Israel’s never-ending ending election finally came to a close. After two inconclusive elections over the past 11 months, one last April and another in September, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his coalition of the right appear to have emerged victorious on Monday. Right now, a fourth election does not appear to be on the horizon, to the relief of an exhausted country.
Minutes after the polls closed, Netanyahu tweeted thank you and a heart-shaped emoji. The electorate’s message was clear: better the devil we know than the one we don’t. According to exit polls, Netanyahu and his allies garnered between 59 and 60 seats in the 120 member Knesset, just shy of an actual majority.
Striking a blow for participatory democracy, Israelis went to the polls in droves. This election witnessed the highest turnout since 1999. On top of that, an outbreak of coronavirus failed to deter Israel’s citizens from doing their civic duty.
Indeed, heading into the election, Israel’s security service took steps to minimize foreign-driven fake news of the outbreak from interfering with the election. Rick Grenell and Mike Pompeo, are you listening?
Ultimately, the fact that Netanyahu was under indictment, and in just two weeks faces a fresh round of legal proceedings proved to be no deterrent, and may have even spurred voting. Yet on that score, Israel may be lurching toward a constitutional crisis.
Its political system stands to be used by Netanyahu as sword and shield in the face of the judiciary, prosecutors, and the rule of law. Efforts to immunize a sitting prime minister from prosecution could pick up steam.
Regardless, Netanyahu’s triumph is a template for Donald Trump and the Republican Party as they head toward an election day. The president can take solace from this turn of events.
To win, Netanyahu trashed his opponent, retired general Benny Gantz, rallied his base, and weaponized resentments toward the media and the cultural elites. Natan Eshel, a senior aide to Netanyahu, was caught on tape saying that “hate is what unites” Israel’s right. Previously, Eshel had been banned from Israel’s civil service after taking “upskirt” photos of women in the prime minister’s office.
For good measure, Eshel added that negative campaigning is particularly effective on “non-Ashkenazi voters”. Think of Steve Bannon adoringly referring to Trump’s base as “hobbits” in the aftermath of 2016, except that Eshel was sounding more like Hillary Clinton speaking of the “deplorables”. Reductionism knows no boundaries.
Not surprisingly, Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president, was markedly less sanguine as he criticized the tenor of the campaign before the polls had even closed. Rivlin, a veteran conservative politician, observed: “This is normally a festive day, but the truth is that I don't feel like celebrating. I only feel a sense of deep shame… We don't deserve another awful and grubby election campaign like the one that ends today.” This was not the first time that Rivlin has locked horns with Netanyahu.
Beyond that, Netanyahu masterfully micro-targeted key constituencies, from cab drivers to West Bank settlers to the overtly devout. The crew at Trump’s reelection campaign and the remaining Democratic hopefuls should take copious notes.
Meanwhile, the Jewish center-left opposition took a beating as its vote share dropped from last September. Coupled with Israel’s Arab bloc, they underperformed, picking up something in the vicinity of 55 seats.
In the end, part of Gantz’s Blue & White bloc is expected to give Netanyahu the seats he is looking for. Beyond that, Yisrael Beiteinu, a party driven by Avigdor Lieberman, a former Netanyahu cabinet minister who had a falling out with his boss, could hand Netanyahu an added boost.
As all this was happening, AIPAC’s annual conference was in full swing in Washington amidst a swirl of controversy. Bernie Sanders was in boycott mode, Mike Bloomberg made a personal appearance, and Joe Biden spoke via video in the aftermath of his South Carolina triumph.
For good measure, Danny Dannon, Israel’s UN ambassador, told those assembled that Sanders was a liar, an ignorant fool or both, after Sanders had branded Netanyahu as a “racist” at last week’s Democratic debate. Later, the crowd at AIPAC applauded after a Republican pundit predicted that Nancy Pelosi would not be wielding the speaker’s gavel come next January.
As Israel becomes an increasingly favored Republican concern, AIPAC could at times be mistaken as a Jewish iteration of CPAC. Although bipartisan support remains an AIPAC goal, it may well become more difficult to sustain. For starters, expect the 2020 Democratic platform to be a less Israel-friendly document.
For AIPAC and Israel, that is a real concern. But tonight, count on Netanyahu, for one, to sleep well.