Israel’s November general election may be over 100 days away, but already the contours of the contest – the fifth time in just over three years the country’s voters have been required to go to the polls – are coming into view.

As ever, the figure of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu dominates the fight, with parties aligning themselves around coalitions designed to return him to office – or to finally drive a nail into his political coffin.

What happened 

  • What had looked likely to be a two-horse race for the premiership between Netanyahu and Yair Lapid, the centre-left Yesh Atid leader who took office last week following the collapse of the ideologically eclectic “unity government”, has been shaken by the formation of a new centre-right alliance led by justice minister Gideon Sa’ar and defence minister Benny Gantz.
  • Early polls show the left-wing Meretz party is in danger of slipping beneath the 3.25 percent electoral threshold parties must cross to win seats in the Knesset. Meretz’s leader, health minister Nitzan Horowitz, is also facing a leadership challenge.
  • Labor leader Merav Michaeli has ruled out forming an alliance with Meretz, while also signalling that she is open to working with the ultra-Orthodox parties after the election.
  • A poll last Friday showed Netanyahu and his allies in the ultra-Orthodox parties and the far-right Religious Zionism party close to eking out a narrow Knesset majority – but the long-serving former prime minister has little room for error. Having failed to form a right-wing government after four previous elections, he is likely to be ditched if he stumbles again.

Three years, five elections 

Netanyahu’s decade in power looked set to continue when he pulled off a narrow win at the April 2019 elections. But the prime minister hadn’t counted on his former ally, defence minister Avigdor Liberman, jumping ship and deciding to work with the opposition to oust Netanyahu, who remains on trial facing a slew of corruption charges. Subsequent elections in September 2019 and March 2020 saw Netanyahu fought to a virtual draw by Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party and its centre-left allies. A short-lived coalition between Gantz and Netanyahu formed in spring 2020 as the pandemic hit collapsed six months later, forcing new elections last May. But Netanyahu’s gamble in ditching Gantz proved a costly one, thanks to two further sometime allies. Sa’ar, a former Likud minister who ran against Netanyahu for the party leadership in 2018, announced the formation of the centre-right New Hope party in early 2021, while Naftali Bennett, another former minister and head of the right-wing Yamina party, also began to edge out of the prime minister’s camp. Last June, Lapid stitched together a “unity government” – which ranged from Meretz on the left to Yamina on the right and was backed by the Arab-Israeli United Arab List – and concluded a “rotation agreement” under which Bennett would serve as prime minister for the first half of the coalition’s term, before handing over the office to him at its midpoint.

A three-way contest? 

On Sunday, Gantz and Sa’ar attempted to reshape the political landscape by joining forces to form a major centre-right bloc which, the defence minister says, aims to end Israel’s continuing political stalemate.

  • By uniting the anti-Netanyahu centre-right – what Gantz labels the “statesmanlike right” – the Blue and White-New Hope alliance aims to capture the votes of Israelis who may shy away from backing Lapid and his allies on the left but equally don’t want to see the former prime minister return to office.
  • As Sima Kadmon suggested in Yediot Ahronot: “Saar believes that if the race remains a two-headed race between Netanyahu and Lapid, Netanyahu will win. He thought that they should create a centre with right-wing leanings, a centre that does not force his party to face the question of whether they are in favour of the Lapid option or the Netanyahu option… the election will be a race among three forces: Bibi, with his dream of reaching 61 seats, Lapid, who will get the votes of the left, and a third force, which will try and attract the centre and the right-wing centre.”
  • The new alliance hopes to break out of the anti-Netanyahu Tel Aviv metropolis and pick up support in Israel’s smaller towns and cities which traditionally hue to the right.
  • Although Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, is less hawkish than Sa’ar on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the two men share a similar broad outlook. “What they have in common is also well known – a statesmanlike approach, liberalism, respect for the rule of law and strengthening the justice system, and a deep revulsion for the extremes on both sides,” argued Haaretz columnist Yossi Verter.
  • Crucially, the new alliance may be more palatable to the ultra-Orthodox parties – which once formed coalitions with both left and right parties in government but have become closely aligned with Netanyahu – than the fiercely secularist Lapid.
  • Gantz and Lapid – who joined forces in the two 2019 and March 2020 elections but split when the former IDF chief formed a coalition with Netanyahu – have a famously strained relationship. Gantz’s decision to reach a deal with Sa’ar potentially helps him to reassert his claim to the premiership which appeared fatally damaged after his brief and rocky stint in government with Netanyahu.

