Update (Sept. 18, 8:30 a.m. ET): This piece has been updated throughout to reflect the latest returns in the Israeli vote Tuesday.
Israel’s elections on Tuesday were not a contest between right and left as some in the media would have you think — because the “left” is barely a shadow of its former self. Merely 5 percent of Jewish Israelis are self-defined leftists, and only an additional 10 percent call themselves center-left. Even among traditionally left-leaning groups of Jewish Israelis — including the self-defined “totally secular” and Reform Jews — support for the left doesn’t win out.
That would make it seem like a right-wing incumbent prime minister such as Benjamin Netanyahu should have felt quite safe. But he didn't, nor should he have. Tuesday's vote could mean that the longest-serving PM in Israel’s history will find himself at the end of his political career, as the numbers indicate he faces an uphill battle to secure a governing coalition that preserves his role at the top.
Israelis look around and see chaos. They look around and see a world in which only the strong survive.
It’s not because of his agenda: Netanyahu is no more hawkish on Iran than most of his competitors. He is supported by almost the whole defense establishment (and the public) in his firm opposition to seeing Iran establishing a base in Syria and taking whatever military measures are needed to prevent that. He is less combative (less combative!) than his rivals on how to respond to rockets launched from the Gaza Strip. He is considered by most Israelis an astute economic leader and is respected for his abilities as a leader on the world stage, particularly for his visible rapport with President Donald Trump.
As for the topic that once used to most clearly separate right from left in Israel, the peace process with the Palestinians, neither Netanyahu nor his main rivals see much hope for a fruitful deal. When Netanyahu declared last week to great fanfare domestically and loud criticism internationally that he intends to annex the Jordan Valley — the strategic strip of West Bank land that separates Israel from Jordan and most of the Middle East, and that Palestinians feel is essential to a future Palestinian state — he was articulating the consensus across the Israeli political spectrum.
Indeed, these attitudes are now deeply ingrained, as demonstrated by polling that I conducted as part of research for a new book on Israeli Jews, “#IsraeliJudaism, Portrait of a Cultural Revolution,” coauthored by statistician Camil Fuchs). According to our findings, almost two-thirds of Jewish Israelis are politically right wing. (Arab Israelis vote very differently, but they comprise only 20 percent of the population and traditionally stay out of any governing coalition.)
Israelis did not just wake up one day and turn right. They were hardened by certain realities — the failure of the peace process, Palestinian terrorism, the rise of a belligerent Iran, the collapse of order in Syria and other countries in the Middle East (Libya, Yemen, Iraq). Israelis look around and see chaos. They look around and see a world in which only the strong survive.
Their illusions about “peace” and “spring” belong to a bygone era, and many of them feel they put their lives at risk when they vote for parties on the left that still cling to these visions. As columnist and author Matti Friedman beautifully explained in a recent New York Times op-ed: “No single episode has shaped Israel’s population and politics like the wave of suicide bombings perpetrated by Palestinians in the first years of the 21st century. … Every election since has been held in its shadow.”
So Netanyahu is not at risk from an imaginary left that could bite him. He is at risk from a very real center-right that opposes him. And by “him” I mean him personally. The vote and the aftermath to form a coalition is a battle between the right and center-right that is supportive of Netanyahu versus the right, center and center-right that is not supportive of Netanyahu. In fact, Netanyahu’s main rival in this election, Gen. Benny Gantz of the centrist party Blue and White (the colors of Israel’s flag), has publicly declared his intention to form a governing coalition with Netanyahu’s party, the Likud. He rejects a partnership with a certain man, not the entire political agenda of a certain party.
This was an election that was mostly about the personal qualities, behaviors, manners and tone of the prime minister, and there is much to take issue with in all of these. Is he corrupt? Indictment for various crimes and misdemeanors is looming. Is he too divisive? No doubt he is divisive — Netanyahu is a master of the political game — but does he go too far when he pits his “base” of right-wingers and Orthodoxvoters, against all others (leftists, Arabs, the media, the legal system), whom he smears without much consideration of decorum or dignity, dabbling, his rivals say, in incitement and anti-Democratic behavior.
Some of this might have served him well in forging his relationship with Trump, or at least conveying the impression that these leaders have similar qualities. (This impression is wrong; Netanyahu is a serious thinker.) Israelis are highly appreciative of the support the Israeli government gets from Trump, an asset that could help Netanyahu stay in power.
Yet Israelis are not blind to the possibility that this tight Trumpian embrace complicates their county’s relations with the many Americans who strongly disapprove of the president. A new Israeli leader might be in a better position than Netanyahu to prepare for a post-Trump United States, but he would need to engage in a delicate dance with the current White House occupant to preserve good ties in the meantime.
A new Israeli leader might be in a better position than Netanyahu to prepare for a post-Trump United States.
In the end, Netanyahu's career could end because his political rivals agree with a lot of his basic agenda (and thus are acceptable to a large portion of the public). He could be finished because his rivals do not propose paths to Israelis that they dislike. What they do propose is a tweak, an alteration: Rather than have these policies implemented by a divisive and even abrasive leader, they will be implemented by a more agreeable leader (not even his greatest critics could deny Gantz’ agreeableness).
This means that whatever happens, it is unlikely that the election returns mean we will witness a great shift in Israeli attitudes and policies, even if Israel’s most significant political force in a generation is forced to exit the stage.