Benjamin Netanyahu’s Vision for Israel put to the Test

Today Israeli voters enter the booth to pass judgment on the country’s longest-running prime minister and his more rightwing and aggressive policies with regards to the West Bank.

Having failed to secure a coalition in April, Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud party have had to campaign a second time: this time, Netanyahu pushed a more religious platform, and a focus on bringing the controversial West Bank settlements into the country proper by annexing them.

Their opponents for this snap election are the liberal-centrist Blue & White political alliance, who seek a more secular government focused at compromise and bridging deepening political divides.

As of writing, polls in the country predict a neck-and-neck result.

This snap election was called after a governing coalition failed to come together after the national election in April. Likud and Blue and White came away with 35 seats each in the 120-seat Knesset: the unicameral Israeli parliament. Initially it seemed Likud would form a majority with the support of smaller right-wing and religious parties: however, the proposed coalition fell apart weeks later due to infighting.

Netanyahu, for his part, has bet the election on a electorate tired of the violent stalemate in the Jordan Valley and longing for decisive action. In a televised speech last week, he said he plans to annex about 30% of the West Bank, saying this was a matter to do with the “sovereignty of Israel”.

Although the area itself has been occupied by Israel since 1967, it has not been annexed in the hopes of improving relations and ending the conflict with the Palestinian government. Since then, however, a process of settling portions of the area by Israelis has antagonised the situation to its present boiling point. The settlement policy itself is considered illegal under international law, although Israel disagrees with this.

Netanyahu has said he also pledges to annex all Jewish settlements should his party emerge victorious. A Palestinian diplomat, Saeb Erekat, said in response that annexing the land, which includes important farming land, would “bury any chance of peace”.

Meanwhile, the Blue & White party opposing Netanyahu is a coalition of retired generals and centrist politicians. The party have campaigned on a platform of seeking compromise between the many factions within the country, where a fierce conversation over competing secular and religious values is taking place.

A previous army chief, Benny Gantz, and Yair Lapid, a former finance minister and leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, formed the party back in February. Writing in the Hebrew-language paper Maariv, Gantz said he hoped to “change the direction of the ship of state of Israeli democracy. No more instigating rifts in an attempt to divide and conquer, but rather quick action to form a unity government. No looking out for the interests of pressure groups, but rather a government that looks out for the majority of Israeli citizens.”

Notably, Gantz did establish the party’s policy on annexation, even though it appears to be a wedge issue in the country, though he does oppose the idea of withdrawing from the West Bank.

Negotiations to form the next coalition government will begin as soon as the exit polls close, at 10pm tonight. The victor – Likud or Blue & White – will likely seek one of the thirty smaller parties running to form a majority. As such, smaller parties may end up with an outsized influence once all is said and done. One in particular, the right-wing secular Yisrael Beiteinu party (‘Israel our Home’) could be decisive.

The leader of the party, Avigdor Lieberman, refused to back Netanyahu after the last election over a bill that would have granted exemptions to military service for ultra-Orthodox young men. Although he said of this election that he would help Netanyahu should the latter agree to share power with Blue and White and work towards a more secular platform: Netanyahu has already ruled this out.

This election will act as a referendum on Israel’s attitude to the West Bank, as well as whether country should move in a more secular or religious direction. Netanyahu has been a controversial prime minister, both at home and abroad, but may yet retain power for a strongman approach to an increasingly tumultuous conflict.