On December 24, 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for early Knesset elections, which were scheduled to take place on April 9, 2019. The main reason was the likely collapse of the government because of the opposition of religious parties in his coalition to a Supreme Court decision that required the government to formulate a plan for the conscription of ultra-Orthodox Jews currently exempt from army service.
Commentators also suggested Netanyahu was hoping to win reelection before the Attorney General announced long-expected indictments against the prime minister on a variety of corruption charges. According to Reuven Hazan, a professor at Hebrew University, “He wants to preempt this, he wants to win, he wants to turn around to the attorney general and say, ‘Before you decide to prosecute me, pay attention, the people of Israel have re-elected me for a fourth time. … You can’t overturn the results of a democratic election.’”
If that was indeed Netanyahu’s strategy, it failed because the Attorney General announced multiple indictments against him in February 2019.
A record 47 parties registered with the Central Elections Committee to run for the 21st Knesset (40 ultimately participated) compared to the 24 that ran for the 20th. In 2015, four Arab parties formed the Joint List and won 13 seats, becoming the third largest party in the Knesset. Discussions between the four parties broke down and, in 2019, there will be two joint Arab lists: Hadash and the Arab Movement for Renewal (Ta’al), and Ra’am and Balad. This election also features two new parties, Kahol Lavan, which was formed by Benny Gantz’s new Resilience Party and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. The other new party is Gesher, was formed by Orli Levi-Abekasis who was formerly a member of Yisrael Beiteinu.
Israel has a unique system whereby two parties can reach an agreement to combine their leftover votes so that one of them can secure an extra Knesset seat. The “Heskem Odafim” (voter surplus agreement) gives a small party a second shot at making it into the Knesset. Roi Rubinstein explains:
After the polls close, the votes are counted and each party that makes it past the threshold is allocated a number of the 120 Knesset seats depending on the percentage of the vote they received. However, it is rarely a tidy number, and there is normally a number of votes for each party that do not translate into a full Knesset seat….Two parties can use the surplus votes agreement to combine their leftover ballots and, if the two combined totals adds up to enough votes to make a full seat, it then goes to the party with the greater number of surplus votes (which most of the time is also the bigger party).
Parties must inform the Elections Committee of any plan to use surplus votes 10 days before the elections and receive the committee’s approval.
In 2019, the two ultra-Orthodox parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – signed an agreement, as did Labor and Meretz, HaYamin HeHadash and Yisrael Beiteinu, and Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad. Most controversially, Netanyahu brokered an agreement between the Likud and the Union of Right-Wing Parties (which merged three far-right parties). If Likud wins surplus votes, it could put one of the most extreme candidates who was associated with the outlawed Kahane Party into the Knesset.
A total of 4,349,253 Israelis voted (30,893 were ruled invalid) out of a total eligible population of 6,339,729. The turnout was 68.46%, down from 72.33% in 2015. Arab turnout dropped to less than 50% compared to 64% in the previous election. Arab turnout was 56 percent — down from 63 percent in 2015 – but higher than in the four elections between 2003 and 2013.
No Israeli party had ever garnered more than 1 million votes in an election, but both Likud and Blue and White did in 2019.
The initial results indicated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party narrowly defeated Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan (Blue and White Party) – 26.45% to 26.12% – giving the Likud a 36-35 advantage in seats in the 120-member Knesset. The final results, however, found that each won 35 seats. The seat lost by Likud was picked up by United Torah Judaism.
The outcome was more one-sided when Likud’s allies are taken into consideration. By adding the ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties, Netanyahu has the best chance to form a majority coalition of 65 seats compared to the 55 possible if the center, left and Arab parties joined together.
Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, decides which party head gets a chance to form the new government. Rivlin will ask each party leader who they recommend for prime minister. Given the Likud’s victory, and the greater likelihood that Netanyahu can form a coalition government, Rivlin is expected to offer him the first opportunity to assemble the support of at least 61 members of the Knesset. Though Netanyahu is expected to form a government with the right-wing parties, it is also conceivable that he will choose to form a stronger, more centrist coalition by making a deal with Gantz.
It may take weeks of negotiations and horse-trading before a government is formed. Netanyahu tied David Ben-Gurion with the most election victories (five). If he does form a government he will surpass Ben-Gurion as the country’s longest-serving prime minister in July 2019.
% of Vote
|United Torah Judaism||249,049||5.78%||8|
|Hadash - Ta'al||193,442||4.49%||6|
|Union of Right-Wing Parties||159,468||3.70%||5|
|United Arab List - Balad||143,666||3.33%||4|
The Likud had its best showing under Netanyahu’s leadership and won the most seats since it captured 38 in the 2003 election under Ariel Sharon. Netanyahu’s victory was attributed to a number of factors. One is his undisputed political acumen and campaign savvy. Another was the virtual disappearance of the left in Israel as the entire population shifted to the right. Fifty-six percent of Israelis now describe themselves as right-wing, up from 40% from 15 years ago, according to the Israel Democracy Institute. This reality was reflected in the catastrophic showing of the once dominant Labor Party, which all but collapsed, winning a record low of six seats.
