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Israeli Elections...

...Is the fourth time the charm?

Bavly, Ofer headshot image

In March 2021, Israelis voted for the fourth time in two years. A fragmented multi-party system, coupled with the surrealism of an indicted Prime Minister running, led to inconclusive election results three times - and now perhaps for a fourth time. This time, more than previously, the vote revolved on one issue: a referendum on the appropriateness of a Prime Minister standing for election amidst a trial for bribery, corruption and breach of trust.  

In previous elections, the Israeli electorate was divided roughly along the line of right-wing v. left-wing. Generally speaking, the Israeli right favored a conservative fiscal policy, conservative values and a commitment to keep the territories captured in the defensive 1967 Six-Day War. The Israeli left traditionally favored more government intervention in the markets in protection of weaker segments of society, liberal values, and a preference for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Haredi parties joined alternately right-wing and left-wing coalitions, pushing their own agenda and preferring the leverage afforded by a seat in the coalition over lessened leverage in the opposition. In the past two decades, Haredi parties have usually preferred the more conservative values of the right-wing. The Arab parties, representing 20% of the population (and always under-represented in the Knesset), have never joined a governing coalition, deeming it recognition of Israel's Zionist identity.  

Netanyahu's trial has led to a change in the traditional right-left division. Three parties considered right-wing went to the fourth elections vowing to replace Netanyahu (for different reasons, without citing his legal issues). On the other side, one of the Arab parties has abandoned its traditional position on the left and declared its willingness to support a Netanyahu coalition on condition that its own electorate be promised financial benefits and other considerations. The Haredi parties, though clearly preferring a right-wing coalition, have nevertheless hinted at the possibility of abandoning Netanyahu's Likud party if the needs of their voters can be better served by a different coalition.  

The March 2021 election results showed that, for various reasons, the Israeli right still enjoys majority support: it has roughly 72 Members of Knesset out of 120, while the left and Arab parties claim 48 members. If the elections were merely about the right v. left, there would already be a strong Netanyahu-led government in place by now. But the divide is about Netanyahu and his leadership while standing trial. On that divide, the Knesset split looks different, with 64 Members aligning with the "anti-Netanyahu" bloc and only 52 aligned with the "pro-Netanyahu" bloc - a majority of Knesset Members representing voters who would like to replace the Prime Minister. Four Knesset members from the Arab party Ra'am are still on the fence; but even if they were to join a Netanyahu coalition, he would still be short four seats from a Knesset majority. 

To square this circle, Netanyahu needs to convince one or more of the anti-Bibi parties to break its promise to the voters and switch sides, probably in exchange for considerable influence within his government. Barring that, and if Netanyahu fails to convince nine MKs to join him, the mandate President Reuven Rivlin gave him to form the next government will pass on May 5 to another party. If the anti-Netanyahu bloc can agree on a single leader to lead it, or a rotation among two or more leaders, we will have a new Prime Minister for the first time since 2009.  

Forming such an unwieldy coalition is only the first of many challenges: how to lead a government made up of seven or eight parties with very different political agendas, whose only common denominator is the desire to oust Netanyahu. But at least we will have avoided going to elections a fifth time.   On that particular issue - avoiding a 5th election - there is near unanimity across all parties. 

Ofer Bavly is the Director General of the JUF Israel Office.  

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