Another Round of Early Elections in Israel – How Will it Look?
While United States President Joe Biden was scheduled to meet PM Bennett in Jerusalem, Yair Lapid was already able to show diplomatic qualities on the world stage as new Prime Minister of Israel in his stead. If this government proved more stable, Lapid would have only become Prime Minister next year. Nevertheless, with the Israeli Knesset voting unanimously to disband on June 30, 2022, November 1, 2022, was set as the date for early elections and Lapid became the interim Prime Minister until then. Since losing its narrow majority in April, the Bennett-Lapid government had been struggling to pass any legislation. Without a majority and fellow Knesset members defecting, Prime Minister Bennett finally decided after consulting with Lapid to enter an early round of elections.
Why Did the Government Break Down?
The Bennett-Lapid coalition was possibly one of the most diverse democratic coalitions in the world. It stretches from Bennett’s religious right-wing pro annexation settler faction, to the progressive socialist left-wing, from the secular liberal center to the first Islamist faction in any Israeli government. While all these forces agreed that such a unity government was necessary to govern in such difficult times, it has been much harder to agree on coherent policy.
During the last year, the government focused on legislation they could widely agree upon, trying not to challenge the status quo. This strategy led the government to agree on some liberal economic reforms, diplomatic advances in Israel’s neighborhood as well as raising infrastructure investments in Israeli Arab communities, while avoiding policies related to the west bank or deep structural reforms. The main goal of this strategy was to enable necessary legislation despite a very narrow majority. However, many compromises were not easy to sell, and many voters felt that their representatives were the ones making all the concessions.
This in turn, motivated some coalition members to abuse their de facto veto power, due to the narrow majority of 61 out of the 120 Knesset seats till April 2022, when they lost even the one seat majority due to defector MK Idit Silman. Quickly, the coalition found itself trapped between two “rebel” camps. Right-wing hardliners from Bennett’s “Yamina” party, and Arab members from left-wing parties. What made the situation even worse for the coalition was the fact that these two camps had contradicting demands.
This emboldened the Netanyahu led opposition, which consistently voted against the government even on bi-partisan issues, claiming “we will pass this after we return to power”. This automatic objection to any governmental initiative, paired with the loss of a majority, barred any parliamentary work. While this strategy seems to have succeeded in forcing the government to resign, the effect it will have on the voters remains to be seen.
What Happens Now?
After voting to disband, the parliament decided the next round of elections will take place on November 1, 2022. Shortly after, PM Bennett stepped aside and allowed Yair Lapid, Rotation PM to take his place. According to the coalition agreements, this shift should have only happened next year. This shift puts Lapid in an interesting position – going into elections as acting prime minister.
Since the Israeli political crisis started in 2019, Netanyahu had been prime minister, even though he was not able to form a new coalition. Israeli law dictates that the prime minister stays in power until a new government is formed. For two years that encouraged Netanyahu not to compromise much with political rivals, since in case of a stalemate he remained in power.
This has now changed. If Netanyahu cannot get the 61 votes he needs to form a government, he gets nothing. This is not good news for Netanyahu, since all the polls show that he is still a few votes short of the majority he desperately needs. For the first time in this three-year long crisis, voices within Netanyahu’s own camp are calling for his resignation if he fails to form a government this time. On the other hand, his main rival Lapid is seeing increased support. Now acting prime minister, and with growing strength according to recent polls, Lapid is confident he can defeat Netanyahu again this time.
What Can We Expect?
Recent polls show that the next round of elections, like the ones before, is going to be a close race. The two blocs remain, and the entire campaign will probably be determined by the undecided 5% of voters. These voters are presented with two potential governments: A right-wing extremist backed Netanyahu government, or a diverse left-wing, right-wing and Islamist backed Lapid government. While this 5% of voters are quite unhappy with Netanyahu, they are also heavily right-wing leaning. This led them to vote for Bennett last time, but now there is no neutral party, and they are forced to choose a “lesser evil”.
