As Israelis go to the polls Tuesday, a depressing electoral campaign comes to a close. This election could lead to annexation of the West Bank and could have other profound implications for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the end of the two-state solution. Yet, this issue has been nowhere near the center of the campaign. Instead, the election has been primarily about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption and personal attacks on all sides.
In late February, Netanyahu appeared to be in for the toughest political fight of his life. He was reeling from the decision by Israel’s attorney general to seek indictments against the prime minister in three corruption cases. And he faced a formidable opposition led by former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz, who had joined forces with Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party and brought in two other former IDF chiefs of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon.
Six weeks later, things look much rosier for the prime minister. Polls have moved in Netanyahu’s favor as he has portrayed himself as the man most capable of representing Israel’s interests on the global stage—scoring an Oval Office meeting, hosting new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and traveling to Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin only five days before the election.
Netanyahu has combined this approach with effective personal attacks against Gantz. Most notably, his government leaked that Gantz had had his cellphone hacked by Iranian intelligence and implied that the Iranians had derogatory personal information about Gantz, including unfounded allegations of adultery.
Gantz was slow to get out in public and did not give TV interviews during the early weeks of the campaign in February and early March—instead allowing Netanyahu to drive the narrative. He and his compatriots have responded with scathing attacks on Netanyahu for a number of bribery scandals. These included Bibi allegedly asking the U.S. government for a long-term visa for an associate after that associate gave him thousands of dollars’ worth of Champagne and cigars. A more damaging scandal has revolved around Israel’s decision to buy a suspiciously large number of submarines over the objections of the military from a German company in which Bibi and some close to him appear to have had a vested interest and Netanyahu’s decision not to stand in the way of submarine sales from the same German company to Egypt. Netanyahu has not been indicted in this case, but a number of people around him have been.
Israel faces three possible scenarios in the election. The first and most likely, according to the polls, is a Netanyahu victory and formation of a hard-right-wing government. This government’s composition would not be all that different from Netanyahu’s current coalition, but it may pursue a very dangerous path by opting to start annexing parts of the West Bank. Such a decision would lead to irreversible steps that make it impossible to form a contiguous and viable future Palestinian state and could lead to the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, which was established to create a pathway for Palestinian statehood. In short, this outcome could mark the end of the possibility of a two-state solution.
Annexation of parts of the West Bank is overwhelmingly popular in Netanyahu’s Likud party.
But until now Bibi has been smart enough to oppose it, recognizing that this irreversible step could have profound implications for Israel’s international standing—bringing harsh international condemnation, isolating it from even its closest partners, and jeopardizing any possibility of warming relationships with its Arab neighbors.
However, two things have changed. First, Netanyahu’s primary motivation in forming any coalition will be to protect himself from legal jeopardy. What he wants more than anything is to form a right-wing government that would pass new legislation to shield a sitting prime minister from criminal prosecution. In exchange for such a promise, he would be willing to give almost anything to his coalition partners , including giving in to demands on the far right to annex parts of the West Bank. And indeed, this weekend Netanyahu declared he would do just that if elected.
Second, the fear of damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship has always been a check on pursuing such an extreme goal. But with President Donald Trump in the White House, that check has vanished. Trump has been more than happy to bolster support for Netanyahu. On March 21, he announced via Twitter that the United States would recognize Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights. The timing of the announcement was clearly designed to provide a political boost to Bibi, as annexation of the Golan is incredibly popular in Israel and Trump enjoys tremendous support there. The move also signaled to Israelis and Palestinians that the United States may be open to supporting annexation of the West Bank.
The Trump administration is signaling that it may release a peace proposal in the aftermath of the election—or more likely after the Israeli government is formed in June. The plan will almost certainly be heavily biased toward Israel and be rejected out of hand by the Palestinians. And when it is, the plan could become the cover for a right-wing, Netanyahu-led government to declare that it has no negotiating partner and begin annexing parts of the West Bank with implicit American support. If the Trump administration genuinely wants to see progress toward peace, which is far from clear, it should avoid putting down a peace plan if a far-right-wing government wins the election, and it should come out clearly and publicly against any annexation in the West Bank.
That, however, is just one of the three possible scenarios. A solid right-wing coalition is far from assured. Israeli election polling is notoriously unreliable, and while the polls all favor Netanyahu, the difference is not so large as to make a polling error unthinkable. Israeli law does not allow any polling during the final five days before the election, making it impossible to track late breakers and undecideds, who, according to one recent poll, still made up nearly 15 percent of the electorate.
An even more important wild card is that in Israel’s parliamentary system, coalition building often relies heavily on a number of small parties on both the left and the right. Many of these parties are polling very close to the parliamentary threshold of 3.25 percent. Such small percentages make it hard to predict precisely which of these parties will be in the next Knesset. If a handful of parties on either the left or the right fall below 3.25 percent and get no seats, it could fundamentally upend the coalition-building scenarios for both Gantz and Netanyahu.
If Gantz garners the most seats and has an opportunity to form a governing coalition, his first call would be to Netanyahu’s Likud party, as he would try to form a national unity government. Gantz would insist that as part of such a government, Netanyahu would have to step down as Likud party leader.
It is unclear what such a governing coalition would mean for policy—partially because Gantz has not talked about policy at all during the campaign. It is unlikely that Israelis and Palestinians would jump back into peace negotiations or that the Trump peace plan would suddenly be accepted by all sides. But this coalition would certainly take West Bank annexation off the table, and at the very least we could expect an Israeli approach that seeks to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution.
A final possibility is that Netanyahu is able to form a right-wing coalition but cannot pass legislation that protects him from his legal problems. Some of the more moderate parties in Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc such as Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party would be hesitant, on principle, to give him immunity from prosecution. And when Netanyahu tried a few months ago to push forward this legislation, it was met with major protests in the streets. Other hard-right-wingers, such as Naftali Bennett, have notoriously bad relations with Netanyahu and may wish to ultimately see him out of office.
In this third scenario, the election would enable Netanyahu to remain prime minister, but this would almost certainly be his final term. Within 18 months, he could very well be convicted and removed from office, ignominiously ending the career of the longest serving prime minister of Israel. If that scenario comes to pass, this election would be seen in retrospect as only a blip—a way station toward a much more fundamental choice that Israelis may face when after 12 years they may have to finally ponder the reality of an Israel without Bibi Netanyahu.