Israel One to Four: 1 Deadlock, 2 Years, 3 Lockdowns, 4 Elections

voting station
© Hanay, Israel,  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

On the night of the 22nd of December 2020, the Knesset (Israeli parliament) disbanded, sending Israel to early elections only 9 months after its last. This will be the fourth round of Israeli elections in just two years, and according to current polls even a fifth round might be around the corner.

How Did We Get Here?

The Israeli political crisis began with a deadlock formed due to criminal charges of corruption against Prime Minister Netanyahu. The prime minister was officially indicted for breach of trust, accepting bribes and fraud in 2019. Yet Netanyahu refused to resign, claiming that the charges were falsified to remove him ‘undemocratically’ from office. His response was then heavily criticized in the media and in the public grew an Anti-Netanyahu sentiment. Election polls started showing that for the first time in years, he would not be able to collect the minimum 61 seats needed to form a government.

Surprisingly, it was not the nationwide criticism that led to the first round of early elections in 2019, but a disagreement due to security concerns and the new military draft bill. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party stood behind him, but hawkish Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman resigned from Netanyahu’s government, condemning its inaction while rockets are fired at the south of the country, as well as refusing to soften the draft bill at the request of the Ultra-Orthodox parties. This resignation led to the disbanding of parliament and the first round of elections set in April 2019.

Netanyahu’s corruption cases became the central issue in these elections and a union of parties was formed to oppose Netanyahu’s until then predominant Likud party. The new coalition of parties was called “Blue & White” and was led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid. This new political force became the leader of the new Anti-Netanyahu camp together with the Israeli Left-Wing and Liberman’s right-wing secular Yisrael Beitenu party.

The first round of elections ended in a 60-60 Knesset seat tie, with both blocs unwilling to compromise, thus beginning the political deadlock. This continued in the September 2019 and March 2020 elections, and neither Netanyahu nor Gantz were able to form a government. With the spread of the Covid19 virus, public demand for unity pushed the two party-leaders into forming a unity government, enforced by a strict legal document granting both leaders veto powers and setting clear dates for Prime Minister rotation.

The Unity Government and the Creation of the New Camps

This agreement was rejected by many in the Anti-Netanyahu camp, after having vowed not to join any government with Netanyahu. They claimed that a corrupt leader would abide such an agreement only as long as it suits him. So, the Anti-Netanyahu Separatists left Blue & White and congregated in the liberal centrist Yesh Atid party under Yair Lapid. With this, the clear Right-Wing Left-Wing lines became blurred as both could be found in government and in the Opposition. On the other hand, the Anti-Netanyahu camp seemed for a time even stronger than before.

Despite claiming that dealing with Covid19 is a top priority, the new union government was plagued with infighting, trying to pin failures on political opponents and taking credit for successes within the coalition. This increased the already existing public outrage, and for most of 2020 and beginning of 2021, thousands of protesters gathered on the weekends outside of Prime Minster Netanyahu’s residence. But again, not public pressure led to early elections, but an inner government rift.

The strict legal document signed by both party leaders had one fatal flaw, it stated that if no national budget is passed, parliament would be automatically disbanded. This allowed Netanyahu to avoid relinquishing his position, by not passing a budget until the end of 2020. On December 22nd, it was officially decided that Israel would go to a fourth round of elections, doing so while plagued by Covid19 and lacking agreement on the national budget.

These developments expanded the Anti-Netanyahu camp deeper into the Right-Wing, as separatists led by Gideon Sa’ar, Netanyahu’s main rival within his own party, left the Likud and joined the Anti-Netanyahu bloc. This development has countered Netanyahu’s narrative of a Right-Wing VS Left-Wing clash and has hurt him and Likud in the polls. Over the last two months, various polls have fluctuated due to new parties and unions being formed, but after the deadline for registering lists on February 4th, 2021 has passed and polls seem to be stabilizing since.

According to the polls ever since, Netanyahu’s bloc has stabilized around 50 seats. On the other hand, the Anti-Netanyahu bloc, which is much more diverse, has stabilized around 60 seats. Netanyahu has become a negatively uniting factor for this unlikely bloc including both Jewish parties and Arab parties, religious and secular, Two-state-solutionists and West Bank annexation supporters. Outside these two blocs, only Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party refuses to affiliate, denouncing the Netanyahu dichotomy and trying to attract voters from both camps. This is despite having been junior partners in Netanyahu’s previous governments and being aligned with most of his right-wing policies.

The Parties Explained

The Netanyahu bloc consists now of four parties: Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party is expected to win around 30 seats. The two Ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Tora Judaism are expected to win around 7 each and the smaller far-right Religious National Union polls around 5 seats.

