Benjamin Netanyahu’s future as prime minister hangs in the balance after Israeli voters delivered another deadlocked election this week. Analysts predict that the country may be returning to the polls – for the fifth time since April 2019 – later this summer.
- Overall, 57 percent of Israelis voted for parties which didn’t support Netanyahu remaining as prime minister.
- Currently, neither Netanyahu’s religious-right bloc, nor parties committed to opposing the prime minister have a clear path to a majority of 61 seats in the Knesset. The pro-Netanyahu forces are on 52 seats (with a potential seven additional seats from Yamina), with their opponents on 57.
- Likud won 30 seats, with the second-biggest party, the centre-left Yesh Atid, taking 17.
- The election saw Labor and the left-wing Meretz party perform better than expected. The centrist Blue and White party also polled far stronger than polls had predicted.
- The far-right Otzma Yehudit and the anti-gay Noam party – part of the Religious Zionism alliance – enter the Knesset for the first time.
- The deadlock appears to place the Islamist Ra’am party in a pivotal position.
The year that didn’t happen
The results show remarkable continuity with last March’s general election, when the impact of the coronavirus was only starting to be felt and its full impact barely imaginable. “The voters didn’t settle accounts with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his flawed, flip-flopping management of the entire coronavirus crisis. Nor did they reward him with enthusiastic support for having obtained the vaccines that ended the lockdowns,” suggested an analysis by Haaretz’s Aluf Benn.
Agreeing on one thing
The anti-Netanyahu bloc is ideologically disparate – ranging from former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar right-wing New Hope to the Israeli-Arab Joint List – but is united in its desire to eject the prime minister from power. Labor says it will push a law which would bar criminal defendants – Netanyahu is currently on trial for corruption – from serving as prime minister. Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beitenu party, is reportedly also attempting to rally the anti-Bibi bloc around such a move.
Labor and Meretz bounce back
Despite dire pre-election predictions to the contrary, Labor and Meretz were not electorally wiped out.
- When the election was called in December, Labor appeared in danger of crashing out of the Knesset after months of polling below the threshold following Amir Peretz’s decision last summer to take the party into the Netanyahu-led “unity government”.
- After Peretz quit, new leader Merav Michaeli waged an energetic campaign which pulled Labor back from the brink. It won seven seats, up from three last March.
- “Everything Merav tried succeeded,” Nachman Shai, a former Labor MK and candidate this time, said. “Politicians need luck to succeed, and she has it.”
- In recent weeks, the left-wing Meretz party had also appeared in danger of not making it back into the Knesset. The party’s warnings that, if it were eliminated, Netanyahu would more easily be able to form a government appeared to pay off. Meretz looks set to take six seats.
- Together, Labor and Meretz won 13 seats – up from seven seats when they ran on a joint slate last March.
- Both Labor and Meretz also benefitted from Lapid’s decision to run a campaign which attempted to avoid weakening the overall strength of the anti-Netanyahu bloc.
Newly elected Labor MK Gilad Kariv will become the first non-Orthodox rabbi to serve in the Knesset. The current chief executive of the Reform movement in Israel – a long-standing Labor activist – said his victory means “liberal Judaism will proudly raise its voice in the Knesset and ensure Israel would be the home of all communities that make up the Jewish people and the country’s citizenry”.
Not all right
Polls had predicted that right-wing parties – ranging from Religious Zionism on the far-right to Gideon Sa’ar’s anti-Netanyahu New Hope – would win 80 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. They now look on course to win 72.
- That reflects in part the poor showing by Sa’ar’s party. It soared in the polls when it was formed last December and, at one time, had looked set to win 20 seats but ended up with only six.
- Following the results, Sa’ar repeated his pledge not to serve in a government led by Netanyahu. Instead, he vowed to work to establish “a government of change”. Other New Hope MKs underlined that pledge.
- While Naftali Bennett – a former minister under Netanyahu – may be persuaded to bring his pro-settler Yamina party into government, his support is not guaranteed. Before the elections, he refrained from saying who he would back for prime minister and said Netanyahu’s time leading the country should come to an end. Nonetheless, the parliamentary arithmetic suggests that Bennett’s support alone won’t allow Netanyahu to form a government, denying the former defence minister the kingmaker role he aspired to.
- Netanyahu’s election-night talk of his party’s “extraordinary achievement” in winning 30 seats may have been overplayed, especially as it dropped six seats from last March’s election. However, having run far ahead of Yamina and New Hope, the prime minister did successfully reassert his leadership of Israel’s right-wing.
