At 10 minutes before midnight on Tuesday night, Benjamin Netanyahu informed President Reuven Rivlin yet again that he had failed to form a government.
It’s hard to exaggerate how painful the failure is for Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and what it means for his legacy.
Over the past two years, beginning with the failure after the April 2019 race, Netanyahu has turned to increasingly desperate and unorthodox measures to attain the victory that keeps eluding him.
Throughout the first three races, his campaign turned increasingly negative. Hidden cameras were deployed at Arab voting stations, apparently intended (according to the political campaign firm that distributed them) to intimidate Arab Israelis and suppress turnout. The centerpiece of Netanyahu’s campaign was the claim that his rival Benny Gantz was mentally ill, that his phone had been compromised by Iranian intelligence, and that he was vulnerable to extortion over purported evidence on that phone of his infidelity to his wife.
When by the March 2020 race even those methods had failed to deliver Netanyahu his win, he pivoted breezily, with Likud campaign staff explaining in annoyance to reporters, as though to children, that all that had come before was just the unavoidable cut and thrust of politics. As Netanyahu’s campaign manager Ofer Golan once put it, “First you win the campaign, then you do damage control.”
So it was that in March 2020, mentally ill, extortion-prone and unfaithful Gantz suddenly became worthy of the prime minister’s seat. Netanyahu agreed to a rotation that made Gantz the “alternate prime minister” and, come November 2021, the actual prime minister. Netanyahu vowed to fulfill his commitments to the letter, even amending Israel’s Basic Laws to offer Gantz legal leverage and convince him of his new partner’s sincerity.
Then, surprising no one – literally no one, not Likud ministers, not even, as he said when signing on to the unity government, Gantz himself – Netanyahu reneged on the rotation promise. His only legal means for avoiding the transfer of power was to force new elections by having the government fail for the first time in Israel’s history to pass a state budget for an entire fiscal year. So that’s what he did.
What began as an increasingly shrill negative campaign had thus transformed by mid-2020 into a serious governance problem.
That was the Netanyahu who entered the March 2021 race: a political survivor, a gifted leader, and a ruthlessly dishonest campaigner who had broken every norm in his pursuit of a victory that continued to elude him.
His failure in the March race, finalized on Tuesday, is in many ways the most painful, if only because it came in the immediate aftermath of some of his most spectacular successes as prime minister, including four peace agreements with the Arab world and a trailblazing vaccination campaign. It came, too, despite a steep drop in Arab turnout and last year’s shattering of the center-left Blue and White coalition.
No matter the successes Netanyahu delivered, no matter how badly his challengers splintered and stumbled, the electoral math remained the same.
How is that possible?
The right blinks first
Likud leaders have spent a good part of the most recent campaign decrying the “anyone but Bibi” camp for “disqualifying” Netanyahu as a coalition partner. That “obsessive hatred,” they complained, was the ultimate cause of the political deadlock.
But a closer look at March’s turnout figures reveals a different reason for Netanyahu’s failure, a reason Likud may be hard-pressed to overcome.
Arab turnout dropped an astonishing 20 points between March 2020 and March 2021. The decline was probably driven mainly by the fragmenting of the Arab Joint List (Arab Israeli turnout generally rises with political unity and declines when parties run separately), but also quite possibly by Likud’s pivot in the latest election from an anti-Arab campaign to a pro-Arab one.
So how did all the elements noted above — the fracturing of the center-left after Gantz joined the unity government, the world-leading vaccination drive, four peace treaties and a sharp decline in Arab turnout – fail to move the needle in Netanyahu’s favor?
The answer is simple: Likud shed huge numbers of voters, dropping from over 1,352,000 votes in March 2020 to just 1,067,000 a year later, a 21 percent decline. Netanyahu’s most reliable allies, the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, also declined, shedding over 10% of their voters.
An Israel Democracy Institute analysis of the turnout data brings Likud’s problem into sharp relief. Put simply, Likud voters stayed home.
Thus, in the hardscrabble “development towns” that are traditional Likud strongholds, overall turnout dropped 4.9 points. The decline was heavily concentrated among Likud voters; Likud’s share of the vote dropped 7 points.
Turnout dropped 4.2 points in Jerusalem, with its largely Haredi and right-leaning electorate. In so-called “Likud cities” where the party is dominant – Ashdod, Ashkelon, Beersheba, Hadera, Holon and Netanya – turnout fell 4 points.
And in settlements (excluding the two major Haredi cities of Beitar Illit and Modiin Illit), it dropped 2.5 points.
Compare that to turnout in center-left and secular areas, which also saw a decline, but a much smaller one: just 1.7 points in Tel Aviv, 1.3 in high-income and left-leaning cities in the country’s center (Hod Hasharon, Modiin, Kfar Saba, Ramat Gan, Ra’anana and Givatayim), and just 0.2 points in kibbutzim.
If the run of repeat elections is to be decided by exhaustion, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Netanyahu’s side blinked first.
Still in the running
“The report of my death was an exaggeration,” Mark Twain once quipped to an inquiring journalist.
So too with Netanyahu. There is a chance – slim, complex, but very much still there – that he’ll be able to pull back from the brink of political oblivion.
His opponents, after all, are no better positioned to form a coalition than he was. If Lapid and Bennett manage to cobble together their broad-based unity coalition, Netanyahu will have almost limitless chances to try to destabilize it from the opposition. In a coalition stretching from deep-right Yamina to progressive Meretz, there’s hardly a policy issue that won’t spark internal opposition from one party or another.
If Lapid and Bennett fail to build that coalition, Netanyahu will have another chance by default. Under law, the Knesset as an institution will be granted 21 more days to try to form a government before it must dissolve and call snap elections. Netanyahu will presumably be spending that time wheeling and dealing with the ferocity of a cornered tiger.
And if that also fails, Netanyahu will still be the interim premier heading into the next election.
Netanyahu failed yet again, but he’s not out of the running just yet.
Yet, in a more fundamental sense, Tuesday marked more than just another setback. The glass ceiling he encountered in previous races has revealed itself to be impervious even to his most ruthless campaigning and most astonishing successes.
And the ceiling is sinking.
Netanyahu failed to win the first three elections because he faced a unified center-left and a mobilized Arab electorate. He failed to win the fourth one because his own voters no longer felt a need to turn out for him.
Netanyahu survived the past two years of political deadlock through the simple expedient of forcing a new election each time an opponent appeared set to take the premiership away from him.
On March 23, even that failsafe began to fail.
A fifth election may settle things, yes. Or failing that, a sixth or a seventh.
Netanyahu can no longer be sure it will settle things in his favor.
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