Analysis |

Israel Election Results: More Than Just Netanyahu vs. Gantz – This Is the New Political Landscape

The Knesset will now have only eight groupings, the smallest number ever. And if the left keeps imploding, that number can get even lower

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

More than 4.6 million Israelis voted in the parliamentary election Monday in a surprisingly high turnout – for a depressing third election within a year – of 71.32 percent. Unlike the previous elections, very few votes went to parties that failed to cross the 3.25 percent electoral threshold, and only eight candidate lists made the Knesset, the smallest number ever.

Bibi limps to election 'victory.' But he didn't win

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The stalemate that stemmed from 2019's two elections is still in place – neither Benjamin Netanyahu nor Benny Gantz seem to have a path to a majority coalition for now. But this was still a turbulent election with surprising ups and downs for most of the parties that won seats.

Likud

Throughout the campaign, Netanyahu talked about winning the votes of 300,000 Likudniks who stayed home in the September election because “they were lazy and thought we were going to win anyway.”

That wasn’t the case, and he knew it. The votes Likud lost in September mainly went over to Gantz’s Kahol Lavan and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, but Netanyahu couldn’t admit that in public. He knew exactly where the votes he was after needed to come from, and at least the number he cited was accurate. To win a majority this time, he needed an extra 300,000. He almost got there.

Benjamin Netanyanu at an event marking the opening of a Brazilian trade office in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

This election, Likud added 237,000 votes, or four seats – not enough but certainly a massive achievement for Netanyahu, who reversed the shift of votes away from Likud. If the turnout hadn’t risen in the Arab community, his bloc probably still wouldn’t have achieved the hoped-for 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, but he would have been on the brink and most likely could have cajoled defectors to make up the numbers.

Where did Likud’s seats come from? Basically everywhere Netanyahu looked for them. In the lower-middle class suburbs of the outer ring of the Tel Aviv area. Among the Ethiopian Israeli community. At least two seats from the voters he had lost to Kahol Lavan and Yisrael Beiteinu; they were convinced by the smear campaign that Gantz wasn’t really an alternative prime minister.

Mainly, these were the “soft-right” voters that Gantz was playing for, too, with his tilt to the right since September. But they were fed up with the political limbo and decided to go back to Netanyahu. Not that they’re enamored with him, far from it, but he still symbolizes stability for them. 

Another seat came, as in past elections, from previous voters for Yamina – or its predecessors – who no longer saw Naftali Bennett as a credible right-wing successor. Also, in the settlements, Likud seems to have won over a sizable chunk of Otzma Yehudit voters from the far right who figured that their preferred party had no chance to cross the electoral threshold and saw how hard Netanyahu had courted their champion, Itamar Ben-Gvir. So why not vote for Bibi if he was so close to the neo-Kahanist anyway?

Is this the best Netanyahu could have done? It’s his biggest win in the nine elections he has led Likud. The party’s showing this time, 29.48 percent of the vote, is almost identical to Ariel Sharon’s victory in the 2003 election with 29.39 percent. The two previous Likud prime ministers, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, won far larger shares of the vote between 1977 and 1988; both surpassed the 30-point mark twice each.

But that was before ultra-Orthodox party Shas became a midsized party and annexed part of Likud’s traditional Mizrahi base. Twenty-nine percent of the electorate is peak Likud, and Netanyahu has finally reached it, albeit on his ninth attempt and perhaps his last try.

Kahol Lavan

Benny Gantz’s party may have slipped to second place in this election, but it still did well for an artificial party that came out of nowhere just a year ago. Kahol Lavan added 66,000 voters, climbing to 26.59 from 25.95 percent of the vote.

Benny Gantz speaks to supporters after the release of exit polls on March 3, 2020.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

The only problem is that it lost a large chunk of voters to Likud and made up for them by taking an even larger chunk from its rival and potential coalition ally Labor-Gesher-Meretz to the left. In the process, Netanyahu’s coalition grew.

The map of Kahol Lavan’s strongholds confirms what we already saw in 2019. If it still needs to be said, Kahol Lavan is the new Labor: a centrist party with strong security credentials capable of attracting the widest swath of voters – from the soft right to left-wingers who prefer to vote for the only viable alternative to Likud.

