31 Mar 2021

Analyzing Israeli elections: Four polls in two years fail to fix political imbroglio

Dr. Fattouh Heikal, Dr. Ashraf Al Esawy , Khaled Abd Al-Hamid

Introduction

Israel held its first Covid-19 era parliamentary election on March 23, 2021. This was the first Israeli election under the new conditions signified by the signing of the historic Abraham Accords with Arab countries, initially with the United Arab Emirates and subsequently Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. This was also the fourth parliamentary election in two years after the three previous elections ended without giving a majority to any specific party, resulting in the formation of governments that quickly collapsed in the disharmony between the parties that made up the coalitions and their inability to solve problems.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had high hopes that these elections would secure a comfortable majority that would enable him to form a stable right-wing government under his leadership. He hoped to benefit from what he considered the outstanding achievements of his government, including the management of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis and the signing of the peace agreements with four Arab countries.  However, the results dashed those hopes, confirming the trends that prevailed during the last three elections regarding the division of the Israeli electorate.

This article examines the election results and their meaning and repercussions on the Israeli and regional scene through four main axes. The first axis presents a map of the parties and political forces participating in these elections and their political leanings. The second axis looks at the election results and their implications, while the third addresses the possible shape of a new government, its coalition base, stability, and cohesion. The fourth axis tries to identify the most critical policy outcomes and potential actions if a new government is formed.

Contesting parties and forces

Israel’s political forces include right-wing and left-wing, secular and religious, and Arab parties. Among the most prominent of the parties that ran in the 2021 elections are:

  1. The Likud Party is led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been prime minister for nearly 12 years, the longest period an Israeli premier has spent in the post. The party, which belongs to the Israeli right-wing, ran with a list of 45 candidates.
  2. Yesh Atid (There is a Future) Party is led by former Finance Minister Yair Lapid. This left-leaning party is currently one of the main opposition parties and is the most prominent opponent of Likud. It fielded 20 candidates.
  3. The Tikva Hadasha (New Hope) Party, led by Gideon Sa’ar, a former minister who resigned from Likud and formed this party, pledges to end the Netanyahu rule. The party belongs to the conservative right and opposes establishing an independent Palestinian state, but Sa’ar’s campaign focused on clean governance and stimulating the economy. The party fielded 20 candidates.
  4. The Shas Party of Sephardic Jews, led by Aryeh Deri, is one of the ultra-orthodox parties supporting Netanyahu. It belongs to the religious right and had 12 candidates in the fray.
  5. The Torah Judaism Party of Western Jews is an ultra-Orthodox party that belongs to the religious right and is considered pro-Netanyahu. It fielded 14 candidates.
  6. The HaTzionut HaDatit (Religious Zionist Party) led by the ultra-Orthodox Bezalel Smotrich, a right-wing religious-nationalist party that rejects the establishment of a Palestinian state and supports Netanyahu. It ran with 10 candidates.
  7. The Yamina Party, led by millionaire Naftali Bennett, a technology entrepreneur who previously held the position of Defense Minister under Netanyahu, is a right-wing nationalist force that opposes establishing a Palestinian state. Bennett’s relationship with Netanyahu became strained during the election campaign, especially over the government’s management of Covid-19 and the consequent health crisis. It fielded 15 candidates.
  8. Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) is an alliance formed in early 2019 by three centrist parties: Hosen L’Yisrael led by former Israeli Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Talm, led by former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Yesh Atid led by Former Finance Minister Yair Lapid. Gantz chaired the alliance. These parties continued their alliance in the September 2019 and March 2020 elections. However, Gantz’s joining a unity government in partnership with Netanyahu led to the disintegration of the alliance, and Gantz’s party, Hosen L’Yisrael, ran these elections alone while preserving the name Kahol Lavan. The centrist party fielded 10 candidates.
  9. Yisrael Beiteinu is a right-wing liberal party founded in 1999 under the leadership of Avigdor Lieberman, who split from the Likud party. It calls for Israel to be a Jewish state and advocates that the country should achieve this idea of “single nationalism” by deporting the Arabs inside the Green Line to the West Bank. The party prefers the two-state solution to exchange territories between the Palestinians and Israel and has refused to join a government led by Netanyahu since 2019. The party fielded 10 candidates.
  10. The Labor Party is the founding party of Israel. It also defines itself as a Zionist Social Democratic Party and ranks in the center-left camp, adopts a secular approach and is led by the feminist and environmental activist Merav Michaeli, who is unlikely to participate in a government with Netanyahu. Once the most powerful party in Israel, its representation in the Knesset has become modest over the past two decades. The party fielded 15 candidates.
  11. Meretz Party, a left-wing force led by Nitzan Horovitz, announced that its goal is to prevent Netanyahu from forming a new government. Meretz is one of the smaller parties that occupies just a few seats in parliament, perhaps no more than four seats. It fielded six candidates.
  12. The Joint List is a coalition of three Arab parties led by Ayman Odeh: The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, the National Democratic Alliance, and The Arab Movement for Change. It fielded 10 candidates.
  13. The United Arab List Ra’em Party, led by Mansour Abbas, ran the elections with four candidates.

