What Happened in the 2020 Israeli Elections?

Let's break down the unprecedented third election of the past year.

Yesterday, Israelis went to the polls for the third time in less than a year. The result was largely the same this time: Benjamin Netanyahu, who has served as Prime Minister since 2009, won the most votes — but will he be able to form a coalition? What has changed?

Let’s break it down.

Wait, why did Israel have elections for the third time?

In 2019, Israelis went to the polls twice: in April and September. Here’s a fun explainer I wrote back in April: Wait, what happened in the 2019 Israeli elections? (Little did I know that would be the first of two 2019 Israeli elections.) In April, it resulted in a tie between Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, with both winning 35 seats.

In Israel, the Knesset (parliament) has 120 seats, and a party needs 61 seats to win. No party alone has ever won 61 seats, so a lot of Israeli politics is dependent on forming coalitions.

[READ MORE: How do Israeli politics work?]

After the first election, Netanyahu was invited to form the government, but failed to make a coalition. So, Israelis went to the polls again in September. That time, although Gantz got more votes than Netanyahu, Netanyahu was given the first crack at building a coalition, but could not. Neither could Gantz, and the two also did not agree to form a unity government.

So, again to the polls Israelis went.

What was different this time around?

Actually, a lot. Two big things happened since last September:

(1) Attorney General Avichai Mandelbilt formally indicted Netanyahu in November 2019 for corruption on three cases: fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. (Here’s a solid explainer on Netanyahu’s corruption scandals, from JTA.) This was the first time an Israeli prime minister was indicted while in office — former PM Ehud Olmert was indicted in August 2009, but had previously resigned. Netanyahu has no plans to resign, calling it a “witch hunt.” (Americans, does this sound familiar?)

(2) In January 2020, a “peace plan” was announced by Trump, Netanyahu, and Gantz in Washington, D.C. Trump presented the “Deal of the Century,” which most did not find to be a deal of the century. (Read our explainer: What does Trump’s Israel-Palestine “Peace Plan” actually say?) Both Netanyahu and Gantz largely support this plan, with Gantz only differing in his support in annexation of the West Bank. Gantz says annexation should only happen in coordination with the international community, which opposes annexation.

What are the results of the third election?

The official results are set to come out on March 10, but likely won’t change much. With 90% of votes in, Likud has 36 seats, and Blue & White has 32 seats. The Joint List (made up of Arab Israeli parties) has 15 seats. Israeli Arabs have seen increasing turnout in the elections, and winning 15 seats is a record high.

But, as we discussed, it’s all about coalitions: The right-wing coalition, of which Likud leads, has 59 seats. So, to form a government, they either need two more lawmakers to defect from their parties and join Netanyahu, or convince an additional party to join them. As Haaretz writer Anshel Pfeffer points out, “a Netanyahu coalition victory scenario (61 seats) is ‘unlikely’ because everything had to go right for him for that to happen and one thing didn’t go right — the Arab turnout was high. But that is really the only thing which stood between him and a massive win.”

Back up. Isn’t Netaynahu indicted? Can he even form a government?

Yes he is indicted, but there is likely no law that stops him from staying in office. Patrick Kingsley writes in The New York Times that “Israeli law isn’t clear about whether someone facing corruption charges can legally form a government.” The Israeli Supreme Court delayed ruling on the issue. Netanyahu’s criminal trial is set to start on March 17, the same day that the Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin, would hand someone (likely Netanyahu) the mandate to form a governing coalition.

What happens next?

Most likely: Netanyahu tries to form a coalition. He’ll either succeed, and enter his fifth term as Prime Minister, or fail. In that case, Israel would probably head to elections for the fourth time.

See you then?

Header Image: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands next to his wife Sara as he speaks to supporters following the announcement of exit polls in Israel’s election at his Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv. On Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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