Israel’s 2021 Elections: Background, Scenarios, and Expectations

On March 23rd, Israel holds its fourth round of parliamentary elections in less than two years, amid what in Israel has become known as “the political crisis” that began in 2019. Following a round on April 9 of that year to elect the country’s 21st Knesset, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) Party, Avigdor Lieberman, refused to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in forming a new right-wing government because of the former’s insistence on enlisting ultra-Orthodox Jews in the army and secularizing the state. While these were Lieberman’s ostensible reasons, many observers understood his reluctance to help form a government led by Netanyahu as an attempt to prevent the latter’s return as prime minister.

In that election, the Blue and White Party was formed by former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. It was dubbed the “Generals’ List” because it included former Generals and Chiefs of Staff Moshe Ya’alon (also former defense minister) and Gabi Ashkenazi. Blue and White also included Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) Party. The Blue and White list gained 35 seats in April 2019, an equal number to Netanyahu’s Likud, but neither pole succeeded in forming a government—which necessitated another round on September 17, 2019 that—again—did not produce a government. A third round on March 3, 2020 elected another divided Knesset, the 23rd in Israel’s history, with Netanyahu and Gantz leading the largest blocs.

Israeli Opinion Polls 2021


Parties that fall below the electoral threshold of 3.25% are denoted by the percentage of votes that they received, rather than the number of seats they would have gotten. 61 seats are required for a majority in the Knesset.
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_polling_for_the_2021_Israeli_legislative_election

Neither Netanyahu nor Gantz alone could form a government, but the spread of COVID-19 helped Netanyahu to persuade Gantz to enter an emergency coalition cabinet. The agreement between them stipulated alternating a three-year premiership after which another election would be held––with Netanyahu serving the first 18 months. Believing that Netanyahu was not going to abide by the rotation agreement, many in Gantz’s list bolted from his Blue and White coalition, resulting in its practical disappearance from the political scene. The Netanyahu-Gantz agreement resulted in an accord on legislation approving the 2020-2021 budget immediately after the government received  a vote of confidence in the Knesset.

Daily disagreements between Netanyahu and his partner quickly surfaced. On September 23, 2020, following serious differences on the 2021-2022 budget and Likud’s continuing procrastination, the coalition government collapsed when the Knesset automatically dissolved itself. A fourth round of elections for the country’s 24th Knesset was set for March 23, 2021. As of today, there are scores of electoral lists, but only 11 have a chance of crossing the threshold of 3.25 percent of the popular vote, according to the latest opinion polls.

Direct Causes of the Current Crisis

Deep direct and indirect structural causes have precipitated the current crisis, most importantly Lieberman’s break with Netanyahu which has deprived the prime minister from the 61-vote simple majority in the Knesset. Lieberman is objectively the logical ally in a right-wing government with Netanyahu; but his insistence on a secular state and his demand that ultra-Orthodox Jews serve in the army threatens the premier’s partnership with the religious parties if he were to grant Lieberman his wishes.

Deep direct and indirect structural causes have precipitated the current crisis, most importantly Lieberman’s break with Netanyahu which has deprived the prime minister from the 61-vote simple majority in the Knesset.

Another direct reason for Netanyahu’s difficulties is his personal status, on trial in three cases of corruption: bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. He might end up in prison if convicted. Indeed, Netanyahu’s opponents claim that he should not be prime minister because he would be morally tainted and thus unable to serve as a role model. Further, he could not separate his trial from his official role and decisions, which makes him untrustworthy. Even from a practical standpoint, Netanyahu could not discharge his duties while he is supposed to attend his trial––which begins in April––three days a week, and this would keep him away from his office. To be sure, the large demonstrations that began almost a year ago and continue on a weekly basis around the country and in front of his residence in Jerusalem are proof that a vast segment of Israeli society rejects Netanyahu’s remaining as prime minister.

