For the first time in more than a decade, an Israeli politician other than Benjamin Netanyahu will be given a presidential mandate to form a new government. Now that Mr Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz has been given a mandate to try to form a coalition government after the incumbent prime minister tried and failed to do so twice, it might seem that Israel is divided beyond recognition and the political stalemate reveals systemic problems at the core of Israel’s democracy. This, however, is not the case. The two elections should instead be seen as referendums on Netanyahu the person, not the politician.
Former military general Mr Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, will now have 28 days to form the next Israeli government. It is unclear whether Mr Gantz will be able to negotiate the tricky seas of Israel’s political landscape but one thing is clear: the negotiations will not really discuss the nature of Israeli policies. Those appear set in stone, especially when it comes to the Palestinians.
Far from being divided, Israel is paralysed over Mr Netanyahu and his waning grasp on power. He is under investigation in several corruption cases that also implicate members of his family. The first indictments could take place as early as December. Throughout this year of election campaigning, Mr Netanyahu has barely shied away from his desire to use the prime minister’s office to protect himself from criminal prosecution. Yet despite these brazen attacks on the cornerstone of Israel’s democracy, a majority of Israeli voters continued to vote for Mr Netanyahu.
Using his vulnerability to their advantage, Israeli politicians have tried to extract large concessions from Mr Netanyahu in exchange for their partnership in the next government. No party has ever won an outright majority to govern Israel’s 120-seat parliament. That means small parties play an outsize role in the complexion of ruling governments. This election was no different as small parties offered Mr Netanyahu their partnership in exchange for a promise that ultra-orthodox Jews would continue to be exempt from mandatory military service. This has ruffled feathers of leading right-wing political blocs that have pushed to remove this exemption in recent years.
Over the past month, Mr Netanyahu attempted to form a government based on an alliance of right-wing and ultra-orthodox parties. Missing from the coalition was the real kingmaker throughout this year of elections: the head of right-wing nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman. While Mr Lieberman’s positions have fluctuated recently, he has pushed for a secular nationalist government comprising Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party, Blue and White, and Yisrael Beiteinu. This would require Mr Netanyahu to abandon the ultra-orthodox , which he refused to do, and Mr Gantz to backtrack on his position that he would not partner with Likud as long as Mr Netanyahu was facing indictment. In the end, the deal fell through, leaving Mr Netanyahu with no viable options.
The majority of international coverage of Israel’s political woes has painted a picture of a country in search of core identity and unable to agree on core principles. This is not the case. Rather, this is an election about Israel’s most powerful politician and whether the country will allow him to use his power to fend off criminal investigations. When it comes to actual policies and the major questions facing the country, there is little difference between the main parties. Mr Gantz, who has been portrayed as a real alternative to Mr Netanyahu, has helped entrench his polices with regard to the Palestinians. Mr Gantz will now attempt to sway centre and left parties, including the majority Palestinian Joint List, which won an impressive 13 seats in the September election.
The Joint List publicly supported a Gantz government over Mr Netanyahu after the last election but no Palestinian party has ever joined a ruling Israeli coalition. Moreover, three Joint List politicians from the Balad party refused to back any candidate so it is unlikely that Mr Gantz could form a government with Joint List participation. Mr Gantz will have to court Yisrael Beiteinu but Mr Lieberman — who has not ruled out joining a Gantz government — has repeatedly stated he will not join Palestinian parties in a coalition. The Blue and White leader has his work cut out for him over the next 28 days but the notion that Israelis are deeply divided is not based in reality.
The former general has stated that the West Bank will never be given back to Palestinians and he has presided over several vicious Israeli military campaigns in Gaza. There simply will not be any significant change on the ground regardless of whether Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz are able to form a government, and this confirms something important about the nature of Israel and its underlying Zionist ideology.
In his new biography of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, the Israeli journalist Tom Segev argues that the “price of Zionism” is permanent conflict, which can be managed but never resolved. After months of Israeli elections with little mention of the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian West Bank or the myriad unsolved issues between Israel and the Palestinians, Segev’s point is more powerful than ever. Israelis have accepted the permanent state of conflict to such a degree that they have no issue squabbling for years over whether they want corrupt politicians ruling them.