Ballots papers of Israeli legislative election, 2019 > Laliv g, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Israelis will go to the polls next week for the fifth time in three years, in an election that has increasingly become a referendum on the return of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Here we go again

  • Following the collapse of the anti-Netanyahu ‘change’ government in June, the election has increasingly boiled down to a choice between another ideologically-diverse coalition of forces opposed to the former prime minister and an alliance of right-wing and religious parties led by Netanyahu himself.
  • A week ahead of the election, polls continue to show that, without some movement between the two potential coalitions, a deadlocked outcome is likely.
  • Ironically, the outgoing Knesset had a firm right-wing/religious majority of around 58 percent, but included ideologically right-wing politicians who refused to join a government led by Netanyahu. He remains both Israel’s most popular and most divisive politician.

The lay of the (holy) land

  • For much of the election campaign, polling has suggested that Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc would win around 55-60 seats, just shy of the 61-seat majority needed to form a government. This bloc is largely expected to encompass Netanyahu’s Likud, far-right Religious Zionism, and Haredi parties United Torah Judaism and Shas.
  • Polling suggests that sitting prime minister Yair Lapid, leader of the anti-Netanyahu bloc, may struggle to cobble together another coalition government from the more ideologically-diverse group of anti-Netanyahu parties, especially without the support of the traditionally non-aligned Arab-majority party Hadash-Ta’al.
  • However, as the sitting prime minister, Lapid may be able to block rivals from forming a government should no clear alternative emerge after the election.
  • Indeed, some speculation about a further, sixth election in May 2023 has already begun.

A recap 

The 1 November election was announced in June this year, when the ‘change’ coalition of anti-Netanyahu parties collapsed following a series of legislative defeats and defections from its left- and rightmost wings. Since April, the coalition had governed without an outright majority in the 120-member Knesset, when Yamina MK Idit Silman quit the government to join the opposition. Simultaneously, in line with the 2021 rotation agreement that founded the Bennett-Lapid government, sitting foreign minister Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, became prime minister.

The campaign 

Israel shares many of the political problems facing other democracies – the cost of living, judicial reform, security concerns and crime – and these have dominated the campaign, though filtered through the inevitable pro- and anti-Netanyahu political lens.

  • On Tuesday, Lapid warned that the wide-sweeping judicial reforms proposed by Netanyahu and his allies would pose a serious threat to Israeli democracy. The plans, published by far-right Netanyahu ally Bezalel Smotrich, would enable politicians to veto Supreme Court rulings, change the judge selection process, reduce the power of the attorney general, and eliminate the criminal charge of ‘fraud and breach of trust’, which underpin four of the corruption trials currently faced by Netanyahu.
  • Meanwhile, defence minister Benny Gantz lambasted Netanyahu’s handling of Iran’s nuclear programme during his 2009–2021 premiership, insisting that Netanyahu’s policies “were detrimental to our battle against Iran’s nuclear programme”. In particular, Gantz criticised Netanyahu’s “decision to speak in [the US] Congress in 2015 despite the opposition of President Obama”, which “created a fault line unpredecented in Israel-US relations”.

The process 

The 1 November election is just the first phase of determining the next government, with coalition negotiations potentially lasting months and into 2023.

  • Once the new Knesset is elected, each party will make a recommendation to President Herzog as to which party leader should be asked to form a government first.
  • If successful in attracting at least 61 lawmakers through coalition agreement promises, budgets and ministries, that leader will head a new government.
  • If they are unsuccessful, an alternative party leader may be found to form an alternative coalition.
  • However, if no party leader is able to form a government, then Israelis will return to the polls in the new year, with Lapid remaining as prime minister.

Labor’s platform 

The Israeli Labor party will be seeking to maintain its position as the fifth largest party in the Knesset, following last year’s election in which it tripled its parliamentary representation.

On Sunday, Labor leader Merav Michaeli set out the party’s diplomatic platform for the next election, defining separation from the Palestinians through a two state solution as a “national strategic goal”, renewing negotiations with the Palestinian Authority towards that end, and strengthening Israel’s diplomatic relationships with the United States and through the Abraham Accords, which normalised Israel’s ties with a number of Arab countries. The platform also called for a building freeze in isolated West Bank settlements and the removal of unauthorised settler outposts.

Speaking on Sunday, Michaeli said: “The Labor Party returns today, resolutely, to the path set out by [former prime minister] Yitzhak Rabin […] the time has come for the State of Israel to move towards ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reach out to the peace initiative which today is more relevant, more correct and more important than ever. Our future is there, and the Labor Party will take the State of Israel there. Let’s do it together, and win”.

A rightward shift 

One controversy in the campaign has been the potential inclusion of far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir in a potential Netanyahu cabinet.

  • Netanyahu orchestrated a merger deal to ensure the entry of Ben Gvir’s extremist Otzma Yehudit party into the Knesset earlier this year, having some the same before the March 2021 elections.
  • Ben Gvir is a self-described follower of extremist rabbi Meir Kehane, has been convicted on terror charges and has a history of racist anti-Arab comments.
  • Following a warning from pro-Israel Democrats in the United States not to cultivate support for the far-right, Netanyahu responded that he would not “bow his head” to foreign warnings on the issue.
  • He went on to say that Ben Gvir could “certainly” be a minister in a future Netanyahu government, reversing his previous opposition to having the far-right politician in his cabinet.

Coalition building 

Israel’s 6.8 million eligible voters will have a whopping 39 parties, of which 11 – by order of polling figures, right-wing Likud, centrist Yesh Atid, right-wing Religious Zionism, centrist National Unity, Haredi Shas and United Torah Judaism, secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu, centre-left Labor, left-wing Meretz, and Arab-majority Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am – have polled consistently above the 3.25 percent threshold needed to enter the Knesset. The Times of Israel have produced a handy guide to the parties for English-speaking observers.

In order to form a stable coalition, some movement between the two blocs is widely expected to be necessary. Centrist National Unity leader, and current defence minister, Benny Gantz has been touting his links to Haredi politicians this week, saying he believes that they may reconsider their longstanding alliance with the pro-Netanyahu forces.

Another technical consideration will be voter turnout, given the 3.25 percent threshold needed to enter the Knesset, translating to a minimum of 4 seats. Four major parties – Meretz, Labor, Ra’am and Hadash-Ta’al – have polled perilously close to the threshold in some polls, while two more – Jewish Home and Balad – have constituently polled below it.

Furthermore, one potentially decisive factor in the final numbers will be turnout in the Arab community. Lapid has expressed concern about potentially low turnout among Arab voters, which has historically been seen to help pro-Netanyahu forces. Lapid met with local Arab leaders in Nazareth this week, where he appealed to Arab Israelis to “vote for your lives”.

Possible upset 

Another unexpected development in the election campaign so far was an intervention by prime minister Lapid on Sunday, in which he warned that Netanyahu may not accept the results of the election.

“I’m afraid of that, yes”, Lapid told Ynet news. “They’ve already started bringing things to the Elections Committee, and it could be that they’re planning a move whereby if Netanyahu doesn’t win – and I believe he won’t – he’ll try to question the legitimacy of the elections”.

What happens next  

With just six days to go until Israelis return to the polls, a clear and decisive result appears unlikely. A poll released yesterday forecast a record number of Knesset seats for Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, with Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc falling just short of a parliamentary majority. However, Israeli polls have proven stubbornly unreliable, and ultimately only one poll really matters: the one on Tuesday.