In contrast, Netanyahu’s supporters consider the trial to be an attempt on the part of the deep state to circumvent democracy and force him to resign. They also frame the affair as a struggle between the “first” Israel––leftist Ashkenazis––that still controls state institutions such as the Supreme Court, the state prosecutor’s office, and the police, and the “second” Israel––rightist easterners––that includes the downtrodden groups. In this context, Netanyahu and his supporters are waging a campaign against the judiciary and police whereby the prime minister has adopted a populist discourse that puts him at the vanguard of the people against the establishment, one that accuses the opposition of appropriating the will of the masses, whom he purportedly represents.

To his opponents, Netanyahu’s populist strategy has seriously shaken the principles of the Israeli system of checks and balances and good governance––the statism that was established by none other than David Ben Gurion, the country’s first prime minister––to ensure the neutrality of state institutions and distance them from partisan and personal interests. Opponents believe that Netanyahu has weakened this statism by systematically attacking the objectivity of these institutions and casting doubt about their goals. By doing so, they reason, Netanyahu has inserted the state’s institutions into political disputes and threatened democratic values, especially after he gave legal status to the extreme right, terrorist, and Kahanist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) Party––which wants to expel Arab citizens from Israel––by accepting it as a partner in his government’s coalition, following the election.

Structural Variables

The profound electioneering crisis in Israel appears to be intertwined with Netanyahu’s personal and legal troubles. But a closer look at the Israeli scene and the emerging discourse in the country indicates that the current crisis is a reflection of a number of structural factors and variables that emerged over the last few decades. These can be summarized as follows.

Demographic and social changes. These relate to the nature of Israeli society as one of immigrants and reflect the weakness and end of the hegemony of the first generation of secular Ashkenazis (western Jews) who established and controlled the Labor Party. Instead, there is an ascendance of groups that previously were on the sidelines and include Sephardic Jews (from Arab and Muslim countries), Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), the populations of industrial zones, settlers, and Palestinian citizens. In fact, there is no dominant group in Israel today as there was in the country’s early years. This happened gradually but steadily with the different waves of immigration from Arab and Muslim states and, later, from the former Soviet Union. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have also increased in number because of their high fertility rate, as did the settlers’ groups since the 1967 war. Concomitantly, the previous majority groups began to splinter––first the Ashkenazis and then the secularists––and divergent ideological and cultural perspectives emerged. The change was reflected in Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s address to the 2015 Herzliya Conference when he spoke of Israel being a state of four tribes, each with its own perspective regarding the political and social system, and each with its own schools and curricula.

There is an ascendance of groups that previously were on the sidelines and include Sephardic Jews (from Arab and Muslim countries), Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), the populations of industrial zones, settlers, and Palestinian citizens.

Fundamental change among ultra-Orthodox Jews. Since the 1990s, ultra-Orthodox Jews have discarded their utilitarian ideology of throwing support to whichever party secured their interests, including the Labor Party, in favor of full-fledged support to the Israeli right in the person of Benjamin Netanyahu. This occurred gradually and resulted from the secular-religious dispute about the state when Yesh Atid proposed forcing the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the army. It was also the result of the right-wing government’s policy of building settlements exclusively for the ultra-Orthodox, who constitute the largest bloc (at least 30 percent) of settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories. The increase in the religious community in Israel has added to the strength of the Israeli right which, in turn, has augmented conditions for a general fissure in the social cohesion of the country.

Stronger Palestinian electoral power. Because of their solidarity with Palestinian Arab parties, Palestinians in Israel today cannot be ignored as an electoral bloc. The March 2020 elections netted 15 seats for the Palestinian Joint List. And despite the news of disunity in the list, internal schisms, and attempts by some Zionist parties to attract Arab votes, there is a strong feeling that most of the votes will go overwhelmingly to the Arab parties.

Proportional representation. All parties participating in elections must achieve a 3.25 percent electoral threshold to gain seats in the Knesset. This translates into inordinate power for minor parties when an electoral coalition of at least 61 out of 120 seats can form a government. In other words, large parties become hostage to smaller ones no matter how strange or extreme the latter’s views and policy positions.

