Elections in Israel: End time for „King Bibi“
In elections, which at first glance seem neither dominated by ideology nor policy, the electorate remains divided. Even in the last days before the vote on March 23rd, no clear winner is in sight. According to the latest polls of Channel 13, the parties that in their campaign demand an end to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's reign hold 56 to 58 seats, the parties supporting him hold 47 to 50 seats, and the two parties not willing to fully committing themselves on this issue hold the remaining 14 or 15 seats. Purely arithmetically, Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu could remain in power, even without anyone changing sides.
End time for "King Bibi"
However, the popularity of "King Bibi," as a 2019 documentary called him for his long tenure, has dropped over scandals, corruption allegations, crisis management, and the currently stagnant economy. With 28 to 30 seats in the polls, the right-wing Likud ("Consolidation") party, which in the last two decades Netanyahu managed to forge into his party of power, lost already six to eight seats in the last year. According to the polls the three right-wing politicians Gideon Sa'ar, Avigdor Lieberman and Neftali Bennett, once Netanyahu's closest associates from the Likud, have already won almost the same number of seats. It is only a matter of time before the dam breaks and a majority in Likud wants to part from its long lasting leader.
The Likud still stands behind him, but admired and hated in Israel for his tactical and strategic skills, "Bibi" is waging his struggle for political survival in an increasingly adventurous way. In his political moves, he twinkle-toed across ideological boundaries in the service of maintaining power, and to protect himself from a conviction in the ongoing criminal trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
For years, Netanyahu had warned against the religious-ultranationalist camp of the "Kahanists" – but for the upcoming elections, the Likud formed a surplus vote-sharing alliance with Religious Zionism under Bezalel Smotrich. Only in 2015, Netanyahu had warned of the "droves" of Arab-Israelis heading to the ballot boxes, but in 2021 he broke an unwritten rule of the right-wing to being the first to openly campaigning for Arab votes. With this move, he even helped to bring about a split in the Joint List of the majority Arab parties. Simultaneously he sustained his close alliance with the expected to be 13 to 15 seat strong ultra-Orthodox parties through many concessions in recent years. This has enraged many secular voters against him, also from the right. His non-ideological maneuvers have so far secured Knesset seats, but at the cost of losing trust from all sides of the potential electorate.
The rise of the Liberals under Yesh Atid
In addition to tactically maneuvering between parties and praising his own success obtaining vaccines, experienced campaign strategist Netanyahu is trying to portray the election as a fateful choice between right and left. In a country with a rightwing majority, he particularly tries to delegitimize as “left” Yair Lapid, opposition leader and leader of the liberal-centrist Yesh-Atid ("There is a future") party. At the beginning of his political career in 2012, the former television journalist Lapid was ridiculed as an inexperienced newcomer to politics. However, since first joining government as finance minister in 2013/14, Lapid managed to make his party an integral part of Israeli politics.
In the past nine years, countless saviors against "Bibi" overtook Yesh Atid briefly before disappearing again, with only Yesh Atid surviving as a stable force of the liberal center. The last of these saviors, Benjamin "Benny" Gantz, had won 33 seats with his alliance Kachol-Lavan ("Blue-White") in March 2020 together with Yesh Atid. According to the latest polls, "Blue-White" still fears not entering the Knesset with the minimum 4 seats, while Yesh Atid still growing after a decade can expect up to 20. The self-declared left camp, on the other hand, has become smaller and smaller. The recently seemingly deceased Social Democratic Party Avoda ("labour") is back under charismatic Merav Michaeli and currently projected to win six seats. Yet this successful return might jeopardize at the same time the entry of the left-wing Meretz ("vigour") party, uniting also liberal and green traditions, currently predicted for the minimum four seats.
With a commitment to the two-state solution and the demand for civil rights for all citizens of Israel, the liberal Centrists gave recently also a bit of hope to some on the left. Yair Lapid also expanded his foreign policy profile, planning to integrate his party into the Liberal International and maintaining close relations with liberal party leaders, including to the German liberal Free Democrats (FDP). Nevertheless, he knows that he does not win the election with friends abroad and that it will not be easy to form a government with the currently tight majority. The anti-Bibi camp needs to unite the left-wing votes of Avoda and Meretz, the conservative Gideon Sa'ar with his party Tikva Hadasha ("New Hope", 9 to 10 seats according to the latest poll) and Avigdor Liberman's right-wing secular party Yisrael Beitenu ("Our Home Israel", 6 to 7 seats according to the last poll). This is already difficult, but according to the latest polls only with the re-entry of Kochol-Lavan and the so far undecided support of the right-wing Yamina ("right") party of Naftali Bennett would there be a majority.
