The 2019 Israeli elections are finally over, and as widely expected, Benjamin Netanyahu and his right wing coalition got enough seats to form a government, one likely to look very similar to the previous one.
Israelis chose stability during a period of regional and global uncertainty. The corruption allegations and departure of allies notwithstanding, Netanyahu has proven successful in navigating between presidents Trump and Putin, in keeping Iran and Hezbollah away from the borders with Syria and Lebanon, and in avoiding another war with Hamas in Gaza.
Israelis voted for parties that emphasized stability, and Netanyahu was successful in pushing voters to increase their support for Likud, at a cost to the smaller satellite parties and politicians.
The main alternative was the Blue and White party, headed by a career military officer, former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz. For newcomers, they did quite well in the election, gaining the same number of seats (35) as the Likud party, but lacked the smaller satellites needed for a majority. They also failed to articulate a political vision to counter Likud’s. Their main selling point was that Gantz is not Netanyahu, which proved insufficient.
But the emphasis on continuity could prove illusory. Under Netanyahu, a narrow government with just over the required 61 Knesset seats will be divided over issues such as army service for the ultra-Orthodox, and competing demands in education, health, and transportation. Furthermore, having one head of government for over 10 years is generally unhealthy for any democracy. If Netanyahu is indicted on corruption charges and forced to resign (the legal requirements are hotly debated and legislation is being prepared to protect him), the election results provide some clues as to possible successors.
Within the Likud, Gideon Saar – who mounted an impressive return after he was sidelined by Netanyahu – is seen as a likely challenger, but lacks security and diplomatic experience. The same is true for popular Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, who placed first in the party primaries. In a leadership contest, other party veterans can also be expected to seek the top position, and any predictions as to who might emerge on top are premature.
From the opposition, Gantz needs to gain experience and position himself as a credible successor. For many years, the opposition in the Knesset has been weak and divided. Successive leaders including Isaac Herzog, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid did not articulate credible policies necessary to seriously challenge Netanyahu. But none of them had a base of 35 seats that Blue and White now has after the elections.
If Gantz goes beyond the generalities that characterized his election campaign, and articulates coherent and realistic alternatives to Netanyahu’s, this will make a difference.
Regarding the Palestinians, Israelis are open to incremental measures to reduce the friction, but remain wary of another faith-based Oslo-type negotiation, which ended in disaster. On Iran, if Gantz and his team are seen as pushing the Europeans, in particular, to take the threats seriously, including Tehran’s nuclear program, he will gain stature,
The loose coalition of ex-military leaders and politicians in Gantz’s Blue and White party must also demonstrate patience and flexibility in waiting for the different political scenarios to play out. If, for example, the Trump peace plan (advertised as “the deal of the century”) turns out to be serious and require difficult decisions from Israel, a broad coalition between the two large parties might be called for.
But beyond Netanyahu and Gantz, Israeli politics needs new leaders not only from the military and also not low-level career politicians lacking the depth and skills to lead the country. The costs of leaders who lack the capacity to deal with the complexities of governing Israel, and are driven primarily by ambition or narrow ideologies, are simply too great