Moments after Israeli television projected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the winner of the country’s latest election, Israel’s most popular satirical television show, Wonderful Country, broadcast a special edition. In the parody, the actor portraying Netanyahu—or “Bibi,” to supporters and opponents alike—rode triumphantly onto the studio stage on a white donkey, an unsubtle parody of the ancient Jewish legend that this is how the messiah will enter Jerusalem. As he waved to the audience, a coterie of ecstatic religious figures danced in celebration around him.
Right-wing Israelis were thrilled with the election outcome, while the Left despaired. But many on both sides of this deeply polarized electorate greeted the probable end of Israel’s longest election with a sense of relief and exhaustion. After all, this was Israel’s third election in 11 months, and many pollsters predicted that this week’s outcome, once again, might be too close to call. Though no final count yet exists, Netanyahu’s coalition is projected to win 58 seats in the 120-seat Parliament, just three votes short of a majority. Bibi might finally be able to form a government.
The right’s victory was almost overshadowed by another intriguing result: the alliance of Israeli Arab parties—which purports to represent the 21 percent of the population that is Arab—maintained its position as the county’s third-largest party, winning 15 seats, two more than it had in the outgoing Knesset. But turning this impressive political showing into policy clout will prove complicated. Both Netanyahu and his election rival, Benny Gantz, a former military chief of staff, have said that they wouldn’t form a government dependent on the so-called Joint Arab list’s votes in a ruling coalition. Meantime, another electoral victor was Israel’s main religious party, Shas, which won fourth place, with 10 Knesset seats.
Palestinian officials reacted with fury to the news of Netanyahu’s apparent triumph. Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Authority, tweeted that “settlement, occupation, and apartheid” had triumphed. “Netanyahu’s campaign was about the continuation of the occupation and conflict, which will force the people of the region to live by the sword,” he said ominously. The outcome of the Israeli elections, he asserted, would mean a “continuation of violence, extremism, and chaos.”
Almost as dejected by the election’s outcome are Israeli liberals who greeted Netanyahu’s victory with shock. David Grossman, one of Israel’s major novelists, commented: “There are moments in the life of a nation, as in the life of an individual, when you come to a cross-road and feel yourself wondering: how did this happen? Who thought it would? How is it possible?” Grossman, who identifies with the Left, vowed to continue rejecting what he called Netanyahu’s “racist” policies and to pretend that he is living in a kinder, gentler country.
During the heated campaign, which pitted Netanyahu’s Likud-based coalition against the centrist, secular Blue and White alliance headed by Gantz, Netanyahu had vowed to annex the Jordan Valley, a large part of the West Bank. He repeated that campaign pledge in remarks at his victory rally early Tuesday morning.
Palestinians see the territory as a vital part of their own future state. Annexation, they have warned, would destroy the long-accepted framework of peace between Israel and Palestinians based on a two-state solution. The concept served as the core of the U.S.-brokered 1993 Oslo peace accords.
Netanyahu’s victory is also viewed by some Israeli and American analysts as a win for President Trump, who has infuriated Palestinians by upending America’s traditional role of serving as an ostensibly neutral broker in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, close the Palestinian Authority office in Washington, halt foreign assistance to the West Bank and Gaza, recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights—which the country has occupied since 1967—and, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it, “rethink” American policy toward Israeli settlements, have sparked international protests. But such moves may have strengthened the perception within Israel that Netanyahu is better equipped than his rivals to work with the Trump administration and achieve political gains for Israel.
President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, recently unveiled a peace plan that largely endorses Israel’s continued possession of Jerusalem and sizable parts of the West Bank, as well as the Israeli-occupied part of the Jordan Valley. Palestinian officials have denounced the administration’s “Vision for Peace” plan, which Trump has billed as his “deal of the century.” So, too, has Jordan’s King Abdullah, traditionally Washington’s close Arab ally.
In a speech Monday night to the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee, Pompeo doubled down on the administration’s support for Israeli policies. To cheers and applause, Pompeo declared that “there is no president and no administration that loves Israel more than President Trump and our team,” and listed the many pro-Israel moves that Trump has made. Netanyahu has frequently cited Trump’s support for him and his policies in calling for Israelis to support him in the election.
Other analysts discounted Trump’s role in the election outcome. Gantz’s refusal to debate Netanyahu, one analyst said, made him look weak, and contributed more heavily than U.S. policy toward his defeat. With his election victory, Netanyahu overcame obstacles that would have felled a less skilled, less tenacious politician. His party won the most seats despite his impending trial on corruption charges, scheduled to begin March 17.
If Netanyahu can persuade just two winners from other political parties to join his coalition, he will be able to continue serving as prime minister while the trial proceeds and the allegations against him are detailed in court. None of this seems to trouble the prime minister, now poised to continue as Israel’s longest-serving leader, reinforcing the perception of him as Israel’s political “magician.”
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