Figure 1: Israeli parties that participated in the elections of March 2021

: Israeli parties that participated in the elections of March 2021

 

  1. Analysis of election results

Table 1: The number of seats won by Israeli parties

  Name of the party Leader Number of seats
1 Likud Benjamin Netanyahu 30
2 Yesh Atid (There is a Future) Yair Lapid 17
3 Shas Aryeh Deri 9
4 Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) Benny Gantz 8
5 Torah Judaism Moshe Gafni 7
6 Labor Merav Michaeli 7
7 Yamina Naftali Bennett 7
8 Yisrael Beiteinu Avigdor Lieberman 7
9 The Joint List Ayman Odeh 6
10 Tikva Hadasha (New Hope) Gideon Sa’ar 6
11 HaTzionut HaDatit (Religious Zionist) Bezalel Smotrich 6
12 Meretz Nitzan Horovitz 6
13 The United Arab List Mansour Abbas 4

 

A detailed analysis of the results offers several insights:

1)   The Israeli voter’s mood is inclined largely toward right-wing thinking, which includes various nationalist, secular, extremist, and religious currents. Right-aligned parties managed to secure about 72 seats, representing 60 percent of the total 120 seats in the Knesset, which means that there is a right-wing majority in the parliament. According to researcher and political analyst Antoine Shalhat, these elections were “like a derby match between the right-wing parties and revolved around the personality of the leader who would lead the right-wing government and not about the policy that Israel should pursue, which is a right-wing policy par excellence.” [1]

2)   The results proved that Israeli voters were not convinced by the achievements of the Netanyahu government, whether in terms of its management of the Covid-19 crisis or its success in concluding the Abraham Accords. This was despite Israel’s achievement of administering the largest number of Corona vaccine doses compared to other countries around the world, and its success in securing large quantities of vaccines — perhaps more than what it needs — through the personal relations of Netanyahu with BioNTech and Pfizer.  The country also secured large quantities of Moderna vaccine. The severe political division on the Israeli street between the various political currents and parties, and the corruption problems surrounding Netanyahu are among the key reasons behind this contradiction.

3)   Although the general mood of the Israeli voter is inclined significantly towards the right, the differences between leaders limit their ability to form a united right-wing front that allows it to form a stable government. The most prominent example is the conflict between Netanyahu and Gideon Sa’ar, leader of Tikva Hadasha (New Hope) Party, who split from Likud with a pledge to end Netanyahu’s rule and won six seats. The same applies to Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, who won seven seats.

4)   The strength of the center and left forces decreased significantly, as the parties representing these alignments won only 38 of the 120 seats in parliament, representing 31.6 percent, which is just a little over half the number of seats obtained by the right.

5)   Netanyahu’s camp, which includes his Likud, and Shas, Torah Judaism and HaTzionut HaDatit (Religious Zionist) parties, won 52 seats representing 43.3 percent of the total 120 seats in Parliament. These parties came together based on the partners’ common goals and political alignment. Shas pledged to Netanyahu in February 2021 that it would not join a government led by any party other than Likud, and Torah Judaism is firmly committed to remaining loyal to Netanyahu and rules out joining a government that he does not lead. [2] Netanyahu made great efforts to support the Religious Zionist Party and help it enter parliament. He also persuaded Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the Otzma Yehudit Party (a Jewish force) to join him, and the two parties decided that their goal is to enhance the chances of forming a government led by Netanyahu, confront the alliances of the left and prevent them from forming a government. [3]

Netanyahu’s best efforts to form a stable government without the support of other parties have not found success yet. He would need the support of nine more parliament members to form the government. This obligates him to seek support from other parties and respond to their conditions.