There are two ways of looking at Kahol Lavan’s result over the past three elections. On the one hand, no new Israeli centrist party has done so well three times. They always imploded after their first or second election. On the other hand, the last three elections have taken place over 11 months, so they’re hardly comparable to anything that happened before.

Cynicism and inflated expectations aside, Kahol Lavan has done better than anyone could have realistically expected when the party came into being in February 2019. Save for the defection of one low-ranking MK, it has kept together and won more than 30 Knesset seats each time. If it was facing any Likud leader but the master strategist Netanyahu, and if its allies to the left weren’t so weak, Gantz would already be prime minister.

Kahol Lavan could still implode. It doesn’t have any traditions holding it together, and the fierce egos of the four members in its cockpit can still tear the party apart. Its survival depends largely on how Gantz & Co. navigate the next few months and whether it will finally be in government. If Netanyahu somehow forms a governing coalition, Kahol Lavan is likely to wither in the wilderness of opposition. But if somehow Netanyahu is sent packing and Gantz makes it to Balfour Street, Kahol Lavan conceivably has a future as one of Israel’s two main parties.

Joint List

In the space of just 11 months, the vote for the Arab-majority parties has nearly doubled from 337,000 last April, when there were two separate slates, to 577,000 this week for the Joint List. The halfway point was in September, when the newly reunited Joint List won 470,000 votes.

The reasons for this success are simple to explain. Over the three elections, turnout in the Arab community jumped from 49 percent to 59 percent and now to 65 percent. At the same time, Labor and Meretz pushed their few Arab candidates far enough down their tickets that they had little chance of making it into the Knesset.

Ayman Odeh, head of the Hadash party, at Joint List headquarters the day after the election, March 3, 2020. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Is 15 seats the Joint List’s peak? An estimated 88 percent of Arab voters chose the alliance this time, and since this community’s turnout is still about 5 percent lower than among the general population, the Joint List could still possibly eke out another seat, or even two.

But any further expansion would have to come from Jewish voters. While the statistics are hazy on the number of Jewish voters for the Joint List, analysts and pollsters already estimate that it jumped from about 20,000 in September to roughly 30,000 this time around.

That’s a 50-percent increase but still only about 7 percent of the Joint List’s vote. This was the best the slate did despite facing the dramatically weakened left and spending a major amount of time and effort campaigning among Jewish voters.

The Joint List has established itself as a major player in Israeli politics, but with that comes expectations. Its current leaders are still finding it difficult to fully cooperate with the more centrist parties (which is both sides’ fault), let alone envisage ever taking part in a government.

Many Arab Israeli voters desperately want to vote for representatives who could have a say in decision-making, and that probably isn’t about to happen with the Joint List. In the next election, Kahol Lavan and whatever emerges from the ruins of Labor-Meretz will make sure to have prominent Arab candidates on their slates. The Joint List has scored an unprecedented win but will have to evolve to hold onto it, let alone grow further.

Shas

This Mizrahi-ultra-Orthodox party cemented its position in this election as the second largest party in Netanyahu’s coalition and essentially as Likud’s sister party. In the last few weeks the two parties even shared their databases in order to eke out the maximum from what in many parts of the country is a shared pool of potential voters.

This worked very well for Likud and didn’t serve Shas too badly either. The party gained 22,442 voters – which would have probably yielded a 10th seat if it weren’t for the rise in Arab turnout. (Shas’ share of the vote rose to 7.7 percent from 7.44 percent.) Shas had to make do with the nine seats it already held.

The Shas leader, Interior Minister Arye Dery, a few hours after the polls closed, March 3, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

This is still a remarkable achievement for a party that has been repeatedly eulogized since its spiritual leader and founder, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, died six years ago. In Israeli society, the actual proportion of the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, is much smaller than 7 percent, but the photographs and blessings of the dead rabbi, the (illegal) amulets Shas distributed (this time around against coronavirus) and the charisma of its political leader Arye Dery can still draw out many Mizrahi voters who are much less religious in their daily lives.

To do this, however, Dery has planted Shas firmly on the right and ironically distanced the party from Rabbi Yosef’s much more moderate political stance – he was the only senior Orthodox rabbi to  rule that Israel should relinquish territory in the Land of Israel if this can save lives. Dery himself, who as a young politician was a favorite of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, said in an interview this campaign that to be on the “left is against the Torah.”

