Exit the Magician: Netanyahu Can't Possibly Recover from a Second Electoral Defeat in a Row | Opinion

On Wednesday morning, Tel Avivians, who voted overwhelmingly for parties that oppose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were afraid to open their eyes. They feared a repeat of what has happened many times during the last two decades—going to bed after the exit polls, believing Prime Minister Netanyahu had been defeated, and waking up to numbers that shifted overnight, marking another Netanyahu victory. This time, that did not happen.

As the actual votes were tallied, Tel Aviv denizens learned that the tally remained very close to projections from the night before. It was official. Prime Minister Netanyahu had lost. All day Wednesday, and Thursday as the rising percentage of votes slowly rolled in, confirming the loss, Likud supporters continued to try to spin the results, insisting Netanyahu remained the only one who could form a coalition.

By Friday morning , the numbers were final—Blue and White had received 33 seats and the Likud 31; giving the center-left bloc a mandate of 57 seats, compared to 55 for seats for the right-wing bloc. The remaining 7 seats went to Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party.

The politician, nicknamed by many "The Magician" in homage to his political acumen, has now lost two elections—in a row. After the first 2019 election in April, Netanyahu failed to form a government, and promptly called for a new election, in lieu of returning his mandate to assemble a coalition back to the President. The Prime Minister believed many right-wing votes had been wasted, due to parties that did not meet the necessary threshold to enter the Knesset. Moreover, Netanyahu expected that the Likud would do better, now that Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon (whose party received 4 seats in the previous election) had returned to the Likud.

In the last election, Netanyahu's coalition received 60 seats, without Defense Minister Lieberman's party. For the aforementioned reasons, coupled with the belief Israeli voters have moved steadily to the right, Netanyahu was convinced he would easily increase his bloc to 61 seats in a do-over, and thus profit a coalition that would shield him from his legal difficulties. Just to ensure he would win, he devised with a plan to expand what seemed to have work in the last election: stationing Likud activists with cameras in Arab Israeli polling booths to intimidate them and thereby suppressing their votes.

Unfortunately for Netanyahu, none of his assumptions proved correct. Things began going wrong when the respected Head of the Election committee informed Netanyahu that bringing cameras into polling places was illegal under current law. Netanyahu then led a campaign to change the law, despite the fact the Knesset had been dispersed, and all legal opinion stated that his proposed "Cameras Bill" should not be passed under the auspices of a temporary, transitional government. Netanyahu remained adamant and claimed if the bill was not passed, the Arab voters would steal the election.

When the history of this election is written, one fact will be clear—the Netanyahu campaign's efforts to suppress the Arab Israeli vote had the opposite effect. In this repeat election, Arab Israelis indeed came out in large numbers, and in almost all cases, voted overwhelmingly for parties who oppose Netanyahu — first and foremost, the Joint Arab list.

Netanyahu made another fatal mistake during this campaign. Due to his personal dislike for Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, he fired them both from their interim ministerial positions, promptly after calling for new the election. In place of Bennett, Netanyahu appointed Rabbi Rafi Peretz, the new head of the Bayit HaYehudi religious party.

Peretz immediately started talking about the importance of values and of every 7th and 8th grader visiting the Western Wall. As a result, many average Israelis that want an Education Minister who focuses primarily on math and computer science skills, determined the threat posed by religious parties to the liberal secularism of the country was very real. This played perfectly into the hands of former Defense Minister Lieberman, whose campaign was built around ending religious coercion. Instead of being strengthened, the right-wing/religious bloc lost support— earning 55 seats (a loss of 5 seats from the previous election).

What happened and why it did is relatively clear — though what will happen going forward is less obvious. There is currently no possibility of a far-right/religious coalition being formed. This means there will be new immunity bill passed, nor will there be a bill allowing the Knesset to override the Supreme Court. Netanyahu will have to meet the Attorney General in two weeks and will almost definitely face trial. The Blue and White Party has made clear they will not enter into a coalition with someone who is about to be (or has been indicted), even though Israeli law allows an indicted Prime Minister to remain in office — a sequence of events that is no longer viable after this election.

Both Blue and White, and Yisrael Beiteinu prefer a national unity government. However, that is only possible without Netanyahu, (who has made it clear he will not go quietly into the night). There are two likely scenarios. Option 1: Netanyahu enters into a plea deal—he resigns in return for the charges against him being dropped. Many Israelis would support such a deal. Quite a few of those who dislike Netanyahu would still rather not see yet another Israeli PM go through a trial and possibly land in jail. The evidence against Netanyahu appears strong, so for him, this seems like a good exit plan.

Option 2: A revolt takes place inside the Likud. Although Likud ministers all pledged loyalty to Netanyahu shortly before the election, most patiently await the moment he leaves the stage, allowing one of them to replace him. However, for that to happen, it will have to become clear to them that Gantz could form a government without them (either by wooing one of the religious parties, or reaching an agreement with the Arab Joint List to support him from the outside).

There are many other possible scenarios, including a unity government, to which Netanyahu can return, if he is not indicted or proven innocent. However, two results of this election are unambiguous. First, Israel's electorate did not move further to the right and the forces concerned about the democratic nature of the country did better than expected. Second, the path for Netanyahu to continue now as Prime Minister seems near impossible to navigate, and so the world might soon have to get used to a new Prime Minister of Israel.

Finally, for those the world over, who have been disappointed by the results of elections in their country, time and time again — take heart! Sometimes dreams do not turn into nightmares, and maybe the steady march rightward and towards popularism can be stopped.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views in this article are the author's own.