Electoral Deja Vu
Mar 31, 2021 | Amotz Asa-El
On March 23, Israelis went to the polls for the fourth time in two years only to vindicate King Solomon’s insight that “there is nothing new under the sun” because “only that shall happen which has happened.”
The bottom line of what has happened is that, after yet another election, Binyamin Netanyahu will likely continue dominating Israeli politics as he has over the past dozen years, yet will also have to use all his considerable political skills to establish anything like a stable government.
As Israel’s 24th legislature prepares to assemble, it will again be split down the middle. Netanyahu’s potential governing coalition is very close to 50% of the Knesset, but short of a majority.
However, the anti-Netanyahu bloc remains in no position to form a government, since the election’s potential kingmaker, the Yamina (“Rightwards”) party, will not back a government whose majority depends on anti-Zionist Arab lawmakers. That constraint places the one clear bottom line on the early results – a coalition of disparate anti-Netanyahu parties looks very unlikely.
The key reason for this is the precipitous decline of two parties’ electoral fortunes – former defence minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, and former education minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope. Each of these parties at one point looked like getting more than 15% of the vote in opinion polls, providing a potential 30% base for an anti-Netanyahu coalition. Yet, on election day, the two ended up with just over 10% of the vote, combined.
The cause of both parties’ nosedive is the same: the pandemic.
In an inversion of the pandemic politics that tilted American swing voters against Donald Trump, Netanyahu’s pandemic record appears to have satisfied a critical mass of the electorate.
True, Netanyahu did lose votes compared to the election in March 2020, sliding from 36 seats in the outgoing Knesset to 30. The difference, nearly a fifth of his previous following, appears to have mostly migrated to Sa’ar.
Meanwhile, Bennett’s predicted following is only one seat higher than the six seats he won last year.
Both candidates attacked Netanyahu’s pandemic record, charging that it was chaotic, over-centralised, and expensive – fueling a NIS160 billion (A$64 billion) budget deficit, equal to 11.7% of the GDP, through extended unemployment benefits as well as compensation packages to businesses suffering under the lockdowns.
Initially, this criticism seemed effective, but then came the coronavirus vaccinations.
Success now fell into Netanyahu’s lap three times.
Medically, the vaccines proved effective quickly, resulting in plunging infection rates and the gradual, but steady, removal of lockdowns. Logistically, Israel managed to vaccinate 5.14 million people within 10 weeks, more than half the population, and the number keeps rising. And politically, Netanyahu is seen, even by his opponents, as the one who led the vaccination drive – personally calling the CEOs of vaccine manufacturers and personally negotiating agreements with them that landed the vaccines in Israel early and in massive quantities.
Whatever the political outcome of this election, this was the central issue from the viewpoint of many voters, and certainly the decisive factor behind Netanyahu’s personal achievement in recovering from dismal-looking polling last year.
In addition, Netanyahu arrived at this election with dramatic diplomatic breakthroughs in his pocket, having obtained normalisation agreements last year with four Arab and Muslim countries – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, with the help of Trump Administration mediation.
Though none of these countries borders Israel, their combined size and weight are such that Israelis feel the historic regional siege under which the nation has lived since its creation has been broken.
Beyond the specific value of these deals, Netanyahu’s supporters felt that none of his opponents enjoys the kind of international status he was able to deploy in making these unexpected breakthroughs happen.
Such concerns about national and international status especially affected Netanyahu’s main challenger on the left – leader of the opposition and former finance minister Yair Lapid, who heads the centrist Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party.
Lapid won some 15% of the vote, a respectable achievement by any yardstick, and more than twice the predicted following of his estranged ally Defence Minister Benny Gantz and his Blue and White faction.
Lapid and Gantz parted ways a year ago, when the latter decided to join Netanyahu’s Government, arguing that the pandemic demanded setting aside political divisions, even those driven by Netanyahu’s indictments on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust.
Last year the pair’s combined ticket garnered 33 seats. Now, they have retained between them 25 of those seats. The balance seems to have migrated both right and left – namely, to Bennett and Sa’ar and to Labor and Meretz, the pair of left-wing parties which surprised pundits by winning seven and six seats respectively.
The big loser on the left was the Joint List.
One component of this federation of primarily Arab-supported parties split away. Ra’am, or the United Arab List, ran on a separate ticket and gained four seats, giving it a potential “kingmaker” role. Having also suffered from low voter turnout among Israeli Arabs, the Joint List plunged from 15 to six seats.
The governing coalition Netanyahu hopes to cobble together would be based on his two ultra-Orthodox allies, Shas and United Torah Judaism, which maintained their representation of a combined 16 Knesset seats, plus former transport minister Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party’s six seats and Bennett’s seven seats.
Asked how Likud hopes to govern with less than 60 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, Settlements Minister Tzahi Hanegbi said he hoped Gantz would end up in the coalition. Some pundits also suggested that some in Sa’ar’s faction – all former Likud members – might defect and return to the Likud fold under Netanyahu.
Meanwhile, some factions might merge. One such potential pair is Lapid and Gantz. Another such duo are Bennett and Sa’ar, both ideological nationalists who seem to be in agreement on pretty much everything except on who should succeed Netanyahu as leader of the Israeli Right.
Sa’ar himself has become a persona non-grata in Likud, since his challenge to Netanyahu – unlike Bennett’s – has been sweeping. Sa’ar has derided Netanyahu for his insistence on retaining his post despite his indictments, and accusing him of nurturing an autocracy and a personality cult. Bennett has been critical, but has made his criticisms much more about policy and administration, rather than personality.
Also persona non-grata with Netanyahu and the Likud is former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel our Home”) has apparently retained its seven seats. Lieberman is marked for having refused to join a Netanyahu-led coalition two years ago, thus triggering the subsequent continuum of three inconclusive elections since then.
At the same time, Netanyahu knows full well that a narrow coalition, besides being vulnerable in parliamentary votes, will also be held hostage by several right-wing radicals. The most notable of these is Religious Zionism’s Itamar Ben-Gvir, a follower of the late racist extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane who demands drastic reforms to the Israeli judiciary, and his colleague Avi Maoz, who is virulently anti-LGBTQI.
Netanyahu also knows that he will almost certainly not be able to find a majority for legislation that would affect his personal legal situation, such as a law that would delay his corruption trial until he leaves office. Bennett will oppose such an idea – even though, like much of the Israeli right, he is critical of what is depicted as the liberal bias and activist interventionism of Israel’s High Court.
Israel will therefore have to wait – certainly for some weeks and possibly for months – to see whether Netanyahu can use his personal victory to create a stable coalition against the odds. It would be a feat he has accomplished in the past, but never from a starting point as unfavourable as this one appears likely to be.
The alternative would almost certainly be a fifth election within hardly two years, perhaps in October. This would be a prospect that would further puzzle the rest of the world – making many wonder how it is that a country that knew how to build the start-up nation and how to be the first in the world to vaccinate its way out of a global pandemic, doesn’t know how to build a stable government.