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:
Figure 1: Israeli parties that participated in the elections of March 2021
Table 1: The number of seats won by Israeli parties
|Name of the party||Leader||Number of seats|
|2||Yesh Atid (There is a Future)||Yair Lapid||17|
|4||Kahol Lavan (Blue and White)||Benny Gantz||8|
|5||Torah Judaism||Moshe Gafni||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|
|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.” 
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.  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. 
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. 
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 
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: 
Table 2: The number of seats won by Israeli parties in the March 2020 elections
|Party||Ideological orientation||Number of seats|
|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|
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
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
. Shalhat: “The Right takes control of parliament and reinstates Netanyahu,” Arab 48 website, March 24, 2021, https://bit.ly/2NRabKn
. “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
. “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
. 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
. 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/