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5 things to know about one of Israel’s most important elections in decades

Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz are both vying to be Israel’s next prime minister.

A man passes by a Likud party election campaign poster showing its leader Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu on April 1, 2019 in the city of Haedera, Israel.
A man passes by a Likud party election campaign poster showing its leader, Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, on April 1, 2019, in the city of Haedera, Israel.
Amir Levy/Getty Images

Israelis head to the polls Tuesday in what could be the most consequential election in decades.

Right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who has spent a total of 13 years in power, is seeking his fourth consecutive term. It’s one of the toughest election fights he’s ever encountered.

Netanyahu is facing possible indictment by Israel’s attorney general on fraud and corruption charges, and he’s also going up against a particularly formidable opponent: Benny Gantz, a centrist former military chief whose impressive national security credentials pose a direct threat to Netanyahu’s grip on power.

President Donald Trump has taken a number of steps to help shore up victory for Netanyahu, one of his closest allies in the region — including making the decision last month to formally recognize Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights.

But the prime minister still seems worried that power could slip from his grasp — and polls suggest he has a right to be. On Saturday, in what was seen as a dramatic, last-minute attempt to energize far-right voters and thus tip the scales in his favor, Netanyahu announced that, if elected, he would annex large parts of the West Bank.

Officially extending Israeli sovereignty over Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which has long been seen as a critical part of any future Palestinian state, would effectively spell the end of the dwindling hopes of one day achieving peace and creating a real, functional state for Palestinians.

It’s anyone’s guess whether Netanyahu’s brash move will be enough to put him over the top — and given the peculiarities of Israel’s parliamentary system, even if his Likud party wins a plurality in Tuesday’s election, it’s still not a guarantee that he will be able to form a coalition government and stay in power.

With so much at stake in this election, all eyes will be on Israel. Here are the key issues you need to know so you can follow along.

1) Israel’s prime minister is fighting for his job

Netanyahu is headed into this election plagued by multiple corruption scandals that just won’t seem to go away.

Over the past year, the 69-year-old prime minister has been the focus of three investigations into allegations that he doled out political favors in exchange for positive news coverage and committed fraud, among other things. In late February, Israel’s attorney general announced that he intended to charge the prime minister for crimes related to corruption, pending a hearing.

This puts a lot of pressure on Netanyahu and his party to perform well at the polls, because if he manages to retain his position as prime minister, there’s a chance he can pass a law that would basically protect him from being put on trial.

“He’s desperate to avoid criminal prosecution,” Ilan Goldenberg, who directs the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, told me.

But while some voters are surely put off by the corruption allegations, many Israelis still see Netanyahu as the right candidate for the job. Israel’s economy has prospered in the past decade, and Netanyahu is seen as being tough on Iran, a country Israel regards as an existential threat. Many view Netanyahu’s close relationship with Trump as another point in his favor. The US president’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the decision to hand sovereignty to Israel over the Golan Heights, and Trump’s much harder line toward Iran have all reflected well on Netanyahu.

In another election year, these examples may have been enough to easily counteract stubborn corruption allegations — but it may not be so simple this year. Netanyahu is also facing a particularly compelling opponent.

2) Benny Gantz is portraying himself as the anti-Netanyahu

Netanyahu is up against Benny Gantz, a 59-year-old retired general who from 2011 to 2015 served as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff — the supreme commander of the entire Israeli military and its highest-ranked officer.

Gantz is new to Israeli politics, and has been described as calm, cool, and soft-spoken. He was reportedly considering the role of Israel’s defense minister before polls showed that he was an extremely popular choice for prime minister prior to him even entering the political arena.

In December 2018, Gantz created a new party called Israel Resilience, whose stated platform was to pursue “the continued development and strengthening of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and focus on issues like education, agriculture, and internal security. Then in February, Gantz joined forces with the Yesh Atid party to form a centrist alliance that branded itself the Blue and White party, after the colors of the Israeli flag (basically the equivalent of an American political party calling itself the “Red, White, and Blue Party.”)

The former military officer has painted himself as a political outsider who would be a breath of fresh air. He’s talked about “uniting” Israel and refocusing on democracy. He’s taken aim at Netanyahu by saying he’ll fight corruption and impose term limits. But he doesn’t differ much from Netanyahu in other areas, like his policy on the Palestinians. He’s also allied with some extremely hawkish politicians in the Knesset.

In short, some say, he’s trying to be all things to all people — but mainly offer an alternative to the embattled prime minister.

Netanyahu, for his part, has had a lot of success partly by portraying himself as tough on security issues, like his policy toward Iran, and his forceful response to rocket attacks from Gaza. In past elections, that has served him well. But he is finally facing off against someone he can’t so easily paint as weak on security — though he’s certainly tried.

3) The future of the West Bank — and the prospects for peace — is on the line in this election

In a bid to win support from Israel’s far right, Netanyahu declared over the weekend that he would “extend sovereignty” to the roughly 130 Jewish settlements in the West Bank if he’s reelected.

