More than a resounding victory for soon-to-be prime minister MK Benjamin Netanyahu, the election this week was a tactical failure by Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
With 99.8% of the votes counted on Thursday, the tally of pro-Netanyahu votes was 2,356,262, while the tally of anti-Netanyahu votes was 2,327,409 – a 28,853 difference, which is far less than the votes needed even for one seat.
In terms of percentage, this is a virtual tie. It is far closer than the previous election in March 2021, which the anti-Netanyahu bloc won by 0.76%
Netanyahu’s bloc just barely won the general vote, so why is the result a 64-56 blowout?
The reason for the immense margin is simple: The pro-Bibi bloc wasted less than 60,000 votes below the electoral threshold, for Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked’s Bayit Yehudi, while the anti-Bibi bloc wasted over 275,000 votes for Meretz and Balad.
Had the Joint List continued with Balad, Hadash and Ta’al, and Meretz and Labor run together, the Netanyahu bloc would likely have received only 60 seats, Channel 11 pollster David “Dudi” Chassid said on Wednesday.
The anti-Netanyahu bloc has three people to blame: Lapid, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli and Balad leader MK Sami Abou Shahadeh.
Michaeli ignored Lapid’s and others’ attempts to convince her to agree to merge with Meretz, arguing that the sum of both parties would be larger if they ran separately. Abou Shahadeh broke away from the Joint List since it was unwilling to agree to his complete rejection of any form of cooperation with a future government.
Lapid failed to prevent these from happening, and, more importantly, called until the very end to vote for him and not for Meretz and Labor, even when it became clear that both were in danger of falling under the threshold.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, imposed his will on his bloc. He intervened when the negotiations between Religious Zionist Party’s MK Bezalel Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit’s MK Itamar Ben-Gvir faltered, and again when Noam’s MK Avi Maoz threatened to run independently, bringing all three to run together. He intervened again when United Torah Judaism (UTJ) nearly split, and was also involved in the Likud’s primary election procedures in order to ensure that people who potentially could damage the Likud would not be on the list.
The outcome reflects the differences in Netanyahu’s and Lapid’s leadership styles.
Lapid’s style is to delegate responsibility and not step on other ministers’ toes. This was visible with Defense Minister Benny Gantz during Operation Breaking Dawn, with Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman and Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton during their negotiations over a new teachers’ salaries deal, with Gideon Sa’ar’s policies in the Justice Ministry, Yoaz Hendel’s in the Communications Ministry, Matan Kahana’s in the Religious Affairs Ministry and more.
His ministers’ independence enabled each of them to implement their policies, and for the government as a whole to rack up an impressive list of reforms in its 16 months of existence.
During campaign season, however, this leadership style came back to bite Lapid, as the independence of his ministers also meant that they did not feel the need to bend to his will.
Netanyahu’s style is diametrically opposed to Lapid’s. As prime minister, his involvement was much larger than Lapid’s in matters pertaining to other ministries, especially security. While in normal times this can be detrimental to the government’s performance, in the election campaign he utilized his complete control in order to craft his bloc exactly as he wanted.
Another reason for Lapid’s failure was that in the days leading up to the election he received bad advice. In the previous election Lapid called on voters to vote for smaller parties in order to ensure that everyone passes the threshold. This time around, he refused to do so, based on faulty data. Channel 12’s Amit Segal reported on Wednesday that Lapid’s pollster, Mark Mellman, was so certain that Meretz and Labor were going to pass that Lapid campaigner Hillel Kobrinsky ignored the smaller parties’ rescue cries and refused to call on voters to save them, arguing that the notion that they were in danger was a Netanyahu spin. Mellman, Kobrinsky, and Lapid ended up being very wrong.
Netanyahu’s victory this time around served as poetic justice after he was on the other end of a similar outcome in the first election of the five in this cycle, in April 2019. In that election, Bennett and Shaked’s New Right Party fell just 1,400 votes short of the electoral threshold, wasting nearly 140,000 votes, and Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut Party wasted another 120,000. Netanyahu, with his coalition partners from the previous election, still had 65 seats and won 55% of the general vote, but then Liberman’s exit kicked Netanyahu down to 60, and led to another election five months later.
