Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, faces his toughest political battle for survival in years, as the country holds unprecedented repeat elections Tuesday.
This is the second time Israelis are going to the polls in less than six months. Netanyahu, 69, forced the do-over in a last-minute move, just weeks after April elections, because he secured a narrow win but failed to build a parliament majority.
The results of Tuesday’s elections may be just as inconclusive, casting a cloud on Netanyahu’s political future and potentially prompting yet another round of elections.
The Israeli leader risks losing not just the prime minister post, which he has held for more than a decade since 2009, after his first premiership, from 1996 to 1999. He faces possible indictments in three corruption cases. If he wins reelection, he is expected to take steps in parliament to ensure his immunity from prosecution and from a possible prison sentence. To do so, he must first beat a centrist party of former army generals he tied with in the last elections.
It is a complex contest and a crowded field: Nearly 6 million voters have to pick one of 30 lists of candidates representing many different parties or groups of parties. No more than 10 lists are expected to earn enough votes to win seats in the Knesset, Israel’s legislature.
Why is Israel having yet another election?
In the April 9 vote, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party tied with the centrist Blue and White alliance, each winning 35 seats in the 120-seat parliament. Right-wing parties allied with Netanyahu got the most votes, so he had the first chance to form a coalition.
To complete a coalition, he needed to include former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s secular right-wing party, which is traditionally associated with Russian-speaking voters. But at the eleventh hour, Lieberman demanded Netanyahu promise to make it harder for Orthodox Jewish men to avoid mandatory military service. Netanyahu needed ultra-Orthodox parties to secure a majority and did not agree.
With a right-wing government off the table, Netanyahu could have tried to cobble together a more diverse coalition of center-left politicians, and he even turned to the left-wing Labor Party with a last-minute offer. But those parties wouldn’t have agreed to support moves to protect Netanyahu from prosecution.
Usually in Israel, when the winner fails to build a majority coalition, an opponent gets a chance to form the government. Netanyahu voided the option by orchestrating a rapid midnight vote to disperse parliament and call new elections before someone else got a chance to take his seat.
Can anyone beat Netanyahu this time?
Likud’s main opponent is still Blue and White, led by former Israeli military chief of staff Benny Gantz. They are neck and neck in the polls.
Gantz, 60, made his debut in Israeli politics after retiring from a military career in 2015. He partnered with journalist-turned-politician Yair Lapid, hawkish Moshe Yaalon, who served as defense minister under Netanyahu, and former military chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi.
Blue and White’s campaign casts its quartet of leaders as a clean alternative to Netanyahu’s divisive rule, legal woes and potential extreme right partners. “Netanyahu cares only for Netanyahu” is a frequent campaign slogan. Another tells voters to choose between “Blue and White, or an Extreme Immunity Government.”
But the alliance’s political positions do not seem entirely different from Netanyahu’s. And it has shifted its messaging recently. Instead of a primary focus on replacing Netanyahu, it now calls for a “secular unity government.” That could mean joining a coalition with Netanyahu’s party — as long as Blue and White gets to lead the government.
What are the main election issues in this round?
As was the case in April, the elections will be a vote for or against Netanyahu’s continued stewardship. During Netanyahu’s past decade in office, Israel’s economy has strengthened and Palestinian attacks against Israelis have been lower than in the previous decade. But critics say his drive for self-preservation is now shaping the country’s politics, putting it on a path that veers away from democratic values.
He has appealed to right-wing voters by promising to annex the Jordan Valley, a long swath of the West Bank, and apply Israeli sovereignty over the occupied land that’s at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A United Nations spokesman said such a move would be a blow to peace efforts. Many Israelis saw it as a last-ditch pledge that the leader could walk back.
Palestinian Arab citizens are also in the spotlight. Israel’s four Arab parties are now running together in a Joint List, and polls show their community’s low voter turnout could increase. Unlike Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian citizens of Israel have voting rights in the country and they make up about a fifth of Israel’s population, giving them the power to tip the scales against Netanyahu. But they debate whether to even vote at all in a Jewish-majority state they say discriminates against them. Netanyahu has taken aim at Arab voters and lawmakers and is trying to pass a law to allow filming at polling stations against alleged Arab voter fraud. Critics accuse him of voter suppression.
Noam, a new religious Jewish anti-gay party, dropped out of the race Sunday after flunking the polls. Netanyahu made a deal with the pro-marijuana Zehut party, led by a right-wing nationalist, to drop out of the race in hopes that Netanyahu’s party can win over its voters.
The small, far-right anti-Palestinian Jewish Power party is still in the race, and Netanyahu has called on its supporters to vote Likud because he is convinced Jewish Power won’t get enough votes to get into parliament.
Only one major ticket is led by a woman. Yamina, an alliance of right-wing pro-settler religious parties, is led by former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. The left-wing Democratic Union ticket has a woman, Stav Shaffir, in its No. 2 slot.
Can President Trump help Netanyahu win?
President Trump tweeted Saturday that he and Netanyahu are discussing a possible mutual defense treaty between the U.S. and Israel. The announcement just days before elections could be aimed at boosting Netanyahu, who has been campaigning on his close ties with Trump. Billboards across the country show the two leaders shaking hands.
Netanyahu said such a pact would boost Israel’s security while also retaining freedom of military action.
His opponent Gantz has said it would be a “serious mistake” to require Israel to coordinate security with the U.S. “We haven’t asked anyone to be killed for our sakes, we haven’t asked anyone to fight for us and we haven’t asked anyone for the right to defend the state of Israel,” Gantz said at a recent conference.
Dan Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Obama, told NPR that official from both countries have repeatedly concluded that a mutual defense treaty is “unnecessary and disadvantageous.”
Likud campaign ads say Netanyahu is in a “different league,” a global influencer now beleaguered by inexperienced domestic rivals.
Recent White House headlines have tested the Netanyahu campaign. Trump has expressed willingness to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, despite Netanyahu’s hard line against Iran. And Netanyahu’s close ally, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, has left government. Taken together, analysts say, the moves could be seen as a blow to Netanyahu.