The West Bank is a section of land east of Israel that’s home to about 2.6 million Palestinians. As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp writes, “Israel took control of it in 1967 and has allowed Jewish settlers to move in, but Palestinians (and most of the international community) consider it illegally occupied Palestinian land.”

Today, about 622,000 Jewish settlers now live in the West Bank, in enclaves that range from sizable cities with middle-class villas to small encampments.

The West Bank would likely form the basis of a future Palestinian state in any two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a plan that Netanyahu and past US administrations have endorsed. But Netanyahu’s promise to start annexing parts of the region would significantly change things.

One reason is that these blocs are spread out across the West Bank. So if they become official territory of the state of Israel, that leaves the land left for a future Palestinian state looking a bit like a piece of Swiss cheese — a bunch of disconnected pieces of territory with sovereign Israeli land dotted throughout. That’s hardly conducive to forming a coherent, sovereign state where Palestinians can one day live in peace.

And that is precisely the point: By annexing these settlements, rather than treating them (at least on paper) as illegal outposts that will one day be dismantled, Netanyahu would essentially be giving a huge gift to the Israeli right.

“It seems clear that he is making a bid for right-wing voters and especially the pro-settlement, ‘Greater Israel’ crowd that has been pushing for annexation for several years,” said Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, DC. “Such a move would likely signal the death knell of the two-state solution, and move Israel closer to a formal apartheid reality on the ground.”

In addition to Netanyahu’s desire to shore up support from Israel’s right, there’s another factor behind this announcement. Last month, Trump announced that the US would recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a disputed area of land that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, though the international community regards this as a clear violation of international law.

“The reason Netanyahu didn’t do this before is because of the international pressure that’s been brought to bear on him,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian Canadian lawyer and former spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). “But he got the green light with the recognition of the Golan, and previously with [Trump’s] recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It’s a process that’s been a long time in coming.”

4) There’s a chance that Arab Israelis could swing the election

This group — many of whom prefer to be called Palestinians in Israel, or Palestinian citizens of Israel — make up about one-fifth of the Israeli electorate. They include Muslims, Christians, and Druze (a religious minority). Many Arab citizens of Israel are frustrated and disillusioned with the political process, and point to decades of systemic discrimination against them.

Buttu specifically pointed to a law that was changed the year before the 2015 election that requires that political parties receive 3.25 percent of total votes cast in order to meet the electoral threshold to join the Knesset (Israel’s parliament). That law, Buttu said, has made it difficult for some minority groups to be properly represented.

According to recent polls, only about 50 percent of this group said they planned to vote, and there have been calls to boycott the election. In recent weeks, though, some prominent figures have spoken out to emphasize the importance of participating in the political process, however flawed. Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar even made a music video encouraging Arabs in Israel to fight racism by making their voices heard at the ballot box. “If our vote will ... imprison Bibi, then we’re ready,” he says.

If they do, it could be a game changer, since they could give enough support to Gantz’s bloc that he edges out Netanyahu, Haaretz reports. If they largely decide not to participate, though, Netanyahu has a better chance of winning.

Netanyahu has been running a distinctly anti-Arab campaign — even more so than in previous elections. He recently joined with the openly racist, previously banned ultra-right-wing Jewish Power party, which earned him rare criticism from AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups. It’s possible that frustration with Netanyahu’s approach could inspire more Arabs in Israel to cast their ballots — and tip the scales away from the sitting prime minister.

5) Even if Netanyahu’s party wins big Tuesday, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee he’ll remain in power

According to some polls, Netanyahu’s Likud party has a slight leg up going into the election, but the intricacies of Israel’s electoral system, and the fact that there are still a number of undecided voters, mean the outcome is anything but clear.

Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, is composed of 120 seats. Israelis don’t vote for individuals, but instead choose parties. There are dozens of parties competing to win spots in the Knesset, but Likud (headed by Netanyahu) and the Blue and White party (headed by Gantz) have the most support by far.

However, because no party has ever won an outright majority of seats and they’re not expected to this time, Gantz and Netanyahu’s parties have to ally with some of the smaller parties to form a coalition that would allow each of them to govern.

But some of these parties may not win enough votes to meet the threshold to even enter the Knesset (3.25 percent of the national vote, or about four seats), which means it’s difficult to predict who, at the end of the day, will end up on top.

There’s also another complicating factor: The leader of the party with the most votes doesn’t just become the next prime minister; Israel’s president (who is elected to a seven-year term by an absolute majority in the Knesset) ultimately decides who forms the next government.

After all the votes have been counted, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will consult with the leaders of the winning parties and make a decision about who among them should be the next prime minister.

That process could take about a week. The party leader who is chosen will then have six weeks to form a governing coalition. If they fail, another party leader takes over.

In short, there are lots of scenarios that could play out on Tuesday. Which makes this election a nail-biter — one that could have ramifications for decades to come.

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