Meretz teeters … 

Last summer, Meretz joined an Israeli government for the first time since Ehud Barak’s Labor administration in the late 1990s. However, the left-wing party is now struggling in the polls and Horowitz is being challenged for the leadership. While three Meretz MKs served in the government – alongside Horowitz, former leader Tamar Zandberg was environment minister, while Issawi Frej took the regional cooperation portfolio – there was considerable division and rancour in the party’s parliamentary ranks. In a recent interview, Frej – who isn’t standing for re-election – labelled the party “a jazz concert, without a leader”. In May, Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi quit the coalition government. While she rejoined three days later, she then went on to help contribute to its collapse last month. Last week, deputy economy minister Yair Golan announced he would contest Horowitz for the leadership.

… as Labor widens options 

Michaeli last week ruled out a Labor-Meretz pre-election pact. “The experiment of Labor and Meretz together has already failed,” she said. In March 2020, the two left parties ran on a joint slate, and won seven seats. A year later, they ran separately with Labor winning seven seats, while Meretz took six. However, Michaeli, who campaigned hard among Haredi voters, did leave open the door to potential post-election cooperation in the future with the ultra-Orthodox parties. “I have great respect for the Haredi community,” Michaeli said in a television interview. “Unfortunately, the ultra-Orthodox parties have chained themselves to Netanyahu in recent years. I have never disqualified the ultra-Orthodox parties; they are the ones who disqualified everyone else except Netanyahu.”

Can Bibi bounce back? 

  • Netanyahu’s bid to return to government was buoyed by the first election poll which showed his Likud party and its allies winning a narrow 61-59 seat majority in the Knesset. While Likud’s support has increased to 36 seats, a strong showing by Religious Zionism – an alliance of far-right parties previously brokered by Netanyahu – which has risen to 10 seats has helped lift the prime minister’s bloc across the touch line. Other more recent polls, however, show Netanyahu short of a majority, pointing to further political stalemate.
  • Netanyahu also received a boost when former Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein announced he was abandoning his challenge for the Likud leadership. Edelstein had previously criticised the former prime minister for failing to assemble a right-wing government after the last four elections.
  • Having worked to undermine the unity government by putting pressure on Yamina MKs to defect, Likud looks set to reward three of those – Amichai Chikli, Idit Silman and Nir Orbach – who helped to bring down Bennett. Netanyahu is expected to allot them slots on the Likud list.

But with the election still several months away, Netanyahu is still far from home and dry:

  • While Sa’ar and Gantz have muddied the former prime minister’s plan to present Israelis with a binary choice between right and left, there are also signs that some in the ultra-Orthodox parties – including United Torah Judaism leader Moshne Gafni – may abandon Netanyahu if he fails to win a majority this time.
  • There are also indications that the Haredi community more widely is becoming impatient with Netanyahu. Several polls have indicated that up to two-thirds of ultra-Orthodox voters would back a government led by someone else if Netanyahu fails to form a government.
  • Netanyahu’s dilemma, suggests political analyst Haviv Rettig Gur, is that “four elections, four separate campaigns that spanned dramatic realignments … and each time, no matter the policy successes or campaign strategy, no matter how either political camp was structured, victory was denied. And the reason, at its root, was simple: Too many factions … had come to see Netanyahu as either too undesirable or too unreliable to sit in his coalition.”

What happens next  

August will see parties assembling their lists: Likud holds its primary on 3 August, with Labor’s due on 9 August. Lists have to be submitted at the beginning of September, allowing campaigning to ramp up a gear for the 1 November election.