The strangest episode of Israel’s raucous election—the second in six months—flickered by almost unnoticed, one clip among the 30 videos Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted to his YouTube channel in the final two days before Tuesday’s vote.
Lush with images of sleek Israelis surfing off Tel Aviv beaches and sipping coffee and cocktails in a succession of inviting bars and cafés, it almost looked like a product of the tourism ministry— until the part where you see a woman’s toes peek beyond a blanket, reaching out to tease the toes of the man sharing the bed with her, and those manly toes turning away.
“Right-wing voters have to wake up!” the caption blared. “On Tuesday, you have to go out to vote Likud, and bring family and friends!”
The Likud is Netanyahu’s party, and the ad was meant as a counter-incentive. Netanyahu’s pitch can be summed up thus: Don’t sleep with your hot girlfriend. Don’t go to the beach. Don’t enjoy Tel Aviv’s great cafés. Go out and vote for me!
If Netanyahu was concerned about voter fatigue, he needn’t have worried.
Turnout was a few points higher than it was in the April 9 vote, despite fresh memories of the night six weeks later in which Netanyahu acknowledged he’d failed to form a coalition government and—instead of returning the mandate to Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin—dissolved the parliament and sent Israel into second elections.
On first glance it looks like Israelis returned a second inconclusive verdict, this time with gusto.
The apparent draw between Netanyahu’s Likud and the main opposition party, Blue and White, led by former army chief of staff Benny Gantz, with each claiming about 33 seats out of the parliament’s 120, seems to indicate that Israelis have no idea what they want.
On second glance, it is clear that Netanyahu, who has dominated Israeli politics for decades and has served as prime minister for the last ten years, lost—if only because all of his perceived enemies won.
Netanyahu ran his campaign as if he was besieged in a bunker, regularly taking aim at sham nemeses.
He deemed Avigdor Lieberman, a hardline secular nationalist best known for advocating the death penalty for terrorists, “a leftist.”
Lieberman, Netanyahu’s former defense minister, triggered both the elections of 2019, first by resigning in December 2018, and then by refusing in May to join a coalition beholden to the demands of ultra-orthodox Jewish parties.
Lieberman’s wager paid off, and he has come close to doubling the number of seats his party holds in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to a projected eight or nine.
Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, in Jerusalem, said “Lieberman is the ultimate kingmaker. Netanyahu does not have a government without Lieberman. Lieberman can really dictate the makeup, to a certain extent, of the next government.”
Official elections results are expected on Sept. 25, after the certification of the ballot counts, which is conducted by hand.
Netanyahu attacked the media from the start to the end of his campaign, complaining, in his 3 a.m. Wednesday not-concession speech delivered before a largely empty hall, that the press had forced him to contend with "the most difficult, the most biased campaign ever."
But the press got it right this time, forecasting that he would be left without room to maneuver ahead of the Oct. 2 hearing at which his attorney general, who announced his intention to indict Netanyahu on a raft of corruption charges last February, will lay out the evidence against him.
Such is Netanyahu’s predicament that on Wednesday, he canceled his participation in next week’s United Nations General Assembly, one of his favorite events of the year.
Gantz vows to pursue peace with the Palestinians, to institute term limits, and, has unrelentingly promised his supporters that he will never join a government including Netanyahu while he remains a criminal suspect.
This stance seems to rule out a possible government of national unity, in which Blue and White would sit together with the Likud.
This electoral dead end is leading observers to envisage what was once unthinkable: a unity government in which Likud would be led by someone else.
In the event the party, hungry to hold on to power, ousts Netanyahu as its leader, “a new chairman of the Likud might be able to form a government with Blue and White, and then we will probably witness an outcome of a rotation of the position of the Prime Minister between Mr. Gantz and whoever the Likud will elect,” Plesner says, predicting that Israel is “about to enter a period of political uncertainty.”
Throughout his campaign, Netanyahu reserved his most vicious, most uncompromising, and finally most unhinged attacks for Israel’s Arab minority, 20 percent of the population and about 16 percent of the voting public, whose participation in the last vote sunk to an historic low. He accused Arab politicians of supporting terrorism. He accused his opponent, Gantz, a decorated general, of conspiring with Arab leaders to name them ministers.
Netanyahu also accused Gantz of concealing the fact that Iran had hacked his phone, obtaining sleazy photographs proving sexual misbehavior—an accusation that appears to have been invented out of whole cloth.
In the campaign’s frenzied final week, Netanyahu tried to rush through the Knesset a law allowing his party to hide cameras in Arab polling places—as it did, illegally, in April, causing an uproar. The bill failed. And he became the first head of government to be sanctioned by Facebook for hate speech, when his page sent out messages warning that “Arabs want to annihilate us all – women, children and men.”
“Netanyahu was defeated, he lost, and as far as we can see, there is no feasible way he could form a new coalition.”
— Ehud Olmert
The Joint List, a majority-Arab party, that ran as several disparate factions in April, mobilized a major get-out-the-vote operation, apparently surging to 13 seats and becoming Israel’s third largest party, after the Likud and Blue and White.
With an Arab, Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh, who exulted late Tuesday that “incitement didn’t work!” and a "leftist," Avigdor Lieberman, poised to play kingmakers, the election results constitute a Netanyahu nightmare.
“Netanyahu was defeated,” Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister and Likud elder, told The Daily Beast in an interview, “he lost, and as far as we can see, there is no feasible way he could form a new coalition.”
But since it looks “doubtful that any possible coalition would achieve the support of 61 Knesset members,” Olmert said, “it is likely there will be another round of elections in early 2020.”
For Israel to once again have a stable government, the only solution Olmert sees is another round of elections “very soon.”
But unlike Netanyahu’s opponents, who have spent the past year admonishing the public about the danger the prime minister poses to Israeli democracy, Olmert is sanguine.
“The country’s democratic foundations are very stable,” he said, “and there is no real fear they are being undermined.” Not only that, he said, mentioning the United Kingdom, “the difficulty of ruling a state is not just an Israeli phenomenon… These are relatively common phenomena and Israel is no exception.”