JERUSALEM, ISRAEL — March 15, 2021 — On March 23, Israel will hold its fourth national election in two years. This is a result of political stalemate and politicking that’s placed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against most other parties, with his Likud party showing one of its lowest polling projections in the past three elections. It is not the first election since the pandemic, but the pandemic will play a more significant role than the previous election a year ago.
In addition to the pandemic, there are several other issues that make this election and the potential outcome unique. This analysis will explain some of the main issues so that after March 23, you’ll understand better whether Israel will be able to form a stable government and move forward, or be doomed to an unprecedented fifth election later this year.
How Israel’s System Works
Israel is a parliamentary democracy. This means that Israelis vote for a party, not a candidate. Each party has its own way of determining the leader of that party, and their respective list of candidates. Some employ a democratic primary, and others through appointments by the head of the party. Factions made up of two or more parties with common interests and have joined forces for their mutual interests, decide their lists based on internal agreements allocating these positions.
The parliament, Knesset, has 120 members who are determined by a proportional representation of seats based on the number of votes received. Parties must win at least 3.25% of the total votes (the threshold) to enter Knesset. After the election, Israel’s President consults the leaders of all the parties that passed the threshold for their recommendations as to who should form the government. Usually that’s the head of the party with the most votes, but not always, depending on who has the best probability to form a government from among the rest of the incoming Knesset. In order to form a government, one requires at least 61 Knesset members to vote in favor, typically as a coalition of a few to several parties.
Israel has no early voting or absentee ballots. As most Israeli adults have been vaccinated, on election day, Israelis will line up to vote in person, in a socially distanced way, and place a paper ballot inside an envelope, and place that envelope inside a second. Shortly after the polls close there will be a good sense of the overall shape of the Knesset, but actual numbers won’t be sure until a day or two later when the ballots of soldiers voting on their bases are counted, and the final numbers and percentages are determined.
There are some three dozen parties running for the 24th Knesset, more parties than Baskin Robbins has flavors. Most will not receive the required 3.25%. Yet with Israelis suffering election fatigue, it’s possible that there could be a surprise “protest vote” not (yet) represented in the polls that catapults a fringe party into prominence, and a place of influence. The main parties estimated to pass the threshold and enter Knesset, in general order of their current polling positions are:
• Likud – the long-standing party founded by Menachem Begin that’s been one of Israel’s leading parties since the 1970s is right of center and represents much of the wide diversity of Israel’s population. It is headed by incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the longest serving PM in Israeli history.
• Yesh Atid – has been on the scene for most of the past two decades, considered to be center-left, is headed by former TV personality Yair Lapid who has served in past coalitions with Netanyahu as prime minister, but who now is one of the leaders of the “anyone but Bibi” camp.
• New Hope – a new party established last year by former Likud member and previous minister Gidon Sa’ar who is considered to the right of Netanyahu. While Sa’ar was once close to Bibi, they have long been at odds, and Sa’ar has placed all his chips and future career on replacing Netanyahu.
• Yamina – a right of center party that’s gone through a variety of incarnations, breaking away from a wider national religious group, merging back, and running on its own. It is headed by former government minister Naftali Bennett who was also once close to Netanyahu and is now challenging him to be PM, and the head of the right of center nationalist camp.
• Yisrael Beiteinu – a party headed by another former Netanyahu confidant and government minister Avigdor Liberman that combines right of center policies with liberal social and often anti-religious views. It typically attracts Russian immigrants.
• Joint List – three Arab parties merged to form this faction to succeed collectively and not have any one of them slip below the threshold. In recent elections they have won enough votes to be the third largest party in the Knesset.
• Shas – an ultra-Orthodox Jewish party made up by and representing mostly Sephardic Jews, whose families are from predominantly Arab countries of north Africa and the Middle East.
• United Torah Judaism – an ultra-Orthodox Jewish party made up by and representing mostly Ashkenazi Jews, whose families are from predominantly eastern European countries and specific rabbinic dynasties decimated by the Holocaust and rebuilt in Israel.
• Labor – from Israel’s founding until the late 70s, Labor and its predecessors were the predominant political force in Israel. Since then, Labor not only has not won more than a handful of elections, but its representation in Knesset has waned, nearing extinction. It is left-wing socially and politically. Labor has been led by ten different people in the past 20 years, a product or symptom of its waning influence.
• Blue and White – was formed before the last election and is headed by former Chief of Staff and retired general Benny Gantz. They formed a unity government with Likud last spring which quickly unraveled as the government fell apart. It is now polling just above the threshold.
• Religious Zionists – is a right-wing nationalist-religious faction that’s the merger of two parties. They are controversial in having a person on their list who is widely derided as racist and not qualified to serve, but seen as a potential key partner of a Likud-led government.