Shas seems safe in the post-Ovadia era, but will it remain above water without its political mastermind? Dery, who already did jail time in the ‘90s for taking bribes, faces potential indictments for fraud and money laundering that could spell the end of one of the most spectacular political careers in Israeli history.

Netanyahu has scrupulously kept away from Shas voters, respecting his old ally, but many Shasniks are ex-Likudniks. If both Netanyahu and Dery are both forced to leave politics, Shas could still be swallowed up.

United Torah Judaism

The moment it was clear that turnout was high, it seemed United Torah Judaism was going to take a hit. This is one party that never has turnout problems, with its voters in Haredi neighborhoods and towns showing up in multitudes at the polling stations – at the rabbis’ orders.

A higher turnout in the general population would mean a lower proportion for United Torah Judaism and fewer seats. And there were reports that unlike in September, when Haredi voters flocked to the polls in greater numbers than ever, pushed by a fear-mongering campaign over the anti-Haredi Avigdor Lieberman, this time there was less of a feeling of urgency.

United Torah Judaism leader and Health Minister Ya'akov Litzman during a press briefing about the novel coronavirus, March 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

But despite the higher turnout, United Torah Judaism’s share dipped only very slightly to 5.98 percent from 6.06 percent, and the party actually added 5,125 votes. It successfully defended its seven-seat tally.

What saved the UTJ vote seems to have been an influx of far-right Otzma Yehudit voters, who made up for the shortfall of Haredi ones. The far-right party, which failed to pass the electoral threshold last time but still won about 84,000 votes, lost around three-quarters of them this time.

An early analysis of the West Bank settlements where Otzma was strong in the past shows that many of them went over to United Torah Judaism. This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon as the Haredi party, which once prided itself on being non-Zionist and above the right-left divide, has for years been making inroads with the more radical religious settlers who see Likud and Yamina as too soft and believe that Zionism is too secular an ideology for true believers in the Torah and the Land of Israel.

Labor-Gesher-Meretz

If you want to compress the political history of Israel’s last generation into one statistic, compare the combined vote of Labor and Meretz in 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin won the election, with that of the Labor-Gesher-Meretz slate this week.

Twenty-eight years ago, Labor and Meretz won 45 percent of the vote, or 56 seats. This election, running together, they came in at just under 6 percent and seven seats, down from the 11 seats the two separate lists of Labor-Gesher and Meretz (or Democratic Union, as it was called in September) won last time.

Some will argue that this loss, the largest suffered by any of the parties in this election, proves that merging the slates was a mistake, but the historical trend proves otherwise. If they hadn’t joined forces, one or both of the parties could have fallen beneath the electoral threshold and passed into political oblivion. Not that their survival makes for a pretty picture.

Labor-Gesher-Meretz leaders Orli Levi-Abekasis, left, Amir Peretz and Nitzan Horowitz at Labor Party headquarters in the wake of Monday's exit poll results, March 3, 2020. Credit: Meged Gozani

The parties of the Zionist center-left, heirs of the socialist founders and builders of the state, have “ended their historical role,” as Amos Oz said of Labor back in 2008. That much is clear. Nearly 40 percent of Israelis who voted for them less than three decades ago have found new political homes.

For the centrist majority, this is, for now, Kahol Lavan. For the not inconsiderable number of Arab Israelis who once voted for Labor or Meretz, the Joint List is the current address (at least until Labor and Meretz or their successors once again put Arab candidates in prominent positions on their tickets). And of course there is the demographic and ideological shift toward the right.

The last two Labor prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, staked their political future (in Rabin’s case also his life) on peace with the Palestinians. The failure of the peace process and the second intifada destroyed Labor’s credibility, and none of its subsequent leaders have managed to articulate a new vision. Amir Peretz’s attempt to reincarnate Labor as a “social” party attracting Mizrahi voters from the country’s outskirts has now failed three times (in 2006, 2019 and now) and linking up with the former Likud princess Orli Levi-Abekasis and her Gesher splinter party hasn’t helped either.