Netanyahu also could tout a strong economy and a number of diplomatic successes in improving ties with Russia, the Gulf Arab states, and a number of African, Asian and Latin American leaders. His close relationship with President Trump, who is extremely popular in Israel, was also an asset. Trump also did his part to help the prime minister by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the U.S. embassy and, shortly before the election, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also held a high-profile meeting with Netanyahu to reinforce the strong ties with the administration.
Security is always the paramount concern of Israeli voters and although some of his opponents criticized Netanyahu for not taking a tougher measures against Hamas, the public appreciated the fact that he had kept Israel out of any wars and still took strong action against threats from Hezbollah, Iran and Hamas. The peace process was largely a non-issue because Gantz’s views were not that different from Netanyahu’s. Moreover, most Israelis do not see any urgency to reach an agreement, and they see no Palestinian negotiating partner. Netanyahu did make an obvious play for the far-right vote by pledging to annex settlements in the West Bank.
In addition to the appeal to ideological voters, a pre-election poll by the Israel Democracy Institute indicated Netanyahu was supported by two-thirds of voters 18 to 24 and more than half aged 25 to 34.
The strong showing of Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) was particularly impressive given that Benny Gantz was a political neophyte who formed his party just a few months before the election. That lack of experience and campaign structure may have been the difference between winning and losing. New parties have a history of coming and going from election to election; nevertheless, the strong showing by Blue and White suggests it could become a serious contender in the future if it continues to build support.
The results were a mixed bag for the political right. The ultra-Orthodox (or Haredim) account for at least 10 percent of the Israeli population and have by far the highest turnout of any community. The two Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, won eight and seven seats, respectively. With a combined 15 votes, they will have a great deal of leverage in coalition negotiations and will try to restrict Netanyahu’s freedom to address issues of concern to their constituents, such as the enlistment of yeshiva students, public transportation on Shabbat and the push for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
The former head of the Jewish Home Party, Naftali Bennett, did not fare as well. The Education Minister and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked formed The New Right Party (HaYamin HeHadash) in the hope of winning over right-wing secular voters, but failed to win any seats.
The lower turnout of Arab voters hurt the four Arab parties. In 2015, they ran as a joint list and captured 13 seats, making it the third largest party in the Knesset. Running this time as separate lists of two parties, they lost three seats. Hadash - Ta'al now tied with Labor for the fifth most seats (6) and Ra’am (United Arab List) - Balad won only four.
One reason for the poorer showing was probably dissatisfaction with the Joint List’s failure to achieve much for their constituents and inability to prevent the adoption of legislation regarded as harmful such as the Nation-State Law. Supporters of the right wing parties also sought to intimidate Arab voters by installing 1,200 cameras at Arab polling stations under the guise of protecting against voter fraud.
While the 2018 U.S. elections were marked by a dramatic increase in female candidates and victors, the Israeli election did not result in a similar breakthrough. A total of 29 women, the same as in the previous Knesset, won seats in 2019. Among them was Gadeer Mreeh of the Blue and White Party who became the first woman of Druze ethnicity to become a Member of Knesset.
Chemi Shalev observed, “The expected incoming right-wing government is nearly identical to the outgoing one, in a slightly more radical and nationalist version.”
In addition to concessions Netanyahu may have to make the religious parties, he will also face pressure from the right-wing parties to fulfill his campaign pledge to annex the West Bank. Such a move would create an international uproar, upsetting not only Israel’s enemies, but many of its friends, including Western governments and some Jews. Critics see such a move as precluding the creation of a Palestinian state. Within Israel, however, support for a Palestinian state has declined from two-thirds in favor in the past to less than 50% today.
“There is a majority of Israel that supports negotiations with the Palestinians. And there is a larger majority that believes there is no chance for peace because of the partner,” said Israeli political scientist Abraham Diskin.
With the expected release of the Trump administration’s peace plan, Netanyahu will have to address the Palestinian issue. He will have to balance Israel’s security needs, the views of his base and coalition partners, and the strong relationship he has built with Trump.
Netanyahu could avoid some of the political traps by forming a coalition with Gantz and excluding the religious and far right parties. Instead of 65 seats, the government could have 71 and not be brought down by the whims of a single small party. Gantz said he would not join a Netanyahu government, but he may find the opportunity irresistible if offered key positions such as the Defense and Foreign Affairs ministries. Netanyahu could then back away from extreme positions related to the peace process and religious pluralism that have alienated American Jews.
