LFI Focus: Fourth time lucky? Israel’s March election

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.           Photo: Crown Copyright, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


In May 2019, the Israeli Knesset dissolved itself barely one month after voters had been to the polls. That political stalemate marked the first time in the state’s seven-decade history that an election has not resulted in the formation of a government.

Few then, however, could have predicted that, after another three elections, Israel would still be mired in political deadlock. Although the polls had long predicted that the March 2021 election – the fourth in two years – would, once again, see the pro- and anti-Netanyahu forces fight themselves to a virtual draw, the political landscape which ultimately emerged nonetheless looked rather different than it had done when the campaign was triggered by the Knesset’s failure to pass a budget in December.

Blue and White – the centrist opposition which had come close to toppling Benjamin Netanyahu in the September 2019 and March 2020 general elections – had appeared on course for political oblivion. It had seemed fatally damaged last summer by leader Benny Gantz’s decision to break his oft-repeated campaign pledge and join the prime minister in forming a “unity government”. So, too, the Labor party which had followed its Blue and White allies into the ill-fated coalition with Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox partners.

By contrast, former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar’s decision in December to break away from Netanyahu and form New Hope was swiftly rewarded with polls showing the new party leaping into second place.

And, divided and losing ground in the polls, the mainly Israeli-Arab Joint List – the third biggest parliamentary group after last March’s general election – appeared on the verge of a debilitating split, with the Islamist Ra’am bolting from the alliance of left-wing, religious and nationalist parties.

But the Israeli voters delivered some surprises: Blue and White proved surprisingly resilient with

Gantz’s willingness to grimly fight on and ignore the calls for his party to drop out to avoid wasting anti-Netanyahu voters justified by a haul of eight Knesset seats.

Similarly, after electing Merav Michaeli – the only one of its MKs to oppose the party entering the unity government – Labor defied expectations and won seven seats; the total number it won when it ran in alliance with Meretz last March. In all, the two left-wing parties netted 13 seats, nearly doubling their previous total.

Sa’ar’s bubble had burst long before polling day, but his party’s total of six seats was nonetheless a huge disappointment given the 20-seats it had looked on course to win just three months before. However, if he keeps to his pledge not to partner with Netanyahu, the former Likudnik may yet play a crucial role in preventing the prime minister forming a new government.

Finally, while the Joint List and Ra’am won five fewer seats running separately than they secured together last March, the Islamist party has emerged as the kingmaker, without whose support Netanyahu’s chances of remaining in office appear thin.

These changes do not, however, alter the fundamental contours of Israeli politics: that the principal issue dividing the country and determining voters’ loyalties is whether Netanyahu – despite standing trial for multiple corruption allegations – should continue his long stint at the helm. Moreover, while a majority of voters want to see the prime minister gone – 57 percent voted for parties which didn’t support him remaining in office – Netanyahu’s greatest asset is the divisions within their ranks. Indeed, in the last three elections, the opposition to Netanyahu has actually held a majority in the Knesset, but its disparate nature, ranging from Jewish nationalists to Arab communists, has enabled the prime minister to cling – however tenuously – to power. But while those divisions continue to run deep, the prime minister’s efforts to form a government appear to be foundering and the sense that his days in power may finally be coming to an end is mounting.