The political chaos that ensued has now ended, over three-and-a-half years later, with the opposite happening. The end results were slightly tilted toward Netanyahu, but the wasted votes are what kicked him up to a 10-seat victory.
Despite the clear right-wing victory, there are still a number of scenarios that could play out in the months ahead.
Netanyahu will likely form a government consisting of the Likud, Shas, UTJ and the Religious Zionist Party. Coalition negotiations have already started, and the process of forming the cabinet could end within two or three weeks. The question that remains is what will happen further down the road.
The Jerusalem Post’s Tovah Lazaroff pointed out that the Religious Zionist Party will put Netanyahu in an uncomfortable diplomatic situation. The party will likely present a list of demands, such as to fully apply sovereignty over West Bank settlements or at the very least in the settlement blocs, authorize 70 West Bank outposts which currently are widely viewed as illegal, increase demolitions of illegal Palestinian construction and support Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. Each of these moves would irk the Biden administration at minimum, and would be met with widespread protest in Israel and the West Bank, which could spiral into violence.
Lazaroff added that unlike Netanyahu, who excels at bending without folding, the Religious Zionist Party will likely be far less flexible, particularly given its large size, and force Netanyahu to concede on at least some of the abovementioned issues. Smotrich, who knows Netanyahu well and accused him in a recently leaked recording of being the “liar of all liars,” will likely demand that the coalition agreements include provisions to guarantee that these promises are kept.
Netanyahu does not have much to lose, as he is already standing trial on three counts of fraud and breach of trust and one count of bribery, and already lost the US Democratic Party’s good faith during the Obama years. He is also 73 and may not have to deal with the long-term implications of his decisions.
Still, he has historical perspective and cares about his legacy, as his recently published 600-page autobiography testifies. He may, therefore, use the Religious Zionist Party to find a way to tilt his trial in his favor by acceding to the party’s judicial reform, and then pivot to the Center and attempt to get rid of the party, or at least its Kahanist Otzma Yehudit faction.
With 65 seats and six or seven members of Otzma Yehudit, Netanyahu will need help from the outside, and the obvious candidate is Gantz.
Gantz vowed to take his party to the opposition. Following the 2020 election, however, Gantz broke his pledge not to join Netanyahu and joined a rotation government due to the emergency COVID-19 situation. He could do the same again.
Gantz’s party is not homogeneous. Out of his expected 12 seats, Gantz’s Blue and White faction has eight seats, including Eisenkot and Kahana. The remaining four belong to Sa’ar’s New Hope faction.
Since Sa’ar broke away from the Likud ahead of the 2021 election, he has made it clear that he wants nothing to do with it as long as Netanyahu is at its helm. This, coupled with his accusation that the Religious Zionist Party’s judicial reform would turn Israel into an authoritarian democracy, makes it doubtful that he would cross the lines. It is also unlikely that the haredi parties would welcome Kahana after the reforms he carried out in the Religious Affairs Ministry during the past year.
This leaves seven potential MKs to replace Ben-Gvir’s six or seven. Faced with the prospect of a four-year Bibi-Ben-Gvir government, this scenario may arise. But with Gantz’s deep distrust of Netanyahu after the latter failed to uphold their 2020 rotation agreement, the chances are slim.
The more realistic scenario is that the Netanyahu-haredi-Religious Zionist Party government will lead the country for the foreseeable future, while facing a strong opposition led by Lapid and Gantz, as well as a renewal of weekly mass protests outside of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.
On top of this internal pressure, Netanyahu will also likely face international pressure led by the US, at least as long as Joe Biden remains president. Despite Netanyahu’s boasting during his campaign that he is the only one who knows how to stand up to the US administration, it is unclear whether he will be able to do so effectively with Ben-Gvir by his side.
Time will tell how the government responds to these issues, and whether it indeed will achieve some semblance of stability or sink under the weight of its own ideology.