Israeli elections: What do the results reveal?

By Tom Bateman
Middle East Correspondent, Jerusalem

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Supporters of the Blue and White party - Mr Netanyahu's main rival - celebrated the results

There has been a significant story from the Israeli elections – the nation's longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, faces an uncertain future.

The incumbent and his main rival, Benny Gantz, are vying to build and lead a governing coalition.

The stage is set for weeks of political haggling.

But after the second election in five months, what do the results tell us about shifting opinions and changing populations?

Resurgent voters

"People are bored of voting", you would hear from some as the campaign wore on.

Israel had never before had a second election in the same year, and there was speculation about voter fatigue. It didn't happen.

In fact, with nearly all the votes counted, turnout went up to nearly 70%, from 68.5% in April.

Some of that rise was because many more of Israel's Palestinian citizens - Arab Israelis - voted this time than they did in April. Another minority group that turned out again in very strong numbers was the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Turnout went up for the second election - defying some expectations

Both groups had come under attack during the campaign: Arab Israeli parties from Mr Netanyahu, who told his base they were trying to "steal" the election; and ultra-religious Jews from the former defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who staked his campaign on a warning that Israel was at risk of turning into a theocratic state.

The response from both communities was resurgent.

"Those are two very significant, important populations," says Yohanan Plesner from the Israel Democracy Institute. "With respect to the ultra-Orthodox there is a growth in their [political] power that reflects their demographic power."

Netanyahu's base fractures

Benjamin Netanyahu was sometimes referred to as the "magician" of Israeli politics, coming back from his first term as prime minister in the 1990s and returning successive election wins over the past decade.

Of course, there is an explanation behind every illusion.

Media caption,
Benjamin Netanyahu's options are "shrinking" after the election, says biographer Anshel Pfeffer

His trick had been to ally supporters of his right-wing Likud party with a diverse base - including more extreme right-wing nationalists and also with ultra-Orthodox Jewish voters. He began this merging of "secular" right-wing voters with the religious population in the 1990s says the journalist and Netanyahu biographer Anshel Pfeffer.

But now that coalition seems to be fracturing.

Analysts believe Mr Lieberman gained two of his eight seats by draining votes from Likud – from right-wing voters who put their secular identity above their loyalty to Mr Netanyahu.

"The Netanyahu spell seems to have broken", Mr Pfeffer says. "They'll have to drag him out of the prime minister's office at the end, but we're at that point where it seems irreversible."

Meanwhile, some other parts of his base started to drift away.

In the months between the elections, protests broke out among Ethiopian Israelis after a member of the community was shot dead by an off-duty police officer.

The commentator Merav Betito writes that the results suggest Mr Netanyahu also neglected the Ethiopian community with policies that failed to take into account "weaker Israelis who live on minimum wage".

"He always felt more comfortable having his picture taken with foreign leaders than with local labourers," she says.

Shifting Palestinian views

While around five million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza cannot vote in Israeli elections, they are affected by the decisions of those who can.

The campaign led to a hardening of the view among Palestinians that the so-called two-state solution - the long held international formula for peace - is no longer viable, according to the pollster Dr Khalil Shikaki.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Israeli election posters in Hebron in the West Bank

"There is no doubt that the debate during the election campaign in Israel has been significantly damaging to the Palestinian willingness to support diplomacy and negotiations," he says, citing Mr Netanyahu's pledge to annex the Jordan Valley and all Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Polling conducted by his organisation, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, from 11-14 September, suggested only 42% of Palestinians now supported the two-state solution. When Mr Netanyahu entered office a decade ago the figure was around 70%.

Media caption,
Is a Palestinian-Israeli peace plan out of reach?

Similarly, fewer than half of Israelis now support the two-state solution. Pollsters speak of Israeli scepticism that there is a partner able to make necessary compromises or control a functioning Palestinian state.

Dr Shikaki says that instead around a third of Palestinians opt for the idea of a "one-state" outcome - meaning a single country between the Mediterranean and the river Jordan in which every individual has an equal vote; something Israelis would see as risking the end of the Jewish state.

The left collapses

Israel's traditional left wing has been in near-terminal decline.

The Israeli Labour Party - which grew from the movement that established the state and gave Israel four prime ministers including Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin - is on course to win just six seats in an alliance with another group.

In the 1990s, voters were returning it to the Israeli parliament with anything between 34 and 44 seats.

Labour was historically the first major party to call for negotiations with the Palestinians. But the mood has changed dramatically.

Many of Labour's voters have moved - or been "captured" Mr Plesner says - first by a more centrist party and now by Benny Gantz's Blue and White alliance. It marks a significant shift over two decades.

"[Blue and White] had no interest in immersing themselves in the Palestinian issue," Mr Plesner says. "[They] understand there is no peace around the corner, [but] they also have no appetite for expanding settlements beyond the security barrier."

A vote for justice

Israelis voted in favour of the rule of law when it comes to investigating their leaders, according to Mr Plesner.

He points to a package of measures designed to provide Mr Netanyahu with immunity from prosecution that was being discussed during the last attempt to form a coalition government.

The prime minister is due to face a hearing in October over allegations of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, which he denies. As a result of the election, that package is off the table.

"The election outcome demonstrates the common sense of Israelis," he says.