Israel’s sharp political divisions were encapsulated by the results from its two biggest cities. In secular, liberal Tel Aviv, the left swept the board, with 22 percent for Yesh Atid, 15 percent for Labor, 14 percent for Meretz, and 11 percent for Blue and White. Despite Likud’s second-place 17 percent, the total centre-left vote was 62 percent. In more religious, conservative Jerusalem, the pro-Netanyahu bloc – with UTJ on 23 percent, 21 percent for Likud, 16 percent for Shas, and nine percent for Religious Zionism – won 69 percent.
- Avi Moaz heads the anti-gay Noam party, which plastered “Israel chooses to be normal” posters on billboards during the 2019 campaign. It failed to enter the Knesset then, or in 2020, but as part of the Religious Zionism alliance, Moaz will be an MK. A former civil servant, Moaz accuses the LGBT community of “forcing its agenda” on Israeli society and says he stands for “family values”.
- Self-declared “proud homophobe”, the National Union’s Bezalel Smotrich last week compared gay marriage to incest and attacked “LGBT culture”.
- Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir is a former activist in assassinated rabbi Meir Kahane’s extremist Kach movement. Having elected one MK in 1984, Kach was later barred from standing in Israeli general elections under a law banning parties which incite racism. Kach was subsequently proscribed in Israel and the US as a terrorist organisation.
Media reports suggest that the Gulf states have warned Israeli diplomats that the inclusion of the far-right in any Netanyahu government could harm the normalisation effort which began with last summer’s Abraham Accords.
Gantz’s gamble pays off
Gantz, who fought Netanyahu to a virtual draw in three elections before finally forming a “unity government” with him last summer, had appeared to be heading for political oblivion. His centrist Blue and White party split when he entered the government and its support collapsed. As polls repeatedly showed Blue and White perilously close to falling below the threshold, Gantz rejected calls to drop out, with the party’s internal polling showing many voters still admired his integrity, viewing the deputy prime minister as an honest man who put the country’s welfare above his own. Gantz’s decision to fight on was vindicated as Blue and White won eight seats. Nor are his hopes of the premiership entirely exhausted, with reports that the anti-Netanyahu bloc is considering nominating him for prime minister. Either way, despite the disintegration of the unity government last December, the legislation underpinning it remains in force and Gantz is set to become prime minister on 17 November 2021. If no new government is sworn in by that date, the former IDF chief will – despite all the drama of the past year – automatically replace Netanyahu as interim prime minister.
Islamists and Arab bloc
With 15 seats, the mainly Israeli-Arab Joint List – a coalition of nationalist, left-wing and religious parties – was the third largest group in the Knesset after last March’s election. A split in its ranks weakened the list but left the Islamist Ra’am party with a potentially pivotal role.
- The Joint List – now consisting of Hadash, Ta’al and Balad – won six seats with Ra’am, which ran alone this time, winning four.
- Ra’am broke away from the Joint List just before the elections because of leader Mansour Abbas’ willingness to contemplate cooperating with Likud, including helping the prime minister escape his legal difficulties, if it would help advance the interests of Israeli-Arabs.
- The socially conservative party also campaigned against the willingness of a growing number of Joint List MKs to back gay rights.
Bibi’s coalition-building headache
Assuming he fends off efforts to disqualify him and wins the support of Yamina but is unable to gain any defectors from the anti-Netanyahu bloc, the prime minister needs the backing of Abbas to clear 61 seats.
- During the election campaign, Netanyahu repeatedly pledged not to rely on Ra’am – “they are an anti-Zionist party,” he reiterated just before polling day – to remain in power. Predictably, he’s now reportedly rethinking that stance.
- Abbas said his party was “not obligated to any bloc or any candidate”.
- High-profile Likud ministers have publicly squabbled over whether they would accept Abbas’ support.
- But Likud may be jumping the gun, after the head of the Ra’am negotiating team indicated the party would rather do a deal with the anti-Netanyahu bloc. In a reference to the Religious Zionists, Shua Mansour Masarwa said: “We won’t sit with racists who threaten us … According to all indications, Netanyahu does not have a coalition. As we see it, the centre-left is closer to the voters of Ra’am and the Joint List.”
- Netanyahu faces a further headache after the far-right parties, whose support he also needs, said they won’t enter into any coalition – formal or informal – with Abbas.
What happens next
The Central Election Committee – which is having to count some 450,000 absentee ballot cast by members of security forces, prisoners, diplomats, covid-19 patients, and those in quarantine – is aiming to finish its work by this evening, with a final tally expected tomorrow. After that, the action moves from the voters to the politicians. Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, will hold discussions with party leaders, asking each who they wish to form a government. Rivlin will then pass the mandate to an MK who initially has one month to assemble a coalition backed by at least 61 Knesset members. If that individuals fails, the president can pass the mandate to another individual. If nobody managed to win the support of a majority of MKs, Israeli voters will return to the polls for a fifth time.