While Netanyahu is quite pleased to frame the elections as a right-wing Vs left-wing struggle, there are still right-wing factions in his adversary’s coalition challenging his narrative. On the 10th of July, The center-right “Blue & White” party, and the right-wing “New Hope” party announced a merger of their parties. Headed by Benny Gantz this bloc tries to offer voters a moderate right-wing third government option.
It is still too early to know if this merger will indeed turn these elections into a three-way race and attract the moderate right-wing voters. Yet, it already affects Netanyahu’s chances negatively. In order to win he needs small coalition parties to fail reaching the 4 seat minimum threshold. If this happens, votes are disqualified, tipping the balance in Netanjahu’s favor. “New Hope” was one such party and is now officially out of the “danger zone”.
But “New Hope” was not the only coalition party in the “danger zone”, as according to current polls up to four parties are currently at risk of falling short. But nothing is certain yet, as party lists must be submitted by September 15, 2022. Until then, we can expect to see many changes on the political map, as new parties are formed and parties from both blocs merge, split & withdraw from the race.
A merger with Gantz’ Blue and White was expected, yet it was unclear which party he would merge with. The two options were a center-left merger with the left-wing “Avoda” party, or the moderate right-wing bloc that was chosen. While this option is better for “New Hope”, it leaves the “Avoda” party dangerously close to the four seat line. Many within the coalition call for a merger between “Avoda” and Israeli far-left party “Meretz”, but “Avoda” refuses, to not alienate moderate voters.
Another potential merger we can expect is a merger among Arab parties. Their bloc split before the last elections when the Islamist “Ra’am” party decided to go against the Arab status quo of focusing on the relationship between Israel and all Palestinians. For the first time Ra’am campaigned on improving Israeli Arab lives through pragmatic cooperation with a Zionist government. This shift led “Ra’am” to the coalition and left the rest of the Arab parties in the opposition. So, it is still unclear in what constellations the different Arab parties will organize. Although, it could very well be one list willing to join an Israeli government, and one committed to staying in opposition regardless of what government is formed.
In Netanyahu’s bloc there are also two united lists. The Ultra-Orthodox “United Torah” list and the far-right “Religious Zionist List”. Both lists are expected to maintain their partnerships, but it seems that the relative power of each faction within these lists is expected to change. This means that “United Torah” are expected to become more flexible about their commitment to Netanyahu’s bloc. And on the other side, the “Religious Zionist List” is expected to radicalize even further.
The Most Important Factor
Understanding the danger of parties failing to reach the four seat minimum and the value of winning over undecided voters is important, because these elections are a numbers game. Each bloc is trying to maximize potential voter turnout, and it is easy to see why. When the results are expected to be so close, even a 5% difference could decide the next coalition. Due to this reason, most political campaigns are expected to focus on mobilizing the already convinced. Instead of persuading undecided voters to change sides, most of the energy will be directed to persuading decided registered voters to come out to vote.
Nowhere is the importance of this factor more evident than with Israeli Arab voters. While out of the general public in Israel around 70% of registered voters vote, Israeli Arab voter numbers are consistently lower. If we compare, in the last elections the national average was 67.4%, while only 44.6% of Israeli Arab voted. This means that more than 20% of Israel’s population, voted 20% less than the national average. This means that if Israeli Arab voters choose to vote at a similar percentage as the national average, the following change will outweigh all the above mentioned considerations.
Following the disbanding of the parliament, Israel will have its fifth round of elections in three years on November 1, 2022. Voters will have to choose between PM Lapid’s diverse liberal “center-left” coalition and former PM Netanyahu’s religious far-right opposition. Moderate right-wing parties are trying to form a third option, but it is still unclear if they will succeed.
Three major factors are expected to decide the outcome of this round of elections:
- Undecided moderate right-wing voters that don’t want to support Netanyahu’s extremist opposition, but also dislike Lapid’s leftist allies.
- Small parties on both sides that might shrink and disappear, thus causing votes to go to waste and upsetting the balance between the blocs.
- Voter turnout changes in both camps can and probably will determine the balance between the two blocs. Especially Israeli Arab voter turnout.
That being said, party lists can be submitted until September 15, 2022, and before this deadline – everything can change yet again.