call an early election anytime before that. He has done so in the past. In fact, no Israeli government has finished a full four-year term since 1988.

Omer Benjakob explains why the structure of the Israeli government makes it so prone to early elections, granting the prime minister near-absolute discretion when to comes to disbanding the coalition: Why is Israel always having elections

Like comedy, the secret to calling an early election is timing. According to Anshel Pfeffer, the only question remaining concerns when the election will take place. "The battle for the timing of the 2019 Knesset election” is everything, he writes. On the surface, the difference in the possible dates – anything from late February to early November – doesn’t seem major: just nine months. But for all of the parties and candidates, those nine months could make all the difference: Why the timing of the Israeli election matters so much to Netanyahu and his rivals

Haaretz Editor-in-Chief Aluf Benn says Netanyahu is now lurching hard toward the center, casting himself as a present-day David Ben-Gurion – a calm, collected and responsible statesman who can stand up to those beating the war drum.

If Netanyahu continues to move toward the center, Benn writes, he would prefer to rely on his friend U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan. One can assume that the plan will be presented in accordance with the election schedule in Israel, to help Netanyahu and reinforce the message that he, and only he, can recruit world leaders to his side: Netanyahu launches his election campaign, lurching toward the center

The assumption is that no matter when the election is held, Netanyahu will almost certainly come out on top. Yet “Bibi” is far from invincible: He lost badly to Ehud Barak in 1999, was trounced by Ariel Sharon in the Likud primaries in 2002, and drubbed by Ehud Olmert and Kadima in the 2006 elections, in which his Likud mustered a measly 12 Knesset seats. So it can be done.

Chemi Shalev offers 12 different reasons why Netanyahu may surprise everyone and actually lose: Top 12 reasons Netanyahu will lose the upcoming early elections 

The question of what a “loss” would look like is actually quite complex, as Israelis don’t actually vote for the prime minister. Instead, they vote for parties that together can form coalitions, which can then become a government.

If you’re confused, here’s a guide to Israel’s complex political system. It may come in handy over the coming months: Everything you need to know about Israeli elections but were afraid to ask