The Anti-Netanyahu bloc can be divided into three factions, the Center Left, the Right and the Arab parties. The Center Left consists of 4 parties: Lapid’s liberal centrist Yesh Atid party expected to win up to 20 seats. The left-wing parties Labor and Meretz poll around 5 seats each, and Gantz’ Blue & White party barely reaches the 4-seat minimum threshold. The Right consists of Gideon Saar’s Conservative “New Hope” party and Avigdor Liberman’s right-wing secular Yisrael Beitenu party winning together around 20 seats, and the four Arab Parties are expected to win around 10 seats.

Bennett’s Yamina party split from the far-right Religious National Union to appeal to a wider public, still stabilizing in the polls at around 10 seats.

When inspecting the blocs, one can see that not much has fundamentally changed since the last elections. The Anti-Netanyahu bloc still has a narrow majority that cannot be called stable. What really changed is only that Netanyahu’s bloc no longer includes Bennett’s party, which now as a free agent could join an Anti-Netanyahu coalition.

Netanyahu vs Lapid, Sa’ar and Bennet

Unlike in previous elections, this time Netanyahu’s corruption is not a central issue anymore. Neither is security or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This time people are expected to vote according to two main issues: Economy and Health. This is clearly connected to the Covid19 crisis, as well as the current government’s lack of decisive action when dealing with the challenges of last year.

Netanyahu’s opponents now aim to brand his Covid19 policy as a failure and offer themselves as an alternative, while Netanyahu himself is hard at work trying to convince the public that Israel’s successful nationwide vaccination program merits his re-election. It is yet unclear how the vaccination program will influence the elections, as Israel is only now coming out of a third lockdown and the benefits of this program are not yet seen by the public.

At first glance, it seems that Netanyahu’s main rival is Yair Lapid. He is the head of the opposition, leader of the second largest party and stands at the head of the bigger bloc. But it seems that Netanyahu sees Gideon Sa’ar as his true rival, possible because the former Likud member can appeal to Netanyahu’s supporters in a way that a comparably “left”- leaning Lapid never could. These three party-leaders are joined by Bennet, who might be smaller but is a necessary partner for any future coalition of either camp. All four claim that they aim to be Israel’s next Prime minister, but none of which can form a government without the others joining under them.

elections ballot_box
© Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung from Berlin, Deutschland, cc-by-sa-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Small Parties Fighting For Survival

When trying to understand these elections, there are two main factors that must be addressed: who are the rival leaders and what parties manage to survive the elections. While the first question is usually the more interesting one, this round will most likely be decided by the smaller parties. Since the blocs are tied, every small party that gains a bit less than the necessary 4 seats could tip the scale against its bloc. Because of this, it is common for smaller parties to form a union and run together on a joint list.

Two such unions run this time: the far-right Religious National Union and the ideologically mixed Arab List. In both cases, one former member left the union and is running alone. While Bennett’s Yamina is doing well in the polls, the Religious National Union is quite close to the 4-seat threshold and might eventually come short and hurt Netanyahu’s bloc. On the other side, while the Arab List will quite safely enter the next Knesset, Mansur Abbas’s independent Ra’am party is expected to fall short and decrease the Arab List’s current strength by about 3 seats.

While these events seem to balance out, Ra’am is running independently due to a refusal to commit to the Anti-Netanyahu bloc, claiming that Israel’s Arabs have a lot to gain from cooperating with Netanyahu. Another party that regularly falls short in the polls is the new unaffiliated liberal-populist “Economic Party”. While this effects the political map somewhat, this party is expected to drop out of the race before Election Day.

While all small parties influence the balance between the blocs, the Anti-Netanyahu bloc’s biggest concern is that one or more of the three left leaning parties would drop below the 4-seat threshold. These three, Labor, Meretz and Blue & White, refused to form a union and won’t drop out of the race, confident that their voters will not abandon them. If one or more of these parties fails to reach the necessary 4 seats, it might as well mean that the Netanyahu bloc, together with Yamina, can form the next government.

What can we expect?

While elections are less than a month away, two things are already quite clear: First, the fate of the smallest parties will determine the size of the rival blocs. This means that unlike past elections, bloc leaders will have to take care not to rally bloc voters to them at the expense of its junior partners. This seems like the most likely way to break the deadlock that persisted for the last two years.

Second, if the Anti-Netanyahu bloc doesn’t have a solid majority, Bennett will be the deciding factor of these elections. Such a majority is not very likely, since all but one of the smaller parties are part of the Anti-Netanyahu bloc. Because of this, Bennett is expected to be a dominant factor in any future government as the only faction capable of breaking the deadlock and forming a government with either side.

There also exists a possibility that the deadlock continues, and Israel finds itself heading to a fifth round of elections. Another round is not very likely according to current polls, but if it comes to it and the deadlock persists, even nowadays unpopular Gantz could find himself in the Prime Minister’s office. The unlikely candidate could become Prime Minister in November despite his electoral bankruptcy, due to the rotation agreement he signed with Netanyahu which will remain in force until a new government is formed.