And Meretz has suffered, partly as collateral damage from the failure of the peace process, but largely due to its inability to evolve from a party for young Tel Avivians to a broader liberal platform reaching other parts of the country. The party is still drawing voters in its old strongholds in and around Tel Aviv and on the kibbutzim, but even there it was beaten resoundingly by Kahol Lavan, and these communities now represent a shrinking proportion of Israel anyway.

It’s hard to imagine a future with Labor and Meretz keeping their old names and leaders – certainly not if Kahol Lavan remains the main centrist party. The old Zionist left is still waiting for leaders with a vision of how to make it relevant in the 21st century – if such a vision even exists.

Yisrael Beiteinu

Avigdor Lieberman was the big winner of the September election. Yisrael Beiteinu’s share of the vote surged 75 percent to 6.99 percent from 4.01 percent. His surprise move against Netanyahu, striking at his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties, struck a chord with right-wingers and centrists fed up with Netanyahu and what they see as increasing “religious coercion.”

This niche party had subsisted barely above the electoral threshold on a small but fixed electorate of elderly Russian-speaking immigrants (periodically replenished by new retirees arriving from Russia and Ukraine), but now it has suddenly broadened its appeal.

Still, Lieberman’s denying Netanyahu a coalition twice didn’t break the stalemate and was instead a leading factor in causing the three consecutive elections. In addition, while the issue of state and religion dominated the September election, this time around it only featured on the margins. Would this mean Lieberman falling back to his base?

The results prove that Lieberman held on to most of his 127,000 new voters from September. Yisrael Beiteinu shed 47,000 votes, falling to seven from eight seats. The seat it lost went to Likud.

Avigdor Lieberman attends a conference.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Nearly two-thirds of the voters who went over to him in September were still willing to give him a chance to break the deadlock and find a way to a government that’s no longer in the grip of the Haredim. But if the Israelis who left him are anything to go by, faith in him may be short-lived. Lieberman can’t afford to try anyone’s patience once again by allowing a fourth consecutive election.

Yamina

Just like the venerable parties of the Zionist left, religious-Zionism in its political-party form seems to have had its day. Yamina, the amalgamation of the three splinter parties that came out of the old National Religious Party and evolved into Habayit Hayehudi, is now the smallest grouping in the Knesset. How ironic when its religious brand of nationalism seems at the peak of its ascendancy in Israel.

Despite the rise in turnout, Yamina lost 20,000 votes, down one seat to six, or 5.25 percent of the electorate. While demographers argue about the size and definitions of the religious-Zionist community, it’s undoubtedly at least twice if not three times the size of Yamina’s proportion of the vote.

Yamina represented all strands of the community, from its most radical members in both political and religious terms living in hard-core settlements to the more lackadaisical dati-light – religious light – residents of the Tel Aviv suburbs and secular right-wingers (represented by Ayelet Shaked). Yamina’s failure is as much down to internal social reasons than to Yamina leader Naftali Bennett’s political failings.

The Bennett-Shaked project of transforming the old National Religious Party into a much broader right-wing platform that attracts not only religious voters worked once in 2013, when Habayit Hayehudi won 12 seats, but has failed miserably since. It can’t succeed when Netanyahu is still on the scene as the most compelling leader on the right, capable of vacuuming up Yamina voters just by flexing his campaign muscles in the last few days before the election.

Naftali Bennett arrives for a meeting of right-wing parties after the March election.Credit: Emil Salman

But it’s not just about Netanyahu. Many religious-Zionist voters prefer a party that’s not labeled religiously. Most of them live among the general Israeli society, not in separate religious neighborhoods or settlements. So why should they vote for a separate religious party?

Most of Yamina’s electorate voted Likud, and a sizable chunk of the relatively moderate religious crowd opted for Kahol Lavan. At the end of the religious-Zionist scale, there were purists for whom Bennett with his tiny kippa and Shaked with her uncovered hair were too much; they voted for one of the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Unlike the Zionist left, Yamina, or whatever the religious-Zionist party will call itself in the next election, has some hope of resurrection because it still has a relatively young and growing voter base. But this depends on Netanyahu leaving the scene. Bennett and his colleagues will prosper only when they come out of Bibi’s shadow – that is, if they don’t join a post-Netanyahu Likud themselves.

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