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A Netanyahu supporter's hand with BB written on it
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/O. Balilty

Israel election: Deja vu as Netanyahu claims victory

Dana Regev Haifa
March 3, 2020

With more than 90% of the votes counted, Israelis are feeling a distinct sense of deja vu. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to declare victory but for many voters, it's simply one step forward, two steps back.


For the third time in less than a year, Israeli voters found themselves wondering who exactly had won their country's parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party is set to become Israel's largest, notwithstanding the fact that he's facing an imminent trial on corruption charges.

Netanyahu called the results "the most important victory of my life" in front of a crowd of supporters in Tel Aviv, hailing the election as a "giant" success. However, the projection of 59 seats for his right-wing bloc leaves him two short of the 61 needed for a ruling majority.

Niv Zonis, a 34-year-old high school teacher from Tel Aviv, voted for the Joint List — an alliance of Arab factions gaining popularity among Jewish voters. He said he had mixed feelings about the outcome.

"I'm obviously happy about the unprecedented results for the Joint List, but nevertheless afraid for our democracy. Not only for the court system and the Knesset (Parliament) itself but also for the restraining bodies like the media or academia."

Niv Zonis, 34, a teacher in Tel Aviv
Niv Zonis says the next election will come sooner rather than laterImage: privat

The mere fact that an Arab party is even part of the Israeli parliament is a major step for Zonis. "Just a few years ago, such a scenario would have been unimaginable."

Winning at least 15 seats out of 120, was an "unprecedented achievement for the Arab society as a whole," Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, tweeted to his followers. "The road is long," he continued, "but we will eventually reach a common future of peace and equality."

'A remarkable triumph'

For 31-year-old Rephael Cohen, a law student from Jerusalem, the results mean something else. He voted for the ultra-nationalist Yamina party — led by current Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked — which gained six seats according to the latest results.

"We are currently living in a post-national cultural climate, which tears down identities and delegitimizes basic concepts like nationality, tradition or family," he said. "These perceptions might be suitable in Europe, but considering the existential threats facing the Jewish people in the Middle East, we do not have the privilege to hold such Utopian conceptions."

Like many right-wing voters in the country, from Likud fans to supporters of ultra-orthodox parties, Cohen believes the result constitutes a major victory for Netanyahu.

Read more: Opinion: Netanyahu's long-term political future is bleak

"Despite the charges, and despite the media and cultural elite mobilizing to overthrow him, he has achieved a remarkable triumph," he said, expressing an opinion shared by a large swath of the Israeli electorate. "These results are an unmistakable demonstration of the distrust Israelis have in the justice system and the media."

Graphic of Israel elections 2020

Labor's landslide loss

Among left-wing voters, the atmosphere was grim. Labor, once so dominant in Israeli politics as the largest left-wing party in the country, only managed to win seven seats. "I feel sorry for them, I feel sorry for us," 28-year-old Adam Halevy, a lawyer from Haifa, told DW.

"I voted for them my entire life. Seeing such party, based on true values of peace, welfare and solidarity crash like that, honestly breaks my heart. I considered voting for Benny Gantz strategically, but eventually decided to go with what I believe in most. Guess that didn't work out."

Likud's spokesperson Jonatan Urich told Israeli radio on Tuesday that Gantz, the leader of the center-left Blue and White party and Netanyahu's main challenger, "has no way or capacity to form a government."

A Blue and White supporter reacting to the Israeli election result
The center-left parties suffered major losses and face an uncertain futureImage: Reuters/C. Kern

Nevertheless, some left-wing voters remain hopeful.

Nineteen-year-old Rawan is an Arab nursing student at the Haifa University. Originally from a small village in Israel's north, she now lives in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Haifa and works at a popular café to pay for her studies.

"I voted for the Joint List because living in this city makes me believe there is still a chance for mutual, peaceful life in this country," she said.

Read moreTrump's Middle East peace plan satisfies no one

Zonis, the high school teacher, says growing cooperation between Jews and Arabs is vital. "I believe in a Jewish-Arab partnership and in solidarity with the most weakened group in Israel. [I also believe] in equal rights for all, regardless of their race, nationality, religion, sex or gender."

For him, and for a growing number of Jewish voters, choosing the alliance of Arab parties over anything else shows that the Joint List is turning into a viable alternative to the traditional Labor party.

"As long as we live in a democracy — and who knows how long that will last — the only thing we can do now is to prepare the public for the fact that the Arabs are part of this land," Zonis said. "And we need to make sure this manifests itself even better at a future election, which will come sooner or later."