The Completion of Israel’s transition to a “Two Bloc System”

November 2022 Election Poster in Israel

An Israeli "Us or Them" election poster comparing two alternative Bloc based governments.

© Friedrich Naumann Foundation

Israeli elections are right around the corner, and millions of Israelis are going to vote again on November 1, for the fifth time in three years. Since the Israeli Knesset dissolved on June 30, 2022, little has changed on the Israeli political map. There are still two main blocs, PM Lapid’s diverse liberal “center-left” coalition and former PM Netanyahu’s religious far-right opposition. This “Two Bloc System” is still being challenged by Minister of Defense Benny Gantz, who offers an alternative government that includes parties from both blocs.

Not a lot has changed since the Knesset disbanded

Very little has changed in Israeli politics since my July analysis, and, while there are a few voters who support a different party now, almost none changed blocs. But, some things have changed. Gantz has so far not been very successful convincing undecided moderate right-wing voters that he is a “not left wing” alternative to Netanyahu. While there still exists a very exceptional constellation in which he could become prime minister, it is much more likely that either Lapid or Netanyahu will win this upcoming round of elections.

In the last few months, the two blocs solidified, and currently, no party is independent from bloc affiliation. This shift not only brought the parties closer together, but also destroyed all nonaffiliated parties. Even former PM Naftali Bennett’s party “Yamina” lost all support and disappeared from the map. Interior minister Ayelet Shaked, is still trying to revive the party she inherited from him under a new name “Jewish home”, but her chances are very low according to current polls.

This new “Two Bloc System” reality allows political actors to give up on internal differences and focus on motivating voter turnout within their camp. The current PM, Yair Lapid, and even more so Naftali Bennett before him, headed much smaller parties than Netanyahu. However, the bloc supporting them was bigger – and in Israel’s parliamentary system, that is what counts. When the polls show that very few people are willing to consider switching sides, nothing is more important than the bloc’s voter turnout.

The Size of the Blocs and Small Party Survival

Well, there might be one thing that is more important. In Israel, a party needs to reach 3.25% of the votes in order to qualify. This means that if they get less, all the votes cast for them are not counted. This is most likely what is going to happen to Shaked’s party, but could also happen to affiliated parties – thus shrinking their bloc. Because of this, a lot of effort was spent on merging small parties and supporting smaller parties in their campaign. Netanyahu’s bloc was by far more successful in this regard, and is currently secured from losing any party according to the polls.

Lapid on the other hand, has five different parties in his bloc that are at risk of disappearing. These parties refused to merge, claiming that they are not at risk and that merging will actually be more hurtful to the bloc. Critics claimed that this reluctance was due to the potential benefit of getting “Panic voters” that will vote for these parties in order to save them, and would otherwise vote differently. In about a week, we will all know the outcome of this dangerous gamble.

Election poster in Israel 2022

Israeli election poster focusing on Lapid's cooperation with the Arab parties in the Knesset

© Friedrich Naumann Foundation

Double Edged Sword of Legitimization

The creation of this “Two Bloc System” also had an interesting side effect, the legitimization of all political actors in Israeli politics. Netanyahu’s right wing bloc includes the “Religious Zionist List” settler party. In a desperate attempt to get the needed majority, Netanyahu convinced them to merge with the ultra-nationalist “Jewish Power” party. Until last year’s elections, Netanyahu refused to cooperate with “Jewish Power”, and even actively worked to stop them from running. This time, in order to improve his chances, Netanyahu completely assimilated them into his bloc, coordinated his campaign with them and promised them a ministerial position.

On the other side, Lapid has been working on gradually legitimizing Arab parties as part of a future coalition. This approach allowed the moderate Islamist Ra’am party to join the current government, and would possibly convince other Arab parties to join Lapid’s bloc. This strategy is only part of Lapid’s larger campaign, increasing political participation of Israeli Arabs. This is because while in the general Israeli public 70% of registered voters vote, while in Arab society it is only around 45%. If this number could be brought up closer to 70%, Lapid’s bloc would surely win the elections.

But, while this legitimization could help maximize voter turnout, it has become a double edged sword. In Israel’s new “Two Bloc System”, every bloc is judged by its most extreme members. Overnight campaigns started presenting Netanyahu as the leader of the “Extreme Messianic Right” bloc, and Lapid as the leader of the “Terrorist Supporting Arab” bloc. This new level of political polarization is expected to lead Israel even further away from compromise between the two blocs. Increasing the chances that the current crisis will only be concluded with a clear victory.

Practical implications

After the votes are counted, sometime next week, one of the blocs will have a narrow majority. Most polls expect the Knesset’s 120 seats to be split evenly, give or take two seats. Regardless of whether Netanyahu or Lapid form this new government, it will be a government in which every member has veto power. Netanyahu’s campaign has been haunted by claims that due to this veto power, and his legal situation, his future government will be controlled de facto by “Jewish Power”.

Netanyahu has been playing a double game throughout his campaign, working hard on downplaying his alliance with “Jewish Power” to attract moderate voters, while also appealing to the extreme right to increase voter turnout.

Lapid also still needs to explain how his future government will function. Not only will he need to manage many more small parties with veto power, but he will also have to form an Israeli-Palestinian consensus. The previous government functioned based on a wide consensus that allowed it to work on the issues everyone agrees on, while arguing about the rest. Since Lapid is expected to have a stronger Palestinian presence in his future government, he will be forced to expand the limits of his consensus.

This begs the question, is such a wide consensus even possible? Can an Israeli government include Palestinian politicians as well as religious Zionist settlers and still function? If Lapid manages to convince voters that this is possible, he might be awarded the prime ministership position again.