Update on Israel’s elections

This week, Israel held its fourth national election in two years and the result was remarkably similar to the previous three elections – essentially a deadlock between two camps.  The two camps are defined not as much through traditional issues such as defense, social and economic issues as they are around their willingness to form a collation under the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The lay of the land

The numbers we have at this point are provisional.  The military, prisoners, diplomats and “Corona quarantine” absentee “blue envelope” votes have not yet been tabulated.  The first (IDF) vote (mostly young under 22) will likely shift the dial rightward a bit, the second back a little since there are a disproportionate number of Arabs in prisons (who do have the right to vote), the third (diplomats) traditionally leftward a little, and the fourth is entirely unknown since there is no precedent.   But any final judgement may be influenced yet by these potential shifts.

While a seat may shift still between the blocks, at this point the current prime minister has only 59 or 60 “likely-to-support-Netanyahu” seats of a 120-member parliament.  His party is by far the largest bloc, garnering about 30 seats, with the leftist Yesh Atid under Yair Lapid mustering between 17-18 seats. Also on the left, the United Arab List earned 6 seats, and the Communist and Arab list, who had been forecast to be erased for failing to cross the 4-seat threshold, received a surprising 5 seats.  The far-left Meretz party received 5 seats and the Labor party – which had dominated the state and all its institutions for the first decades of Israel’s existence, only 7 seats.

On the right, the religious Orthodox bloc parties gained about 15-17 seats, and are already calculated as allies in a Netanyahu-led coalition.  Another strongly right-leaning party, the Religious Zionist party under Bezalel Smotrich won 6 seats, which is also a surprise since they had been forecast in polls to also have been erased for failure to cross the threshold.  This party has already said it prefers Netanyahu as prime minister.

That leaves three parties, all of which are either center-right or right-leaning parties that have expressed grave reservations over the continued premiership of Netanyahu.  The first, Yemina (Rightward) led by Naftali Bennett and is strongly right-leaning, has 7 seats.  It is generally assumed that despite Bennett’s antipathy to Netanyahu, he would join his coalition and has thus been factored into the “likely” coalition column.   As such, that amounts to about 59-60 seats for the Netanyahu coalition, which is insufficient to stand up a government.

The other two center-right parties are Gideon Saar’s New Hope party, which is made up of former Likud stalwarts who personally have split from Netanyahu.  They have sworn not to form a coalition with the current prime minister.  Originally predicted to have perhaps as many as 20 or more seats, they declined dramatically over the campaign and gained only 6 seats. Finally, there is Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Our Home party. Lieberman once was Netanyahu’s closest ally, but has since split with him.  He has a base of immigrant and Russian voters, as well as some secular-nationalist voters who particularly reject the power of the Orthodox movements in national life. He gained 6 seats.

Overall, this result indicates several things.  Based on security and peace issues, there are 71 or 120 new members to the right.  In terms of social issues, there are about 70 seats to the right, and maybe more since part of the hard-left Meretz are free marketeers, as are part of Benjamin Gantz’s Blue-White party, which survived with 6 seats. But the Netanyahu vs. anti-Netanyahu structure is 61 against him to 59 for him, or even 68 against vs. 52 if Bennett is placed in this camp.  In short, the country is strongly further to the right on substantive issues than they voted, attributable to antipathy to Netanyahu by many.  In other words, the hope for a left-leaning pro-concession government about which so many outside Israel dream is a distant mirage.

These two balance-holding parties – Saar’s New Hope and Lieberman’s Israel Our Home parties – thus represent the tilting balance of power in the parliament. It is they who will set the most likely course going forward and thus must be closely examined.

Scenarios

Both New Hope and Israel Our Home have said they will not enter a government under Netanyahu – although that is the only feasible structure for a coalition at this point both because it is by far the largest party and because it would be politically suicidal for either to form a government with the anti-Zionist United Arab list whose members have made a point about supporting Israel’s dissolution.  The other Arab party, Ra’am (Communist) under Mansour Abbas has signaled that it may pursue a more pragmatic route and support whomever will deliver their constituents the most in terms of bread-and-butter issues (crime and economic welfare).  And yet, it remains unlikely that they would enter a narrow coalition under Netanyahu and be the bloc that puts him over the top.

Lieberman and his Israel Our Home party has in the past both expressed and acted upon a refusal to enter a coalition under Netanyahu.  Indeed, in was Lieberman’s departure from the coalition in 2019 that led to the current round of elections and his refusal in any of the three previous rounds to even consider entering Netanyahu’s government that created stalemates in all three rounds.   In short, it would buck the historical record if Lieberman finally dropped his opposition to Netanyahu to save his coalition. Lieberman has given no indication of any softening.  The only imaginable way he would enter is if there are other “anti-Bibi” parties that relented, such as Saar’s New Hope party.

