Elections Israel Middle East Politics & Diplomacy
MENASource March 17, 2021

Down the rabbit hole of Israel’s electoral wonderland

By Shalom Lipner

Fog envelops Israel’s electoral landscape as its citizens prepare to vote for the fourth time in under four years. A wave of consolidations, breakups, and withdrawals prior to the February 4 deadline for formal registration of party lists in the country’s upcoming March 23 ballot dispelled some of the haze. But with candidates from a host of thirty-nine different slates vying for placement in the twenty-fourth Knesset, the contours of Israel’s next legislature and government remain obscure.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving premier in Israel’s seventy-two-year history, is in danger of losing his job. Polling has demonstrated fairly consistently that the “Never Bibi” camp—factions opposed to Netanyahu being tapped yet again as head of Israel’s future coalition—is poised to garner more seats in the incoming parliament than those who favor his continued rule. It is presumed that the power to decide his fate will likely devolve to Yamina party chief Naftali Bennett, the former defense minister whom Netanyahu detests. Bennett, who has declined thus far to throw his support behind either Netanyahu or any of his rivals, is positioning himself as a kingmaker to be courted by all suitors. The caveat that Bennett, who claims to be “running for prime minister,” has offered to his tactical agnosticism is a refusal to “sit in a government led by the left.”

What has made the current race more competitive than its three prequels has been the fresh appearance of viable alternatives for conservative Israelis, who have championed Netanyahu overwhelmingly in previous rounds. Bennett and New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar—both of whom brandish an established right-wing pedigree—have mounted strong attacks against Netanyahu, the evidentiary phase of whose trial on corruption charges has been postponed until April 5. The prime minister has struggled to deflate them with his standard rejoinder that all those seeking to replace him are leftists, whose victory would embolden Israel’s enemies. The steady rise of Yair Lapid and his nominally center-left Yesh Atid Party has inspired Netanyahu to settle for second best, as it were, and cast both Sa’ar and Bennett as would-be enablers of a left-wing Lapid government.

However, even if Netanyahu is playing a weaker hand, the multiplicity of parties contending to unseat him increases the possibility that he might be able to divide and conquer. Sa’ar, Bennett, and Lapid are already jockeying for pole position, undermining chances of forging a united front. If Netanyahu’s adversaries persist in bickering amongst themselves over priorities and egos, they could yet squander a majority and prove unsuccessful at cobbling together a government. Netanyahu could then mobilize to entice a few defectors to join the Likud and its allies—”in the interest of stability”—and extend his control, giving additional life to his aspirations for immunity from prosecution.

In fact, a Netanyahu defeat is far from guaranteed, despite the formidable challenge he faces. His partners are a largely homogeneous lot, many of whose members have obliged his request that they sign loyalty oaths to his bloc. Additionally, in a bid to prevent the wastage of any sympathetic ballots, the prime minister engineered an eleventh-hour merger of two far-right slates, Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength)—the latter of which features followers of the now defunct, extremist Kach Party—thereby increasing the probability that their combined ticket will cross the qualifying threshold.

Netanyahu also maneuvered expertly to drive a wedge deep into existing ideological fissures within the Joint Arab List (JAL)–which is comprised of parties that enjoy broad appeal among Israel’s Arab population—provoking one of its four constituent groups to leave and run independently. In doing so, he managed to both impair the electoral prospects of a weakened JAL—a resolute opponent of his policies—and create an opportunity for the breakaway United Arab List to then lend its backing for his efforts to stay on as premier if it captures more than the required minimum of 3.25 percent of the total vote.

The pressure is on Netanyahu’s detractors to make good on their pledge to topple him. One consequence has been loud calls among “Never Bibi” constituents for smaller and more imperiled contestants to abandon their bids. Benny Gantz, the alternate prime minister and head of the Blue-White Party who has been lagging in the polls, has been the specific focus of a high-profile campaign encouraging him to bow out. Gantz’s response has been to lament the intervention of his erstwhile patrons, who he has accused of “shooting [him] in the back.”

Nothing is certain at this point other than the fact that Israel’s leadership is up for grabs. Spirited post-election wrangling will begin after the week-long Passover holiday, which begins on March 27. It will be ugly and could conceivably end in a stalemate. If Netanyahu prevails, circumstances could render him so utterly dependent on the whims of fringe elements that his predicament may be untenable. If his competitors emerge as victors, their divergent perspectives may make consensus no less impossible. Ultimately, the only available escape from this morass could be a fifth election in the coming months.

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 JerusalemFollow him on Twitter @ShalomLipner.

Image: A woman walks past a Blue and White party election campaign banner depicting its leader, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the March 23 ballot, in Tel Aviv, Israel March 14, 2021. REUTERS/Corinna Kern