Netanyahu still faces a series of legal challenges. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced in February his intention to indict Netanyahu on fraud and bribery charges, but Netanyahu denied any wrongdoing and said he would not resign. Prior to the election there were suggestions that if he won, Netanyahu’s allies in the Knesset might introduce legislation to protect him by barring the indictment of a sitting prime minister.
Israelis were stunned when Netanyahu failed to meet a midnight deadline to form a new government on May 29, 2019. Just seven weeks earlier, Netanyahu declared a “night of tremendous victory” and was poised to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
Netanyahu successfully assembled a coalition of right-wing and religious parties that represented 60 seats in the Knesset, one short of the majority needed to form a government. In desperation, Netanyahu reportedly turned to the Labor Party to join the coalition, but was rebuffed. The real cause of his downfall was longtime rival Avigdor Lieberman whose Yisrael Beiteinu Party held five seats.
Lieberman’s stated reason for refusing to join the coalition was his determination to pass a bill that would require ultra-Orthodox Israelis to serve in the military like most other Israelis. The proposed law would also impose financial and possibly criminal penalties for failure to comply. Even though the number of draftees was expected to be small, and exemptions were allowed on religious grounds for anyone over 21, the ultra-Orthodox parties object to the idea that anyone studying Torah should be drafted. If Netanyahu would have accepted Lieberman’s demand to support the legislation, he would have lost 16 seats from Shas and United Torah Judaism and fallen even shorter of the 61 seats he needed. Neither side was willing to compromise ensuring Netanyahu could not form a government.
Meanwhile, many Israelis were alarmed that one element of the coalition negotiations was a pledge by Netanyahu’s supporters to vote for a bill that said members of the Knesset cannot be charged with crimes allegedly committed during their tenures in the chamber or before they won their Knesset seats unless a house committee and the wider body both waive the members’ immunity. The legislation would also limit the power of the Supreme Court to overturn bills passed by the Knesset. The law was a transparent effort to allow Netanyahu, who would be immune as a member of the Knesset, to evade prosecution for a series of pending charges.
Following the expiration of the deadline, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin could have offered someone else, either another member of Likud or the leader of Kahol Lavan to form a government. To prevent this, Netanyahu orchestrated the dissolution of the Knesset to force new elections, which are now scheduled for September 17, 2019.
The 21st Knesset served for only 30 days and did not pass a single law, a first in Israeli history. The five-month gap between the elections is also the shortest ever.
Contrary to some news reports, Netanyahu’s failure to form a government is not unprecedented. Dr. Ofer Kenig of the Israel Democracy Institute noted that it is actually the third time this has happened. In 1990, Shimon Peres also failed to assemble a coalition as did Tzipi Livni in 2008. “In the former case, the President then asked Yitzhak Shamir to form a government (he succeeded); in the latter case, the Knesset voted for early elections,” Kenig noted. One difference, he said, was that “neither of these two failures came immediately after Knesset elections.”
Sources: Neri Zilber, “Ever Cagey, Netanyahu Calls an Early Election He’s Expected to Win,” Foreign Policy, (December 24, 2018);
Raoul Wootliff, “Arab, religious parties last of record-high 47 slates to register for elections,” Times of Israel, (February 22, 2019);
“FULL LIST: The Parties and Candidates Running in Israel's Election,” Haaretz, (February 20, 2019):
Roi Rubinstein, “Surplus votes deal: How parties boost their Knesset quotient,” Ynet, (February 17, 2019);
KafeKnesset, (March 31, 2019);
Marcy Oster, “9 takeaways from Israel’s historic election,” JTA, (April 10, 2019);
Felicia Schwartz and Dov Lieber, “Netanyahu Rode Israel’s Rightward Shift to Successful Election Result,” Wall Street Journal, (April 10, 2019);
“Netanyahu’s Triumph.” Wall Street Journal editorial (April 10, 2019);
Chemi Shalev, “Israel Election: Netanyahu Celebrates His Bibistan as the Left Wakes Up to the Dawn of an Old and Darker Day,” Haaretz, (April 10, 2019);
Anshel Pfeffer, “Israel Election: Impeccable Timing and Brilliant Campaigning Give Netanyahu His Biggest Win Yet,” Haaretz, (April 11, 2019);
“Druze Woman Set To Enter Knesset In Israeli First,” Jerusalem Post, (April 10, 2019);
Jonathan Lis and Aaron Rabinowitz, “This Hot Potato Threatens Netanyahu’s Government Even Before It’s Formed,” Haaretz, (April 18, 2019);
Loveday Morris and Ruth Eglash, “Netanyahu’s supporters push a bill to give him immunity as indictments loom,” Washington Post, (May 21, 2019);
Michael Bachner, “Netanyahu advisers said to warn elections won’t give him time to secure immunity,” Times of Israel, (May 28, 2019);
Israel Democracy Institute;
Isabel Kershner, “After Coalition Talks Crumble, Israel on Course for Another Election,” New York Times, (May 29, 2019).