The World

The Future of Israel Hinges on the Fight of Netanyahu’s Life

Making sense of the Israeli election results.

People crowd around Netanyahu at an event.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on after speaking to supporters at his Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Wednesday.
Ammar Awad/Reuters

Benjamin Netanyahu, who just a few weeks ago became the country’s longest-serving prime minister and whose rule looked unassailable until recently, is now hanging by a thread. Both his political career and his personal freedom are in jeopardy as the dust settles after Israel’s second election of this year. The stakes—for him, the country, and the world—couldn’t be higher.

How did we get here? After the latest national election in April, it looked as if Netanyahu had fended off a challenge from the center-left Blue and White alliance led by retired Gen. Benny Gantz, even as a criminal corruption investigation hounded the prime minister. While Netanyahu’s Likud and Blue and White won the same number of seats, Likud was in a better position to form a coalition government with other right-wing parties. But former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, a Netanyahu protégé-turned-rival, threw a wrench in that plan by insisting he would only join the government if a law was passed making it harder for ultra-Orthodox Jews to avoid military service. This was a redline for the ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s coalition, leaving him short of the 61 seats necessary for a majority in Israel’s Knesset and necessitating new elections.

So, on Tuesday, Israelis went to the polls again, and with around 90 percent of the votes counted, there’s still no obvious path to a coalition:

Without Lieberman, the right-wing parties control just 55 seats, while the combined center left controls just 43 seats. Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List of Arab parties, has suggested he might be willing to back Gantz to block a right-wing government. This is a break in precedent—Arab parties have traditionally not joined coalitions with Zionist parties. But even the Joint List’s support would only get the center left to 56 seats.

In the next few days, President Reuven Rivlin will meet with the different parties and then ask someone to form a government. The potential outcomes could mean starkly different approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the role of religion in society, and relations with the United States.

Netanyahu has made his vision of the future clear. In the closing weeks of his reelection fight, along with scaremongering about the Arab vote, Netanyahu vowed to annex nearly a third of the occupied West Bank and “all the settlements” in the territory. The possibility of a two-state solution has been on life support for some time, but annexation would almost certainly mark its official death, leaving a choice between some sort of binational state or apartheid. Netanyahu has gone back on similar pledges, but—dependent on the pro-settlement far right to keep himself out of jail—he might not be in a position to renege this time.

Certainly, Gantz is no dove. This week, a court in the Netherlands agreed to hear a lawsuit against him for alleged war crimes in Gaza committed while he was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. But his ascent at least raises the possibility of a more pragmatic Israeli government less beholden to the settler movement and less aligned globally with the authoritarian far right. Gantz’s co-leader, the more liberal Yair Lapid, has prioritized improving ties between Israel and American Jews, which have gotten increasingly strained thanks to Netanyahu’s full-on embrace of Donald Trump and the Republican Party.

All we know now for sure is that it could all hinge on Lieberman.

Lieberman could end this tomorrow by throwing his nine seats behind a right-wing coalition—the closest ideological fit—but given that he and the ultra-Orthodox parties were willing to force a new election over the conscription issue just a few months ago, they seem unlikely to back down now. Even in the unlikely event he backs the left, they’d still need the support of the Arab parties, who would never go along with Lieberman’s pro-settlement position and history of racist rhetoric. The center left could win over the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, which are less fiscally conservative and less hawkish than Likud. But that’s a tough fit given their socially conservative views—they particularly don’t like Blue and White’s No. 2, the more liberal Lapid.

The scenario that makes the most sense mathematically, and the one that Lieberman strongly supports, is a unity government between Likud and Blue and White. There have been unity governments in the past involving Likud and the left-wing Labor party, so ideologically this isn’t actually that outlandish a scenario. The problem is that Gantz has said his party won’t support a coalition with Likud if it’s led by Netanyahu. So either Gantz is going to have to go back on a central campaign pledge—which would still leave the question of which one of them becomes prime minister—or Likud will have to oust its leader, which raises the question of who will take his place.

It’s never a good idea to count “Bibi” out, but this is going to be a tough escape act, even for him. After a hearing scheduled for October, Israel’s attorney general is likely to indict Netanyahu on graft charges. It’s the culmination of a long-running series of investigations into Netanyahu and his family that at times has touched on media manipulation, military contracts, Hollywood moguls, cigars, and pink Champagne. If the prime minister had won the election outright, he would likely have tried to pass a law to shield himself from prosecution. None of the potential governments outlined above are likely to agree to such a law. The trial is likely to drag on, and technically there’s nothing stopping Netanyahu from remaining prime minister after being indicted, but pressure is likely to grow for him to step down. After Tuesday night, the odds of Netanyahu becoming the second prime minister in a row to serve jail time after leaving office went up.

And it’s getting harder for Netanyahu to campaign on American support. Ahead of April’s election, Trump announced the controversial recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights just weeks before the vote, allowing Netanyahu to tout his close relationship with the U.S. president in his campaign. The White House has been more subdued this time around. The prime minister was obviously alarmed by the suggestion that Trump might meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Netanyahu also suggested he needs to be kept in office in order to stand up for Israel’s interests in negotiations with Trump over the long-awaited “deal of the century” for Middle East peace. Netanyahu was pushing back against far-right candidates who accused him of planning to make too many territorial concessions to the Palestinians under the deal. Given Trump’s penchant for quickly turning his back on former associates—Michael Cohen, Steve Bannon—it will be interesting to see how quickly the president denies ever having been close to the prime minister he’s praised and fêted so often. This process already seems to be starting, just a day after the election.

The election results make it clear that the right is still ascendant in Israeli politics and society. Even Gantz is not exactly a progressive. But Likud’s recent struggles under Netanyahu also show how sometimes the fate of political movements and whole nations can turn on one person’s flaws and foibles.