The Israeli public are set to go to the ballot box on the 23rd March 2021 for the fourth time in two years, after a fragile coalition between incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party, and rival Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) alliance, collapsed following a major dispute over the state’s budget. The election comes amidst the backdrop of Israel’s battle with the COVID-19 pandemic, a continuing scuffle over Netanyahu’s corruption trial, and an increasingly polarised Israeli electorate. The country is facing internal divisions that have not only been amplified during the pandemic but pertain to the core debates that surround the effort to define Israel’s identity between the lines of a Jewish and democratic state. Latest polls are picturing a closely contested race between what may likely comprise a Likud-led coalition of right-wing parties, against Netanyahu’s opponents, which consist of a diverse set of political parties and individuals.
Latest polling data from Israel Hayom indicates that Netanyahu’s Likud is likely to emerge as the largest party. Still, both he and his opponents have no overall majority and no immediate coalition partners to reach the required 61 seats in the Knesset. The latest polls appear to be in agreement that the Likud will emerge as the largest party, followed by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, a liberal, secular, left-leaning party and Gideon Saar’s newly founded party Tikva Hadasha (‘New Hope’). In this election, Netanyahu faces opposition from the secular-left side of the Israeli political spectrum and the right, the political area from where he traditionally consolidated most of his support.
Lapid’s initial refusal to enter the coalition with Gantz and Netanyahu may have proven politically beneficial for him leading into this year’s election
Yair Lapid was the opposition leader in the last government before the Knesset’s dissolution and is now the current frontrunner for the secular left of Israel’s political establishment. Lapid’s initial refusal to enter the coalition with Gantz and Netanyahu may have proven politically beneficial for him leading into this year’s election. Polls indicate the likelihood of a significant loss of seats for Blue and White, while Yesh Atid remains steadily projected to finish as the second-largest party in the Knesset. As expected, Lapid is running on an anti-Netanyahu ticket, but more broadly seeks to pursue a different political agenda, one that radically diverges from Netanyahu and seeks to eliminate the religious establishment’s influence over the state. Lapid has expressed a desire to limit the Orthodox rabbinate’s power in Israel on issues such as marriage and divorce, bring in compulsory military service for the ultra-Orthodox, and maintain the Supreme Court decision recognizing the conversions of non-Orthodox Jews. Lapid also differs from other political candidates in this election in being a supporter of the two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The likelihood of a Lapid-led government remains slim, as significant party leaders, including Gideon Saar and Naftali Bennett, have expressed their refusal to serve under a government led by Lapid. However, in the instance that Lapid establishes a functioning coalition with himself leading as Prime Minister, his government would have sweeping domestic implications for Israel. As previously seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, the restrictions imposed by the Israeli government forbidding gatherings, congregational prayer and closing down Yeshivas for the ultra-Orthodox resulted in the severe deterioration of the relationship between ultra-Orthodox communities and the Israeli state, resulting in mass civil disobedience despite government-mandated restrictions. Without due caution, while committed to moving Israel in a more secular direction, Lapid’s government could severely exacerbate an already precarious social situation.
Gideon Saar previously served under Netanyahu as education minister from 2009 to 2013 and then interior minister until 2014, yet was seen as his long-term rival within Likud
Gideon Saar previously served under Netanyahu as education minister from 2009 to 2013 and then interior minister until 2014, yet was seen as his long-term rival within Likud. After a failed attempt to challenge the Likud leadership in 2019, he eventually broke from the party and formed the ‘New Hope’. Saar was able to attract prominent MKs from the right such as former Likud MK Benny Begin and senior diplomat Danny Dayan to join his new party and has consistently vowed to not enter a government led by Netanyahu. The creation of New Hope and Saar’s leadership has created a party that has a solidified and established political basis, comprising political heavyweights from the Israeli right and providing the party with electoral momentum, demonstrated by the recent polling performance of New Hope. Additionally, New Hope not only mirrors the Likud on an ideological level, thereby having a wide electoral appeal, but appeals to the anti-Netanyahu sentiment of Israeli voters on the right, many of whom abhor the prospect of voting for left-leaning parties but are seeking a change in Israel’s leadership.
Mr Netanyahu, currently Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust
Furthermore, the trial of Netanyahu on corruption charges is an issue which is likely to take a prominent position at this election. Mr Netanyahu, currently Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust – allegations claim that he accepted improper gifts such as cigars and champagne as well as trading favors with powerful media individuals. Should Netanyahu be able to hold onto his position as PM following the result of the election, he may utilise the opportunity to seek parliamentary immunity or to secure a deal with coalition partners which prevent him from facing prosecution. This is likely to be opposed by many of Mr. Netanyahu’s political opponents, with some proposing to enact laws that establish term limits on Prime Ministers, thus yielding the possibility of establishing a governing coalition led by the Likud more and more difficult.
