WASHINGTON — The results of Tuesday’s election left U.S. followers of Israeli politics in a state of confusion, with Israel’s political future seemingly harder to predict than ever.
While it is clear to everyone in Washington that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost the election, it is much less clear who actually won it. Also unclear: Whether Israel will have a government in the next few months or if another election will have to take place in the winter.
With 98 percent of the votes counted on Thursday afternoon, Netanyahu had almost certainly failed in both of his election objectives. First, his Likud party did not receive the largest number of seats, being two behind the centrist Kahol Lavan party led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Second, and more crucially, the bloc of right-wing and religious parties that support giving Netanyahu legal immunity in the pending corruption charges against him fell well short of garnering the 61 seats necessary for a majority in the Knesset.
This new reality, which means Netanyahu won’t be able to form a government and then intervene in the legal process to protect himself, could lead Israel to months-long coalition negotiations between the various parties. At the moment, neither Gantz nor Netanyahu are easily able to establish a coalition: Gantz is willing to sit in a coalition together with Likud — but only if the party chooses a new leader to replace Netanyahu.
The sense of confusion and uncertainty over the election result is felt all around Washington, from the White House and Congress to leading Jewish-American organizations and think tanks that focus on Middle East policy.
The U.S.-Israel relationship in recent years was centered almost entirely around Netanyahu and his partnership with President Donald Trump. If the new circumstances in Israel lead to the end of Netanyahu’s rule — a possibility that seems closer today than at any point in the last decade, and yet is still not a certainty — how would that impact the relationship?
Trump briefly addressed that very question on Wednesday, saying, “Our relationship is with Israel.” The president implied that no matter who the Israeli prime minister is once this mess is sorted out, his administration will continue to have a strong relationship with the country.
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This statement contradicts one of the main tenets of Netanyahu’s election campaign: That he personally is responsible for Trump’s gestures of support for Israel, such as moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and that without him as premier, none of it would have happened.
Trump openly supported Netanyahu and helped him in both election campaigns this year — especially the first one in April, which ended in a more favorable result for Netanyahu than the current stalemate, yet which still wasn’t enough to let him form a coalition.
The president’s comment on Wednesday was interpreted in Israel as a sign that he is now distancing himself from the struggling Netanyahu, who couldn’t “seal the deal” even after Trump intervened on his behalf time after time.
“This was ice cold, but it was the appropriate thing for Trump to do,” says Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked on Middle East policy in the State Department during the Obama administration.
“The president was correct, and that’s how it should be with all of our partners,” she says. “The relationship is always between countries, and it’s not conditioned on specific leaders being in power. Under normal circumstances, no one would have even noticed a statement like this one. The only reason it’s considered remarkable and headline-worthy is because of Trump’s prior engagement in domestic Israeli politics.”
A day after Trump’s comment, Israeli officials — most likely from Netanyahu’s office — briefed the Israeli media that the president’s special envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt, would be arriving in Israel on Thursday and meeting with both Netanyahu and Gantz. In his meetings with the two contenders for the role of prime minister, Greenblatt will mostly listen to what they have to say as the Trump administration considers what to do with its long-awaited Middle East peace plan.
The plan was supposed to be unveiled after the previous election in April, but Netanyahu’s failure to create a coalition led to a delay — not the first — in its publication. The current uncertainty makes things even more complicated for the White House team working on the issue, led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
Their main dilemma is whether to publish the plan in the midst of the Israeli coalition talks, which will begin next week, or wait until a new government is formed — which could happen only months from today or even not at all, leading to a third election.
Greenblatt’s arrival will involve both the diplomatic mission and a personal event: He will also attend the wedding of the daughter of U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman. In his conversations with Gantz and Netanyahu, the outgoing U.S. envoy will try to understand where they both stand, and what the impact would be of releasing the peace plan during the coalition negotiations.
One person with knowledge of the scheduled meetings confirmed to Haaretz that they will be more like an intelligence-gathering mission, and not a direct appeal to Gantz and Netanyahu to make any specific political decisions.
Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow David Makovsky, who was involved in the Obama administration’s final efforts to hold Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, tells Haaretz that “putting out the peace plan could help Netanyahu and Gantz justify the move toward a unity government. Both of them promised not to sit with each other in a coalition — and the peace plan could give them an excuse to break that promise.”
Until now, says Makovsky, Netanyahu had no interest in seeing the U.S. peace plan come out because even the smallest Israeli concessions to the Palestinians could cause turmoil within his right-wing and religious coalition. Netanyahu was also more reliant than ever on the support of some of the most right-wing elements in Israeli politics due to his corruption charges.
But now, adds Makovsky, “Netanyahu suddenly has an interest in seeing this plan come out if he thinks it could help Gantz agree to sit in the same government with him.” At the same time, though, Makovsky says it is far from certain that the peace plan would be enough to bring Gantz and Netanyahu together. Their main point of disagreement remains those corruption charges: Netanyahu wants to pass a law that would make it illegal to indict him as a sitting prime minister; Gantz strongly opposes that and wants Netanyahu to resign once the indictments against him become official.
The other election
This is the White House’s main fear. If they release the peace plan and it becomes the centerpiece of a unity government in Israel, that would be a major success. But if they put out the plan and Gantz and Netanyahu still can’t find a compromise that would bring them together — that would be the end of the road for the entire project, which Kushner and Greenblatt spent two years working on.
“The closer we get to November 2020, the less likely it is that they will publish this plan,” says Cofman Wittes. “The presidential campaign in America is already starting.”
Makovsy adds that if Netanyahu’s loss actually leads to the end of his rule, that would also hurt Trump next year. “Trump is very transactional. In his thinking, he’s done so much for Israel, and he was counting on Netanyahu to help him with the evangelical vote in next year’s election. So if Netanyahu now loses power, that’s somewhat of a blow to the president.”
Makovsky, who recently co-authored a book with Dennis Ross about historical decisions made by Israeli prime ministers, told Haaretz that “Israel’s great leaders were also politicians. However, when the personal interest collided with the national interest, the national interest prevailed.” In the book, “Be Strong and of Good Courage,” Makovsky and Ross examine events such as David Ben-Gurion’s decision to announce the establishment of the State of Israel and Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw Israel’s settlers from the Gaza Strip.
Makovsky says a decision of that magnitude could be coming up for the next Israeli government, no matter who leads it. “A new government should not just be based on power for its own sake, but also on the need to make progress in addressing historic problems,” he says.
For all the talk of peace plans and corruption charges, the election results could also impact another major aspect of the U.S.-Israel relationship: Issues of religious freedom and pluralism in Israel. As the religious parties enjoyed growing influence over Netanyahu in recent years, Israel adopted policies that infuriated many American Jews (who are mostly from the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism). The discrimination against those streams in Israel grew worse and many government officials, including from Netanyahu’s own Likud party, made insulting comments about U.S. Jewry.
Netanyahu’s alliance with the religious parties is one of the main reasons his own party lost seats to the Yisrael Beiteinu party led by former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who successfully presented himself to the public as “both right-wing and secular.” At the start of the election Lieberman said he would refuse to sit in a government with the ultra-Orthodox parties, and would only agree to a “secular unity government.” The public rewarded him for it — his party has expanded by three seats — and he doubled his voting share in many Israeli cities that are traditionally Likud strongholds.
The prospect of a secular unity government could “open the door for a whole set of possibilities around religious freedom and pluralism in Israel,” says Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (the largest Jewish movement in North America).
Jacobs tells Haaretz the option that was averted in this election — a narrow right-wing government reliant upon its religious parties — would have “made things much worse” for the relationship between Israel and American Jewry.
“It would be very interesting if, for the first time in years, Israel had a government where the ultra-Orthodox didn’t have that kind of power,” says Jacobs. “The previous government caused enormous harm and made it more difficult for lovers and supporters of Israel to promote our important relationship. We will be happy to work with the next government to put things on a better track — and a unity government would be best situated to do that.”
He adds that, personally, he was also happy to see a rise in the participation of Arab-Israeli voters in this week’s election: About 60 percent of Israeli Arabs eligible to vote did so on Tuesday, a significant uptick from the 49 percent who voted in April. “That’s good news for Israeli democracy,” says Jacobs.