Much of what can be said about Israel’s just-concluded fifth election since 2019 could have been said even before the various exit polls—which all awarded Benjamin Netanyahu’s cohort a slim majority—were broadcast at 10 PM on November 1.
All ballot counts are considered preliminary until final tallies are certified later in the week, but, requisite caveats notwithstanding, the Israeli public—based on the combined showing of all competing parties—remains deadlocked on the question of whether or not Netanyahu deserves to hold the reins of power in Jerusalem. Less than ten-thousand votes are separating between the two camps. (Israel’s decidedly conservative-leaning electorate has not been split equally along traditional “right-left” lines for many years already). The real drama, however, is not taking place between the largely static pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs, but within them.
Pendulum swings between Netanyahu’s Likud and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, on the one hand, and their respective satellite lists on the other were, from an early stage in the exercise, a defining phenomenon of the race. Conflicting priorities to maximize the performance of their own anchor slates and also strengthen the market shares of their allied factions—with which they would aspire to craft ruling coalitions—were the source of schizophrenic messaging by Likud and Yesh Atid, which left voters to choose in whom to place their trust. Those decisions shaped the current playing field.
On Lapid’s side of the ledger, some key partners to his transitional government found themselves hovering around the minimum 3.25 percent electoral threshold, managing barely (if at all) to return to the Knesset. Meanwhile, the effect of this symbiosis on Netanyahu’s squad altered that landscape entirely, spawning a new kingmaker in the guise of the Religious Zionism Party (RZP), led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Determined to back Netanyahu’s candidacy, but also to block any possibility of him favoring the option of a unity cabinet that would adopt a more conciliatory agenda, right-wing constituencies flocked to RZP—forecasted to finish as the third-largest grouping in parliament—as a hedge. With its promise to reform the judicial system and fight terrorism uncompromisingly, RZP attracted the support of those disappointed with the perceived failure of mainstream factions to deliver on similar commitments.
Netanyahu had anticipated “ingesting” a significant chunk of RZP’s cachet, growing the Likud ultimately at the expense of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir. But RZP turned the tables on Netanyahu, outflanking him and beating him at his own game. As Netanyahu brandished his ideological credentials, they upped the ante on him. For example, Netanyahu’s denials of personal involvement in efforts to rescind the corruption indictments for which he is standing trial were met by Ben-Gvir’s explicit confession that he himself would shepherd legislation to halt Netanyahu’s prosecution.
In the end, two numbers decreed the way forward: turnout and threshold, together filtering which demographics will be represented in the composition of the next Knesset and government. The record 71.3 percent turnout—the highest since 2015—served to demonstrate that the public, mostly unmoved during the four-month-long campaign, may have been cynical and apathetic about electioneering, but not about their engagement in the democratic process. The pronounced level of participation on Election Day lifted the absolute quantity of votes required to cross the threshold, thus, imperiling the lists now in danger of elimination.
Assuming that existing trends hold firm and Netanyahu secures a path to victory, the horse-trading with his potential RZP and Ultra-Orthodox teammates is not predicted to proceed smoothly. (An alternate future, in which the teetering parties are able to survive, could propel Israel toward another impasse in the 120-seat parliament, but its probability is becoming increasingly remote.)
With a more fundamentalist approach to matters of religion and state, and, in the particular case of RZP, a more pugnacious attitude toward defense and foreign affairs than the Likud, these core members of Netanyahu’s proposed coalition will be driving very hard bargains. In fact, the component parts of RZP, Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ)—with little to fear from the empty threat of a repeat election, in which their followers would undoubtedly reward their steadfastness on issues of principle—have every incentive to demand the fulfillment of their every wish.
The road ahead stands to be precarious for Israel. President Isaac Herzog foreshadowed the fraught nature of this moment in recent appeals to Biden administration officials and US Jewish leaders to withhold passing judgment on Israel’s election results, also putting forth the possibility that extremists may be inclined toward greater moderation once in office.
Challenged persistently by more strident elements of his high-maintenance—if relatively homogenous—coalition, Netanyahu will find it difficult to navigate a steady course. The ability of RZP, Shas or UTJ to bring about the collapse of his government independently should any of their budgetary, territorial or other expectations go unfulfilled will put Netanyahu at a governance deficit within his own ranks. Damaging pushback is also likely to come from otherwise sympathetic quarters of the globe, including Jewish communities around the world, where Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are considered toxic. The other half of Israel’s population that contests Netanyahu’s resurgence will almost certainly mobilize to unseat him as soon as possible.
Whichever scenario materializes, it’s not impossible that Israelis could yet find themselves summoned to vote in a sixth election before 2023 is up.
Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Follow him on Twitter @ShalomLipner.
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