Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Dan Katz is a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own; view more opinion articles on CNN.
With nearly all the votes in the Israeli elections counted, Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have won a fifth term as Israeli prime minister. While his Likud Party tied Benny Gantz’s Blue and White with 35 seats each – a remarkable showing for both parties – his right-wing bloc will likely secure 65 seats, providing him a clear but still difficult path to negotiate a majority coalition.
The election results carry major implications for Israeli politics, the future of the peace process and Netanyahu himself.
Here are five of the most important takeaways:
Benny Gantz exceeded expectations
Despite the lack of political experience – Gantz had never served in any elected office or government ministry – within four months, he was able to create a viable alternative and the most serious challenge to Netanyahu in his career.
The history of centrist parties is not an encouraging one, and there are no guarantees that Gantz’s Blue and White bloc will endure. But if there’s a future for an anti-right alternative, it may lie with Gantz or someone like him. It’s no coincidence that out of Likud’s three electoral defeats in the past decades, two came at the hands of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, who like Gantz were former IDF chiefs of staff. If there is an alternative to Likud, it will have to be led by someone with a strong military background steeped in security doctrine and experience.
Will this government last?
The results of the election were only the first shoe to drop. Pending a pre-indictment hearing to be held by July 10, Netanyahu is set to be indicted in three separate cases. If formally indicted, a trial could take place shortly thereafter.
This would be the first time a sitting Israeli prime minister has faced criminal charges, and it is unclear whether Netanyahu could govern while on trial or whether his coalition partners would back him up. This issue will feature prominently in coalition negotiations, as parties will seek to extort Netanyahu for ministries, policies and portfolios – in return for keeping him in power when his legal troubles heat up.
Is annexation of the West Bank possible?
One way Netanyahu might seek to stay in power is to establish an “immunity law,” which would protect him from criminal charges in exchange for his fulfilling his campaign promise to annex the West Bank settlements.
Whether his coalition partners would agree is uncertain, as several have already come out against it. And while Netanyahu’s promise may have been an election ploy, it will be tempting for him to ensure his personal freedom by satisfying the right’s desire to annex these settlements.
The bottom line is that Israeli politics is entering – even by Israeli standards – a peculiarly volatile period.
Netanyahu and the Trump peace plan
The release of Trump’s peace plan, which is expected to happen between now and mid-June, will put Netanyahu between a rock and a hard place, but he will likely be saved by the Palestinians. Assuming he puts together a right-wing coalition, as expected, it will be very difficult if not impossible for him to agree to a plan that presumes to further Palestinian national aspirations, e.g. a real Palestinian state.
On the other hand, he will not be able to say no to Trump after all the President has done for him. Therefore, he will try to say yes with a heavily conditioned “but,” relying on the Palestinians to reject the deal – as they have said they will.
However, if Trump backs Netanyahu into a corner (which would be surprising) and pushes him to accept some elements that his coalition can’t abide by, he may well try to reach out to form a unity government with Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party, which would be more receptive to progress with the Palestinians than Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners.
The US-Israeli and Israeli-diaspora relationships
US-Israeli relations are almost certain to remain especially close as Trump approaches his own electoral moment in 2020. This will ensure, difficulties over the pending peace plan notwithstanding, that Netanyahu will retain his yes-man in the White House – with all the benefit that carries for both leaders. Trump will also benefit from his friend’s re-election because it will continue to cause divisions within the Democratic Party, as progressives and moderates debate their stance on Israel and its government. The Republicans will continue to take advantage of this divide, especially in the run-up to the 2020 elections, to establish themselves as the go-to party on Israel.
The elections also mean that Israeli-diaspora relations will continue to deteriorate. Many of Netanyahu’s policies have not gone over well with American Jews – whether his embrace of racist Kahanists, settlement construction or his cancellation of the compromise on the Western Wall prayer space. This will worsen as the drivers of these policies, the ultra-orthodox and national-religious parties, try to exact a high price to support Netanyahu and to keep him in power through his legal troubles.
This may have been a close election. But there are clearly two big winners – Netanyahu, who has won an historic fifth term, and the man in the White House, whose policy decisions helped keep him there.