Thus, the anti-Bibi camp has to bear up with and negotiate on many ideological contradictions. The fact that both Sa'ar and Bennett claim the leadership with great self-confidence does not make the situation any easier for Yesh Atid. Yair Lapid has at least so far resisted the temptation of pushing his own leadership ambitions to the front like Sa'ar and Bennett. That could help him and his party in the end. In addition to the rise of liberals, however, three other trends in Israeli politics are becoming increasingly clear.
The Arab voice becomes an integral part of Israeli politics
When the Joint List decided in March 2020 to support Benny Gantz as prime minister with their important 15 votes in the Knesset, they broke an unwritten rule of the Arab parties since the end of the peace process: to publicly promote a Zionist candidate. “It represents a historic change for the Arab public,” Maisam Jaljuli, a representative of the socialist Hadash (“New”) Party, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: “It signifies a desire for integration.” Gantz disappointed this desire with his decision to form a unity government with Netanyahu rather than starting his own with a narrow majority thanks to Arab support. Of all people, Netanyahu then took a step forward and started directly campaigning for Arab votes in early 2021 during the distribution of vaccines in Arab neighborhoods. In the same month, he was able to convince Mansour Abbas, leader of the moderate-Islamist Ra'am (United Arab List) party, to withdraw his party from the Joint List and to run separately. The projected four seats of Ra'am postulate neutrality on the question of the future of "Bibi". While it still seems unlikely that Arab party ministers will enter the government in 2021, the importance of Arab Israelis is steadily increasing.
Mizrahim changing their voting behavior
For a long time, the Israeli left saw it as paradoxical that the underprivileged Oriental Jews ("Mizrahim") had turned to the Israeli right. The sociologist Nissim Mizrachi argues that it was also the perceived arrogance of the old Ashkenazi left elite, which drove seemingly underdeveloped oriental cousins into the arms of their political opponents. The Likud welcomed the new voters with empathy and open arms. But if one believes the theories of former liberal-centrist Knesset MP Rachel Azaria, even behind the 6 to 8 predicted seats of the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox Shas party are hiding socially much more liberal voters. The parties of former Likud politicians Sa'ar and Bennett are already receiving voter migrations from Mizrahia milieus. Such voter migration might rise dramatically and shift the balance of power in Israel as soon as a credible voice from the liberal center addresses them and their interests directly.
State and religion become a campaign issue again
One point for which Netanyahu was particularly criticized last year was that in his management of the pandemic, even absurd interests of ultra-Orthodox party partners were granted, closely monitored by Israel Hofsheet ("Be free Israel"). For example, the state removed TV sets from Corona quarantine hotels, in order to protect potential ultra-Orthodox patients from them. The state seems to have targeted lockdowns and other measures less stringently in ultra-Orthodox residential areas. To this day, the influence of the ultra-Orthodox parties in government prevents loosening of ultra-Orthodox control over Jewish weddings via the Chief Rabbinate. However, there is an opposition against this political influence forming from the left with Avoda and Meretz, over the liberal center with Yesh Atid, to the right with Israel Beitenu under Avigdor Liebermann. Under the surface of the question for or against Bibi, the dispute over the role of religion in the state continues to simmer.
It is still possible that with a broad coalition (from left to the liberal center to the right) Netanyahu will be voted out of office on Tuesday. Even if the March 23 election leads to another stalemate, that does not mean that Israeli politics has stopped moving. Precisely because of the many parallel movements, the individual change is in the noise of every day less noticeable. Netanyahu’s negotiating skills – always good for surprises – could win him the day, and - like a stalemate - quickly catapult Israel into a fifth round of elections. Yet, even a delayed next round would bring the analyzed five trends further to light. The time of Bibi Netanyahu is ending. With Yesh Atid liberals have become the new stable force at the center of Israeli politics. The importance of the Arab vote increases. The Mizrahi vote begins to shift and can rearrange the balances of Israeli politics. Finally, the discussion about the role of state and religion is back at the core of the political debate.
Julius von Freytag-Loringhoven heads the Jerusalem Office of Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom since 2020.