• Meretz – a far left party that espouses controversial positions considered pro-Arab and anti-Israel by some, that is polling just below the threshold. Meretz could be a key element to having enough seats to form a government, but hard to imagine right of center Sa’ar and Bennett sitting in a government with them.
• Ra’am – is an Arab Islamist party that, until this election, was part of the Joint List. It broke away over the Joint List sweeping rejecting any government plans, including the heralded Abraham Accords, and not representing the interest of Israel’s Arab citizens. It is polling just below the threshold but if it passes, could become a key player in supporting the establishment and maybe being part of the next government.
Officially, the previous government fell apart over the failure to pass a state budget. Yes, Israel has not only entered 2021 with no budget, but we still don’t have a budget for 2020. This is a legal issue that some believe Netanyahu played deliberately, not allowing his Likud Finance Minister to bring a budget for a vote, knowing that it would force the dissolution of the government and a new election. It’s a bit third world for a county to operate without a budget, especially during the pandemic. This has created real hardships and challenges for wide sectors of society to be able to plan, purchase, or even fulfill existing obligations. It may become a key issue that comes back to bite Likud, guilty of obsessive political maneuvering at the detriment of nine million Israelis, many of whom remain unemployed or suffering significant hardship as a result of the pandemic.
Netanyahu’s Legal Issues
Over the past two years, legal allegations and the indictment of Prime Minister Netanyahu have been a recurring issue. Unlike last year, legal proceedings have begun, and Netanyahu has appeared in court. Despite the bad optics, and weakening support, polls show him remaining “most qualified.” It’s unclear how much of that is intuitive, after all a man holding the same position for over a dozen years has qualifications that nobody else does. Or is it an indication of remaining strong support. There will be no more public court appearances before the election so how much more, if at all, this will be a factor is probably limited.
Unemployment and the Economy
A year ago, Israel’s economy was strong and unemployment in low single digits. Today, the economy is much weaker, and unemployment hovers around 20%; one in five Israeli adults out of work. Israel’s had a token bailout, and while the majority of Israeli adults have been vaccinated at least once, we seem all vaxxed up with no place to go. The economy is opening again including hotels, restaurants, cultural and sporting events, and more. But there are many fewer Israelis who can afford dinner out or going to a movie.
It’s unclear how much the hope of things opening up further will be incentive to reward the government under Likud with people’s votes, or how much Israelis struggling through three lockdowns and more, whether this will be a major deciding factor in a vote for change. One key element of this is that despite the success in vaccinating so many, a pillar of the economy is tourism which has been decimated. There remains no end in sight as to when tourists will be allowed back to fill the buses, hotels, shops, and tourist sites, and giving people who have been out of work for a year the opportunity to earn a living.
Fall of Likud
Polls are changing daily but to give a sense of how far the Likud has dropped, have a look at the current parties and the number of seats they hold as compared to what current projections are (in parenthesis):
Likud – 36 (27-29) reflecting more than a 20% drop
Yesh Atid – 17 (20)
Joint List – 15 (8)
Blue and White – 14 (4)
Shas – 9 (6-8)
United Torah Judaism – 7 (7-8)
Yisrael Beiteinu – 7 (7-9)
Yamina – 5 (11-12)
Labor – 3 (5-6)
Meretz – 3 (4)
New Hope – (9-12)
Ra’am – (4)
Religious Zionists – (4-5)
If there are no drastic changes, Netanyahu and Likud will have no path to form a coalition. Even with Yamina, and the other parties that would reflexively join a government under him (in italics), they do not reach the 61 seats needed. Likud once led with as many as 48 seats in 1981, and sunk to as few as 19 and 12 seats respectively under Netanyahu’s leadership. This significant drop could lead to Likud being out of power.
Mathematically, Yesh Atid, New Hope, Yamina, Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor, and Blue and White could surpass 61 seats, even more if Meretz is added. However, the contortions needed to bridge interests and ideologies of some of the most right-wing and the most left-wing parties would be a herculean challenge, not to mention the egos and agreement who serves as prime minister.
The Arab Vote
Not included in the mathematics to form a coalition are the Arab parties. Historically, they have not supported the formation of a government for their own nationalistic reasons, and the major national parties have not wanted or needed to seek their support. This red line has been widened in recent years with the Arab Joint List in many ways serving as a fifth column, actively supporting Israel’s adversaries in many conflicts. Most recently, they rejected the Abraham Accords’ heralding of peace and diplomatic relations with four Arab states.