6) The opposition camp is still in a position to disrupt and curb Netanyahu’s ability to form a government. The opposition bloc includes parties of various hues from the right, left and center, and make up 57 seats in the Knesset. It consists of the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) with 17 seats, Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) with eight seats, Labor, and Israel Beiteinu with seven seats each, the Joint List, Tikva Hadasha (New Hope) and Meretz with six seats each. [4]

7) The Yamina Party led by Naftali Bennett won seven seats and the United Arab List led by Mansour Abbas won four seats. They hold an influential position in the current situation as their support for any team would help form a new government.

Figure 2: The seats won by political blocs supporting and opposing Netanyahu [5]

The seats won by political blocs supporting and opposing Netanyahu

 

Party gains and losses

Compared with the previous elections held in March 2020, the results of the recent elections reveal that some parties achieved electoral gains and won more seats in parliament while some lost a number of seats that they had held before, and others maintained their strength.

The following table shows the results of the previous elections, which were held on March 2, 2020: [6]

Table 2: The number of seats won by Israeli parties in the March 2020 elections

Party Ideological orientation Number of seats
Likud Right 36
Blue and White Center 33
The Joint List A mixture of communism, nationalism and the left 15
Shas Hardline religious, pro-right 9
Torah Judaism Hardline right 7
Labor-Gesher and Meretz Left 7
Yisrael Beiteinu Secular right 7
Yamina Right 6

 

Comparing the results of the elections of March 2020 and a year later, the key differences in the outcome are:

1) The Likud lost six parliamentary seats.  It won 30 seats in the elections of March 2021, compared to 36 seats in 2020.

2) Kuhol Lavan (Blue and White) is considered the biggest loser. The coalition won 33 seats in the elections of March 2020, but mustered only eight seats this year. The reason for this is the collapse of the alliance and the exit of its constituent parties. Yesh Atid left the coalition and ran alone in the elections and won 17 seats, while another party (Talm) did not win a single seat.

3) The Arab parties lost five seats in the last elections. They won 10 seats compared to 15 in the elections of March 2020. This decline was caused by the split in the three-party Joint List as well as the drop in the votes cast by the Arab community, from 65 percent in March 2020 to 53 percent in 2021.

Figure 3: A comparative study of the results of March 2020 and March 2021

A comparative study of the results of March 2020 and March 2021

 

4) In the elections of 2021, some parties maintained the same number of seats that they obtained in 2020, such as Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yisrael Beiteinu, which indicates that the level of support for these parties has remained stable.

5) Despite the decline in the performance of the left in general in 2021, the two main left-wing parties, Labor and Meretz, made remarkable progress.  In 2020, Labor and Gesher together won seven seats, while Labor alone won seven in the elections of 2021, and Meretz won six seats. The left combination thus has a total of 13 seats in 2021 against the seven they won in 2020. Gesher did not manage a single seat this time.

  1. Potential to form a government

Our analysis of the election results clearly show that the chances of Netanyahu forming a new Israeli government are very limited. Here, we look at two alternative scenarios of government formation.

In the first scenario, we explore the possibility of Netanyahu managing to secure the number of seats (61) to form the government. This can happen if he can pull off one of the following possibilities:

  • Netanyahu succeeds in persuading the Yamina Party led by Naftali Bennett and the United Arab List led by Mansour Abbas to join the bloc loyal to him. The two parties have shown initial willingness to join the bloc, but would do so only after obtaining significant concessions. Both parties consider that their strength in parliament can be crucial in determining who the new prime minister is, which means that they can demand privileges that Netanyahu may find difficult to concede. This is especially so with the opposition bloc parties holding negotiations with officials of both parties.
  • The Yamina Party seems closer to joining Netanyahu’s bloc, primarily because it does not want to go to the fifth elections within two years. But the problem may be worse for the United Arab List for two reasons. Firstly, the party emerged from the mantle of the Muslim Brotherhood since 1996 and the extreme right-wing parties in Netanyahu’s bloc have strong reservations about welcoming Arab parties into a right-wing government. It would be a surrealist alliance that includes an Arab party and an anti-Arab party. The second reason is that the List itself may fear being branded as a force supporting the Israeli right leading to loss of its popularity among the Arabs. Nevertheless, Mansour Abbas has expressed his desire to cooperate with Netanyahu, and he generally will not object to cooperating with any camp that forms the Israeli government, provided that the demands of the List are considered favorably. These include the demand to get more support and services for the unrecognized Arab cities and villages inside Israel.
  • Netanyahu’s success in penetrating the right-wing parties that adopt positions opposing him and convincing some of them to join his bloc. Israeli media has reported on Netanyahu’s attempts to attract former allies in other parties, such as the head of the Blue and White Party, Benny Gantz, and the head of the New Hope Party, Gideon Sa’ar, by offering them an arrangement of rotating prime ministership. However, this attempt is unlikely to be successful considering the strong positions of the two parties and their pledge to overthrow him. In fact, Netanyahu played a role in the collapse of the Blue and White Party led by Gantz in 2020.
  • Success in attracting elected parliament members of other opposition parties into the pro-Netanyahu bloc. Netanyahu needs only two members if Yamina’s support is secured, which is a task that may not seem difficult.