In an interview on the campaign trail, Mansour Abbas, leader of Ra’am (an Arab party in Israel stemming from the Islamic Movement in Israel) stated that “we can work with anyone”.
As a result of this, Netanyahu appears to seek to establish political alliances with as many political stakeholders as possible. On the one hand, he has been far more active in seeking to court the Arab vote, promising greater resources for Arab-Israeli communities, to tackle the issue of endemic crime in Arab-majority neighbourhoods, and even vowed to appoint an Arab Muslim as a minister should he succeed in forming a coalition. This is despite Netanyahu’s previous attempt to utilize anti-Arab sentiments to galvanize his voter base in previous elections – in 2015, he warned his supporters of Arabs coming out “to vote in droves” as a means to encourage his supporters to go to the polls. Despite Netanyahu’s previous inflammatory rhetoric, Arab-Israeli attitudes towards the Israeli political establishment also indicate signs of evolution, with sentiments of internal engagement within the Israeli political system as opposed to external opposition to advance the interests and prosperity of Arab Israelis. In an interview on the campaign trail, Mansour Abbas, leader of Ra’am (an Arab party in Israel stemming from the Islamic Movement in Israel) stated that “we can work with anyone”. Whilst previously seen as a political sin to collaborate with Arabs or Arab parties by some in the Israeli political establishment, in light of the potential political deadlock that has paralysed the formation of a stable government, the prospect of a coalition involving Arab parties may well come to be a reality following this election.
However, on the other hand, Netanyahu has also been appealing to far-right religious extremists and expressed his openness to the prospect of Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party, being part of his governing coalition. Otzma Yehudit are a party which have been described as explicitly anti-Arab, calling for total Israeli sovereignty over the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and complete annexation of the West Bank, with Ben Gvir himself calling for Arab citizens who are not loyal to the State of Israel to be expelled. The inclusion of such parties and individuals in a potential Likud-led coalition has further, wider-reaching consequences which pertain to the establishment of the State of Israel on the premise of equal rights of all citizens. It could further jeopardize relations between the state and Arab-Israelis, and also damage Israel’s relationship with those in the Jewish diaspora who believe Israel must remain grounded along democratic and pluralistic lines. Netanyahu has already been accused of damaging diaspora relations by failing to maintain and solidify bipartisan support for Israel within the United States, particularly amongst those in the Democratic Party. His decision to bar members of the United States Congress from visiting Israel even warranted criticism from AIPAC, one of the most prominent pro-Israel groups based in the US.
As the apathy of Israeli leaders and politicians towards the Israeli-Palestinian peace process continues in light of the Abraham Accords’ success, it remains questionable that a long-term solution to the conflict will be devised soon
In this election, it is clear that the electorate’s appetite is domestically orientated – the economic fallout from the pandemic, lingering social issues of religion and state and the question of Netanyahu’s longstanding premiership are the major issues on the minds of the Israeli electorate. Most of the candidates seem to follow similar, if not slightly diverging, political positions on foreign policy and the Palestinians’ question, and no one is making any large promises of a peace agreement. As was seen in the past with the Olmert government, peace negotiations and concessions to the Palestinians can prove to be politically costly to any incumbent administration – none of the political frontrunners are seemingly willing to bear this risk. As the apathy of Israeli leaders and politicians towards the Israeli-Palestinian peace process continues in light of the Abraham Accords’ success, it remains questionable that a long-term solution to the conflict will be devised soon.
As is ever the case with the politics of the State of Israel, there remains no immediate certainty or clarity as to who may emerge as the next Prime Minister. Aside from one exception, every Israeli government since the state’s inception in 1948 has comprised of a coalition of two or more political parties. It is abundantly clear that Netanyahu faces an uncertain political future stemming from a concentrated two-sided opposition. On the left, Lapid and his vision to move Israel away from the religious establishment’s clutches. On the right, Saar and former Likud MKs who see Netanyahu utilizing the Likud party to suit his interests. As a result, Netanyahu will seek to maneuver in all directions to secure his own position of continuing to rule as Prime Minister of Israel, consolidating political allies, and seeking to avoid a lengthy corruption trial that could take years to conclude. To what end he will succeed shall be determined in the coming weeks and months, following what could prove to be a pivotal moment in Israeli politics.
The Editor: Ali Drabu
Ali Drabu is a postgraduate student studying an MA at King’s College London in Intelligence and International Security, and completed his Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the University of St Andrews. His academic interests focus on foreign policy and regional security issues in the Middle East. He has had previous experience in exploring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and engaging in voluntary work in the West Bank.