- Image 1 of 2
- Image 2 of 2
JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's apparent election victory has deepened the divisions in an already-divided country.
Bolstered by his base of religious and working-class voters, Netanyahu can be expected to press ahead with a hard-line agenda that will likely eliminate the last hopes of a two-state solution with the Palestinians. A looming indictment in a series of corruption scandals could even accelerate these trends.
For all the talk of unity from political leaders during the campaign, Israel is a deeply tribal country. People are divided between Jews and Arabs; religious Jews and secular Jews; Jews of European ancestry and those of Middle Eastern heritage; and residents of the secular, high-tech metropolis of Tel Aviv and people from dusty, outlying towns, West Bank settlements and the conservative capital of Jerusalem.
Netanyahu, himself a secular, U.S.-educated millionaire with a propensity for cognac and cigars, has nonetheless aligned himself with downtrodden Jewish Israelis with whom he would seem to have little in common. Portraying himself as a victim of the country's "elites," Netanyahu is seen as their hero.
"Netanyahu is the best prime minister the state of Israel has ever had, and we will continue to support him," said Alon Davidi, mayor of the southern town of Sderot.
Just two weeks ago, Davidi's town was dealing with around-the-clock air raid sirens as Palestinian militants in the neighboring Gaza Strip were bombarding southern Israeli communities with rocket fire.
It's a scene the residents of southern Israel have gotten used to since the Hamas militant group seized power in Gaza 12 years ago. It's also a constant source of frustration. Residents complained about Netanyahu's inability to stop the rockets and were furious over his latest behind-the-scenes cease-fire deal with Hamas.
But given a chance to change things in Tuesday's election, residents of Sderot voted overwhelmingly for Netanyahu's Likud party and its religious and nationalist allies.
"We are intelligent people," Davidi told the Army Radio station. "We are people who know how to appreciate everything that's done for us, and I think that Netanyahu and all the right-wing parties are doing what they can do and what they believe."
In Sderot, whose population is largely working class, religious and of Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern, descent, Netanyahu's Likud received 44% of the vote, compared with 9% for the rival Blue and White party, according to official election data. More than 80% of Sderot voted for Likud and its religions and nationalist allies.
Similar thinking took place across Israel. A look at the electoral map showed Likud and its allies sweeping the vote in smaller, outlying cities and towns, West Bank settlements and in Jerusalem, whose population is largely poor and religious.
In contrast, Blue and White, led by former military chief Benny Gantz, coasted to victory in Tel Aviv, the country's prosperous commercial and cultural center, as well as the nearby suburbs that are home to a more professional and affluent population.
On the campaign trail, Gantz sought to project an image of decency and virtue, taking aim at the corruption investigations swirling around Netanyahu and promising a clean and honest government.
In contrast, the 69-year-old Netanyahu, facing the strong likelihood of criminal charges in the coming months, sounded very much like his friend President Donald Trump. He frequently portrayed himself as the victim of a "witch hunt" and accused Gantz of conspiring with politicians from the country's Arab minority to topple him. Even after a decade in office, Netanyahu marketed himself as the outsider.
These different approaches were on display on election night, when preliminary results showed a close race and each candidate declared victory.
Gantz's rally looked like a celebration. Netanyahu's felt like a sporting event, with the whipped-up crowd whooping and hollering as if it were at a soccer match. Where Gantz's supporters were excited, Netanyahu's supporters — many wearing Jewish skullcaps and dancing to Mizrahi pop music — were ecstatic. His speech included a Jewish prayer and a Trump-like swipe at the "hostile" media.
Netanyahu's opponents finally conceded defeat Wednesday, acknowledging that he and his traditional allies control a solid majority in the 120-seat parliament.
But the process of building a coalition can require weeks of negotiations, and his smaller partners will be looking to extract control of powerful government ministries and generous budgets to promote their pet causes.
Thanks to Netanyahu's legal woes, these smaller partners have some added leverage. They will likely use Netanyahu's fear of indictment to their advantage as he seeks promises to protect him from prosecutors, perhaps by pushing legislation granting him immunity.
Netanyahu veered sharply to the right on the campaign trail to shore up support of his base, promising to begin annexing West Bank settlements if re-elected. Netanyahu's allies will try to hold him at his word.
"The new Netanyahu government will have two main goals: to get rid of the indictments looming in his future and to annex the settlements to Israel, in coordination with the Trump administration. These two goals could be summed up as 'immunity in exchange for sovereignty,'" wrote Aluf Benn, editor of the Haaretz daily.
The annexation of Israeli settlements could spell the end for any remaining hopes of establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Ben-Dror Yemini, a columnist for the Yediot Ahronot daily, urged Netanyahu to consider a "unity" government with Gantz instead of caving in to the "extortion" of small hard-line parties.
"Which is the better choice: to save the country or to sanctimoniously insist that 'promises must be kept?'" he wrote.
Such a scenario seems unlikely. After decades of doing things his way, Netanyahu seems unlikely to reach across the aisle unless he has no choice.
As he put it at his late-night victory rally: "I'll start by assembling a right-wing government with our natural allies tonight."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Josef Federman, the AP's bureau chief for Israel and the Palestinian territories, has covered the region since 2003.