Which then brings us to the New Hope Party as the key.  The virtual collapse of the party’s polling popularity – from about 20 or more seats a month or two ago to the final tally of about 6 seats – has no doubt weakened Saar. The promise of a party large enough to credibly demand the keys to forming a new coalitional government from the Israeli President Rivlin (who himself harbors considerable resentment against PM Netanyahu) vaporized in the last weeks.  That leaves four options for Saar and his party: join the left to form a government, relent and grant Netanyahu the balance of power at a cost, hold firm and go for new elections as a redux of the last with the same contours, or move to legislate in the Knesset a fundamental legal alternation that could bar Netanyahu from running again, after which new elections would be called under new players.

The first option, despite being the dream scenario for Israeli pundits who have mulled this over endlessly in the last 24 hours, is highly unlikely. Looking at the party list, these are hardline former Likudniks (Elkin was even second in line at Likud in the 2020 elections; Begin is Menahem Begin’s son and so forth).  Moreover, the last election could have produced such a left-based government as well, but two members of the Blue-White party, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, refused to do so with the anti-Zionist Arab nationalist parties.  Both are now part of Saar’s New Hope Party. Hauser did not make the cut this time (he was #8 on the list), but he remains highly influential in the new party.  Hendel did make it.  There is no reason to believe that they would do this time what they risked everything last time to avoid doing.  Hardliners such as Elkin, and even Saar, also are unlikely to do so.

The second option – Saar relenting and joining as is – has already been ruled out by Saar, although the dynamics of the next few weeks could quite possibly create enough pressure on him to change his mind.  His performance in this election raises grave doubts about his party’s longevity, and Saar therefore might calculate that he can only remain a significant player under the current constellation of parliament under which he waits for better times.

Still, this would be such a political surrender that Saar may see it as political suicide in the medium term, let alone the long run. He may calculate that standing on his principles and holding firm is his best route to salvaging at least the power he has left going into the next election.  Also, by all accounts, his campaign was run terribly.  He hired as his major consultant the Lincoln Project from the United States which gave him horrible advice and disintegrated mid-stream. It is possible that Saar learned his lesson and would run a more effective campaign next time.

And yet, the central point of Saar’s candidacy can then only be judged as a failure: the establishment of a right-leaning government to replace Netanyahu’s right-leaning government.  To erase this stigma of failure in achieving that central goal, he may use the power of his party to elect a new Chairman of the Knesset (akin to the U.S. House’s Speakership) who would then be able to navigate through parliament a law (even without a new government at this stage) that will forbid an indicted senior official from running for office – read Netanyahu.  The anti-Netanyahu bloc has between 60-61 seats and there may be some from Bennett’s Yemina party who would support this legislation. As such, this is a realistic scenario.

Conclusion

This election produced an almost identical result as the last three – stalemate.  But several interesting trends are obscured by the focus just on the question of coalition formation.  The first is the Arab vote.  The unified Arab List party split in this election, between Ayman Oudeh’s United List and Mansour Abbas’ Raam (Communist) party. This was in part over a fundamental philosophical divide.  The United List’s members have generally surrendered their influence in the Israeli system by using their power in the system to call for its delegitimization. This anti-Zionist animus has made them untouchable politically in terms of forming a government, leaving their constituents largely disenfranchised.   This in the last few years has left the Arabs increasingly frustrated, with dramatically (catastrophically in fact) rising crime, nervousness over a social agenda that diverges from their more traditional values, and the blocked temptation to make peace with the Israeli state to align with the Gulf states, who made peace with Israel and are expected to offer significant development investment into the Arab sector.

Netanyahu’s Likud party saw this opening and ran an effective campaign in the Arab sector (see picture).

But Mansour’s Raam party also saw this upheaval and thus already has signaled that it may take a pragmatic approach and join any coalition that delivers for his constituents and answers for their fear and realization of these aspirations.  In short, the Arabs are beginning to act like an internal Israeli party culturally, more or less reconciled to the Israeli state.

Second, as noted, the popular support for the right substantively is stronger than the support for Netanyahu personally.  Eventually this gap will need reconciliation, and it leads to ever greater pressure on Netanyahu to retire and cut a deal on his way out to drop the indictments, or even to be named as the successor to Rivlin as Israel’s next president – which is an admirable path to sailing away into the sunset.

It is not likely Netanyahu is prepared to accept such a scenario at this point, although that may change rapidly if the certainty of the legislative scenario mentioned above turns into reality and he faces the humiliation of being forced out.

About David Wurmser

Dr. David Wurmser is Director of the Center for Security Policy’s Project on Global Anti-Semitism and the US-Israel Relationship. He is a former U.S. Navy Reserve intelligence officer with extensive national security experience working for the State Department, the Pentagon, Vice President Dick Cheney and the National Security Council.