On April 9, 2019, elections to the 21st convocation of the Knesset (Parliament) of Israel were held, with a turnout of 68.5% of the vote (4,340,000 voters). Knesset seats are allocated by proportional representation to party lists. Representatives of 11 political forces entered the new Parliament. The Likud party of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (1,140,000 voters) gained the most votes and was ahead of the leading opposition bloc Kahol Lavan by 15,000 ballots.
The IAC experts have conducted a research which provides inside to the general situation in the country by the time of the elections, the electoral system of Israel, the socio-political environment immediately before the 2019 Knesset elections, the election campaigns of the parties and the electoral process, as well as to the events following the elections.
The research was carried out by Oleg Bondarenko, a Russian political scientist, a public observer at the elections to the Knesset of the 21st convocation, as well as by IAC еxperts Dmitry Tikhonov, Sergey Kaluzhnyi, Alexei Maximov, Natalia Dmitrieva, and Anthony Zhigoni.
The last parliamentary elections are particularly worthy of research as this year they have been especially tense.
The dissolution of the 20th Knesset and the appointment of early elections to the 21st Knesset resulted from a partial collapse of the ruling coalition, withdrawn by Israel Our Home party and controversies between the remaining coalition parties. This disintegration was caused by the exacerbated discords on a number of issues sensitive for Israeli society, primarily, building relations with the Palestinian Hamas movement, which takes control over the Gaza Strip, and the compulsory military service for ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Controversies over the conscription-2018 made the formal reason for withdrawing from the coalition the Israel Our Home party headed by Minister of Defence Avigdor Lieberman. Although the coalition retained a minimum majority of 61 votes in the 120-seat Knesset after his withdrawal, this event declined its stability greatly. At the same time, conflicts between the Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the second coalition partner, the Jewish Home party, were exacerbated, due to demands of its leader Naftali Bennett to be appointed Minister of Defence, a vacant position since Lieberman’s resignation. This turn of events was unacceptable for Netanyahu, as in the case of a positive decision, the most important ministerial post would have gone to the junior coalition partner. Amid the escalated conflict in the Gaza Strip and signing a cease-fire agreement (criticized by many political forces) with Hamas, the Likud leader could not concede to such a decline of his position.
Recently, Benjamin Netanyahu is under great pressure in the country. He is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He is blamed for helping wealthy friends in return for positive media coverage of his activities. Mr. Netanyahu rejects all charges. At the moment, the hearing has been postponed and in the case Benjamin Netanyahu is found guilty, he will be imprisoned.
Moreover, in recent years Mr. Netanyahu is opposed by a strongest rival – a former IDF Chief of Staff Benjamin “Benny” Gantz, who heads the new centrist party Kahol Lavan (Blue and White).
Voters and politicians cannot remain unconcerned with the situation in Syria and relations with this country. Anxiety of citizens is caused by Iran’s vigorous activity within Syrian territory. The current situation with the direct deployment of Iranian troops in Syria to take part in fighting against terrorist groups causes considerable irritation and anxiety in Israel, since the Iranian rhetoric towards Israel is hostile.
However, the presence of Russian forces in Syria is viewed as a counterbalance to Iranian influence and a guarantee that Iran will not apply force against Israel, either directly or through local paramilitary organizations supported by it. Russia’s involvement as a guarantor of peace on the Syrian-Israeli border is a key motive in Benjamin Netanyahu’s intensive contacts with Russia’s leadership.
At the same time, regional political interests of the US, Israel’s key ally, are in conflict with Israel’s desire to secure Russia’s guarantee that Iran will not use Syrian territory to attack Israel. The resonant statement of the US President Donald Trump recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights is explained by the need to demonstrate that in the election period Washington supports Israel, its leader and his party. The issues of Syrian settlement and of Iran’s involvement in the post-war development of the country are of top importance to Israel. Russia cannot ignore Israel’s position in resolving the Syrian crisis, particularly in the context of potential competition with Iran for the influence in the region.
A visit to Moscow five days prior to the elections was part of the election campaign, which demonstrated the capabilities of current Prime Minister in negotiating with key geopolitical players. Amid the US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, the visit to Moscow was aimed at the voters that see Russia as a potential security guarantor of the Israeli northern border. Energizing the dialogue with Moscow ensured Netanyahu and his Likud party the votes of numerous Russian-speaking electorate. Thus, the politician weakened the positions of his recent allies from IOH party, whose demarche led to the disintegration of the ruling coalition.
The attitude towards the Arab-Israeli conflict largely determines the political views of Israeli citizens. There are two current concepts of conflict resolution favoring either a single, or two states. Twenty five years after signing of the Oslo Accords, which promised two states for two nations, only one-third of citizens (34%) said they still supported the two-state solution. 19% prefer a decision in favor of a single state and 27% said they wanted something totally different. The option supported by 9% of citizens is the establishment of an Israeli-Palestinian Confederation, where each state will enjoy self-governance, while certain problems will be addressed jointly. One-fifth of the respondents said they did not know what the solution should be.
Another aggravation at the Gaza border, when rockets were fired into a residential building in Israel, contributed to keeping power with the center-right coalition. Hamas’ military actions predictably lead to an increased popularity of right-wing nationalist and religious parties – traditional coalition partners with Likud.
The new Knesset convocation will be the least Russian-speaking in the last 20 years. Only six Russian-speaking member representing repatriates are elected to the Knesset. These are three members from the traditional IOH list for repatriates – Ze’ev Elkin (ex-Minister of Jerusalem Affairs and Minister of Environmental Protection in the new government), Yevgeny Sova (TV presenter), and Yulia Malinovsky, as well as Avigdor Lieberman, who will claim the position of Minister of Defence. IOH will also take the chairs of Minister of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage and Minister of Aliyah and Absorption (repatriation). The decisive declarative condition for Avigdor Lieberman’s presence in the new Israeli Cabinet of Ministers is the adoption of unamended law on army service for students of Jewish educational institutions yeshivas, which can trigger an intense discussion with representatives of the religious sector who have significantly increased their standing in the Knesset up to 31 mandates (vs 13 in the Knesset-20).
A possible coalition of the right-wing bloc (Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Israel Our Home, Union of Right-Wing Parties, and Kulanu) will have 65 mandates. The left-wing bloc has 55 mandates, where the possibility of a coalition between Kahol Lavan headed by Benjamin Gantz and the Arab parties is questionable.
Accordingly, it can be assumed that the center-right bloc together with its key allies gains a confident victory and the Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu takes office of Prime Minister for the fifth time in his career and the fourth in succession.
It can be stated that the escalated tension in relations with the Gaza Strip and the successful foreign policy diverted public attention from Netanyahu’s allegations of bribes and lobbying the interests of oligarchs. At the same time, his opponents may further establish a strong enough coalition around the Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) party. By taking the left-of-center stand, Mr. Gantz will have opportunities to actively criticize Benjamin Netanyahu for his nationalism and conservatism. However, these political orientations receive support in modern Israeli society.
The report, which provides a detailed overview of the historical background of the past elections, the resent-year socio-political situation, and the positions of the major parties and their leaders, will be published soon. It also presents key conclusions and forecasts based on the findings of our research.