A growing number of Israeli Arabs feel that the Joint List is not representing their interests, reflected in the drop from being the third largest party. This is underscored by Ra’am, the Arab Islamist party, running on its own. It’s not clear if they will pass the threshold, but if they do, Ra’am brings another dynamic to the table that will be unique: the possibility of supporting the formation of a coalition if not in fact being part of that in some way. Because Ra’am wants to be a player and not sit in (a hostile) opposition, it could easily throw its support behind either of the two camps’ attempts to form a government, exacting a high “price” in the form of funding for the Arab community, government positions, and more. For that reason, even Netanyahu has been actively courting the Arab vote. It’s not unusual for Arabs to vote for and be part of Israel’s major national parties. However, Arabs remember the Prime Minister’s previous election day cry that the Arabs are coming out in droves as a ploy to get more right-wing voters to come out, and to peel off as many votes for Likud from ideological competitors. This time, the Arab vote remains one of the biggest wild cards.
Another Arab vote that has a looming impact is the Palestinian Authority plan to hold its first “national” election in over 15 years. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for May, followed by another election in the summer for PA president. However, in a society with no democratic tradition, there are any number of reasons why the election might not happen. Whether it happens or not, to the extent that there are polls in the PA that might be accurate, these could cast a shadow on and impact the Israeli vote. Certainly, if the Israeli election is non-decisive and there’s another vote in the fall, the outcome of a possible PA election will have an impact. Most Israelis are beyond the belief that the PA is a reliable partner as indicated by the strengthening of the Israeli right and near disappearance of the Israeli left. Yet with the glimmer of a chance for peace, Israel would still make concessions. But as bad or inept as the PA is now, the further radicalization of the PA with the emboldening of Hamas or other relative extremists will impact the Israeli electorate.
The PA also has a “passive” influence in that its not uncommon to see a spike in Palestinian Arab terror and rockets prior to an Israeli election. Domestically, this tells Palestinian Arabs that they will continue to resist and fight Israel no matter who wins. But the ripple effect on Israeli voters has an impact that emboldens the right. A plus side of the pandemic is that there’s been a drop in terror attacks such as stabbings, car rammings, and rockets being fired. Nevertheless, with an election upon us, it won’t be unusual for terrorists to try to have their “voice” heard and presence made on March 23.
Challenge from the Right
It’s rare in a democracy to have an incumbent facing the strongest challenge to reelection from the same side of the political spectrum. However, the main challenge to Netanyahu and Likud this election is from the right. Gidon Sa’ar and New Hope won’t join or support a government led by Netanyahu. Naftali Bennet and Yamina are keeping options open, so people are calling him ”kingmaker.” But mathematically, if he can’t help Netanyahu form a government because they don’t have enough votes anyway, the likelihood of Sa’ar and Bennett joining forces to form a government increases.
In parallel, both Sa’ar and Bennett have said they will not sit in a government led by Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, and Lapid has said it’s more important to have Netanyahu out than him become Prime Minister. While these red lines could change, one lesson from the failure of the last government is that when Benny Gantz broke his promise not to sit in a government under Netanyahu, and got played doing so, he lost credibility. His party now holds 14 seats and may drop to four, or not even make it past the threshold. Nobody wants to make the same mistake.
Because he left Likud, its possible that Sa’ar can do something that nobody else can: peel off Likud Knesset members after the election to join and support a government under his leadership. Others in Likud are also unhappy with Netanyahu, but haven’t had the nerve to split from Likud as Sa’ar did. Rather than sitting in the opposition, they could join and strengthen a Sa’ar led government, minimizing the need to rely on the left-wing parties. This could propel the leader of the party with the third or fourth largest number of votes to become Prime Minister.
The pandemic has had many ripple effects in Israel that may impact the election. Unemployment, the economy, deaths, three lockdowns, a failed government that promised to deal with these issues, and more. Israel leading the world in vaccinations is a point of pride, but Israelis are asking rhetorically, “so what? Now we’re vaccinated but the country and economy is still a mess.” With the borders still closed to tourists, and Israelis unable to travel, and unclear about returning home to vote, the outcome of Israelis being stuck overseas and not able to come home to vote could create a problem, even ruling the election “unconstitutional.”
As much as Israelis are tired of the impact of the pandemic, Israelis are tired of elections. It’s like a costly overdose of democracy. While polls may be accurate for those planning to vote, what’s unclear is how many Israelis are fed up and planning to use the day to go to the beach, skipping the vote altogether. Or, perhaps, Israelis will swarm to voting stations to try to make a change. Either of these variables can have a significant impact in the eventual outcome and will be watched closely.
As many variables that go into the election itself also exist in the eventual outcome. The votes will be counted, and the Knesset’s 120 seats divided up in relative short order. However, the bottom line as to whether anyone will be able to form a government, who that will be, which parties will be included, and more, are all questions to look at in the weeks and even months following March 23. Hopefully, it will be conclusive enough that Israelis will be spared another vote later this year.
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NOTE: Jonathan Feldstein and the Genesis 123 Foundation will host a webinar about the election on March 18 at 2:00pm eastern/11:00am Western. You can subscribe here. Please be in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about these issues or to follow the outcome.