What the Israeli elections mean for Benjamin Netanyahu by David Wingens

Image: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepts an award from the Hudson Institute in September of 2016 in Manhattan.

David Wingens is a freshman at Tufts University. 

Israel has not seen a major political realignment in a decade; the right wing, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has maintained its grip on the country’s legislature. Amid a perfect storm of political chaos and Netanyahu’s legal troubles, the opposition finally gained some ground in elections last week. While the governing coalition remains undetermined, it is clear that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party will not have the outright majority coalition of right-wing parties that it has had for the last ten years. This will prove to be a pivotal point in Israeli history. Israel will either be driven further toward far-right and religious extremism or it will form a secular governing coalition that at least pretends to strive for peace.

Netanyahu was given the right to form a coalition first, but failed. For the first time in the last decade, his political power seems to be wavering. He can no longer do it alone, and has had to appeal to political rivals to maintain any glimmer of hope that he might remain Prime Minister. Netanyahu has been an excellent leader for Israel on many accounts. He has grown the economy, increased diplomatic relations with other countries and helped Israelis feel safe during many crises under his watch. He has consistently been on the ballot as a safe option for Israelis looking to maintain the status quo.

However, his time as the Prime Minister should be over. He prioritizes personal power, even at the expense of institutions crucial to the longevity of Israeli Democracy. He has sparred with the supreme court and tried to discredit the attorney general. Israeli law enforcement has even recommended that he be charged on multiple counts of bribery and fraud, and instead of taking a step back from the political sphere, he leaned in, taking advantage of a global environment in which it seems that leaders are not little concerned with democratic norms so long as they can arouse popular support through their personal brashness and bluster. 

As a result of these allegations, Netanyahu has been pushed further and further to the fringes of the right-wing. As it becomes harder for him to garner support, he turns to ever more inflammatory rhetoric, promising to annex the entire Jordan Valley, North Dead Sea and various Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank.

If the Israeli election can be viewed as a referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu, then the takeaway is that the future of one of the most powerful men in Israel’s history is now more uncertain than it has been in at least a decade. This uncertainty makes the next few weeks crucial for Israel as the lone liberal democracy in the Middle East. They will either continue to build on their democratic traditions by bringing in a new leader and ushering in an era of centrist governing. Or they will continue to be driven to the right for the foreseeable future. If Netanyahu can survive this storm, it is unclear that there is really anything that could drive him out of politics or the Prime Minister’s office.