In the second scenario, we consider the potential of the opposition bloc in securing the required number of seats to form the government. Israeli media sources indicated that opposition leader Yair Lapid sought to collect sufficient number of recommendations that would allow him to assume the presidency of the organizing committee for the work of the Knesset, with the aim of removing its current president and selecting a new president, and then issuing a law preventing Netanyahu from running for prime minister. This was also supported by Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party. The parties affiliated with this bloc have also been negotiating with Yamina Party and the Arab Joint List Party.

The problem with this scenario is the inconsistency of the parties affiliated with the bloc.  They seem to agree on one goal, which is to remove Netanyahu, but there is no other common agenda. If they do succeed in forming a government, the absence of a common agenda would make it fragile and unstable. Under the third scenario, Israel will fail to form a government and go into a fifth election.

The political scene produced by the elections of March 2021 is so complex that it is difficult to envision that any of the scenarios will become a reality. The field is open to the three scenarios, although the first scenario is theoretically the closest according to current indicators.

  1. Potential policies and actions

From the above discussions, it is quite clear that the right-wing bloc led by Netanyahu is slightly ahead of the opposition parties but it will need to make more concessions and alliances with other parties in order to reach a position to form a government. Regardless of who forms the new government — whether it is Netanyahu or opposition leader Yair Lapid — the Israeli foreign policy on the main issues of the region is unlikely to undergo major changes. In Israel there is almost a consensus among various political forces on the right, center and left on how to deal with foreign issues and also on managing the challenges and risks facing the country. A review of four key foreign policy issues will illustrate this point.

1) The normalization process with Arab countries: It is certain that the new Israeli government will continue the process of signing peace agreements with more Arab countries.  For decades, Israel has consistently sought to persuade Arab countries to join the path of peace and normalization that Egypt started in 1970s. This was also clear from Netanyahu’s statements published by Yediot newspaper days before the last elections in which he said the country was on its way to reaching peace with four other countries in the region.

Perhaps what strengthens the next Israeli government’s orientation towards normalization with more Arab countries are two factors: the first is a consensus among these countries regarding common risks and threats, foremost among which is the Iranian threat and the forces of extremism and terrorism. The second is the support of US President Joe Biden’s administration for this approach.

2) The course of negotiations with Palestinians: The Israeli government is expected to respond to the calls for resuming negotiations with Palestinians in the coming days to give the impression that it desires peace and supports any move to reach an agreement. However, if the dialogue resumes, the process of managing the negotiations may be complicated, especially if we take into account the fact that the new Israeli government may have extremist right-wing members who adopt hardline stances toward the Palestinians, and consider them as a security and demographic threat. These right-wing members support a policy of annexing more Palestinian lands and expanding settlements to reinforce their vision of entrenching Israel’s Jewish identity.

These hardline positions are expected to collide with the stances of the international community which seeks to reach a comprehensive and lasting peace between the two sides, based on agreed international instruments and references. Nothing reflects that better than the statement issued by the International Quartet (The United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations), which called on Israel and the Palestinians to avoid any unilateral action that would hinder the two-state solution — an obvious reference to the continuation of Israeli settlements.

If the opposition forces controlled by the left camp manage to form a new government, it may give a greater impetus to revive the negotiations with the Palestinians. Many left forces and parties support the idea of ​​a two-state solution and this is consistent with the stand of the International Quartet.

3) The Iranian issue: There is a clear consensus in Israel that Iran poses an existential threat that must be addressed decisively and forcefully. Therefore, the next Israeli government will continue to firm up policies to confront this danger and prevent Iran’s expansion in a way that threatens the interests and security of Israel. The most important pillars of this approach will be:

  • Continue the policy of military deterrence by targeting the armed militias affiliated with Iran in Syria and preventing them from threatening Israeli security. Besides, keep alive the constant threat to resort to military force to eliminate Iranian nuclear facilities.
  • Sustain the political pressure on the US administration to prevent a return to the Iran nuclear deal from which the administration of former President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018 on the grounds that it would accelerate Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons. At the same time, it is expected that the new Israeli government will resort to the Jewish lobby in the United States to put real pressure on the Biden administration and convince it of the futility of entering into a dialogue with Iran, based on its previous practices and its permanent disavowal of its commitments as it did with the nuclear agreement which was reached In 2015. Iran did not abide by all provisions of the accord, but rather continued to secretly develop its ballistic missile program, threatening the security and stability of the region.
  • Build regional consensus to counter the Iranian threat by promoting the idea that as long as Iran poses a threat to regional security and stability, it is necessary that any negotiations on the nuclear agreement include the main countries of the region. The region’s concerns must be addressed in any upcoming amendments to the agreement so that they are not limited to Iran’s nuclear project, but also includes its ballistic missile program and its continuous support for several armed and sectarian militias that are behind the chaos and instability that many countries in the region are witnessing.

4) Relations with the US and other powers

If Netanyahu manages to form a new government, Israel’s relations with the US may witness some cooling off due to their different views on the course of the Palestinian peace process. The Biden administration — as is evident from the statements of many of its officials — supports the two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and has also announced that it will restore the support provided to the Palestinians. This is in conflict with Netanyahu’s vision, which views the Biden administration’s positions as a retreat from those taken by former President Donald Trump, whose administration was ready to declare that the Jewish settlements built on occupied lands are part of Israel.

This foreshadows the possibility of a clash between the administration of President Biden and the new Israeli government. But if the opposition forces controlled by the left camp manage to form the new government, this may give a boost to Israeli-American relations, especially since the left’s vision on key issues converges with that of the Biden administration — particularly on the question of two-state solution and the issue of resuming negotiations with the Palestinians. Israel will continue to work to strengthen its partnerships with Russia and China, and some Asian regional powers such as India, to pursue its strategic, economic and security interests.

Conclusion

The recent Israeli elections were no different from their predecessors, not only because there was no clear winner who could form the new government, but also because they deepened the internal political stalemate and contributed to the growing divisions between various political forces. This may have been one of the main features of the Israeli political scene for years, but these elections contradicted most of the expectations that favored Netanyahu’s victory with a comfortable majority, based on his success in managing the Covid-19 crisis and normalizing relations with several Arab countries.

These elections also showed the complexity of the Israeli electoral system which in two years had not clearly resolved the challenge of securing a stable government. Under the current circumstances, it is not unlikely that a fifth election will be held if no political alliance is able to form a consensus government in the coming period.

The election outcome will have limited or no impact on foreign policy as there is almost unanimity in Israel on foreign policy priorities, regardless of who forms the government. Whether the new government is rightist, centrist or leftist, the country holds a common view of the nature of the external risks and challenges, and how to deal with them in a way that guarantees Israel’s security and interests.

References:

[1].    Shalhat: “The Right takes control of parliament and reinstates Netanyahu,” Arab 48 website, March 24, 2021, https://bit.ly/2NRabKn

[2].    “Here we are back again: The Times of Israel Guide to 37 Parties which are still seeking to win your vote” Times of Israel, March 23, 2021, https://bit.ly/399nT2H

[3].    “After the announcement of Netanyahu’s agreement with the “religious Zionism” list … a big fuss in Israel,” Sawt Beirut International website, February 10, 2021, https://bit.ly/39aPmB7

[4].    Avram Cohen, the start of the vote counting in the double envelopes, Israel Broadcasting Corporation website “Makan,” March 25, 2021, https://www.makan.org.il/item/?itemId=102768

[5].    Joshua Davidovich and Michael Bachner, “Final election results confirm deadlock, offering no clear path to coalition,” Times of Israel, 25 March 2021. https://www.timesofisrael.com/liveblog-march-25-2021/

[6].    “Final results show Likud with 36 seats,” The Times of Israel, March 5, 2020, https://bit.ly/3cia0AU

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