The General Context of the Upcoming Election

Israel’s election comes at a time of deep contradictions in its external and domestic environments. Today, it is a major external actor due to its military superiority in a divided region riven with conflict. Its occupation and colonization of Palestinian land is unchallenged, especially after four years of the Trump Administration whose policies coincided with those of Netanyahu’s right-wing entrenchment. This contrasts with a domestic environment of deep polarization and a two-year-old political crisis. In addition, the coronavirus pandemic and the political crisis constitute a domestic strategic threat that may weaken confidence in state institutions, which in turn (and for the first time) would pose dangers and threats to national and collective security.

Today, Israel is a major external actor due to its military superiority in a divided region riven with conflict. This contrasts with a domestic environment of deep polarization and a two-year-old political crisis.

The election also takes place after the end of Trump’s presidency and the beginning of a Biden administration that appears to be cool toward Netanyahu. Trump’s loss was a personal and political loss for Netanyahu since the former American president offered direct and unqualified support for the embattled prime minister by recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, acknowledging Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the American embassy there, and pressuring Arab states to normalize relations with Israel. All these steps helped Netanyahu to flip the regional peace settlement from land for peace, to peace for normalization, and to ignore the question of Palestine.

To compensate for his loss of Trump’s support, Netanyahu today is trying to benefit from an alternative source of strength: that of success in securing the Pfizer vaccine that helped Israel deal with COVID-19 before other states around the world. Israel’s successful vaccination drive since December 2020 made it the first among many, although that drive has so far not reached Palestinians under occupation. In this regard, Netanyahu’s “obsessive” contacts with Pfizer’s CEO, Albert Bourla, are being seen as his way of compensating for the loss of Trump’s backing in the present election.

A Very Divided and Confused Electoral Map

Adding to the complexity of domestic and external conditions is an inescapable change in the internal party scene that will impact the election. Gantz’s Blue and White Party has fractured and the former general would perhaps be happy to gain a few seats this time around; the Joint List has also lost Mansour Abbas’s United Arab List, a coalition of Islamic conservatives; and Gideon Sa’ar has broken away from Likud and established the New Hope Party. Many other parties are also in danger of not making the electoral threshold, which will influence the formation of any coalition to form a future government. These include the leftist Meretz Party, Blue and White, the United Arab List, and the extremist religious coalition that unites Otzma Yehudit, led by the Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir, and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism slate. The following are significant factors that are playing out within and between political parties.

The breakup of Blue and White, Sa’ar’s secession, and Bennett’s ambition. Gantz’s coalition agreement with Netanyahu in March 2020 led to the dismemberment of his Blue and White Party, which until then had represented the largest challenge to Netanyahu’s Likud. Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi were the first to go, followed by Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which will run alone in the coming election. Gantz will also run without a coalition this time. Polling indicates that Lapid’s party will emerge as the strongest in the opposition with about 20 seats while Gantz is projected to win about four, if he makes the electoral threshold.

Sa’ar is expected to gain the support of those who have grown tired of Netanyahu and doubt his ability to govern while under a cloud of corruption.

As for Sa’ar, he will run to the right of the rightist Netanyahu—he represents the solid right-wing ideological trend in Likud. Sa’ar is expected to gain the support of those who have grown tired of Netanyahu and doubt his ability to govern while under a cloud of corruption. A third challenger to Netanyahu is Naftali Bennett, leader of the Yamina Party, who is interested in becoming prime minister himself because he believes the current premier must go. In essence, Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Sa’ar’s New Hope Party, and Bennett’s Yamina will lessen the margin of Likud’s domination but cannot individually replace Likud, the largest party in the Knesset.

Top job ambitions. While the last three election cycles were a competition between two men for the position of prime minister, the current one is packed with those who want the top job in the Israeli government, although they may not have the electoral heft that can bring down Netanyahu. Lapid is a contender from the center and “left”; Bennett represents the settler right-wing movement; and Sa’ar stands for the hard-core Jabotinsky right. In fact, this is the first time Netanyahu is challenged by a contender from the right. And since there is no disagreement about ideological issues regarding settlements, the occupation, and other essential matters, there is a possibility that all––center, left, and right––may coalesce just for the sake of replacing Netanyahu—hence, the importance given to the number of seats each can secure in the election.

The fissures in the Arab Joint List. An interesting development is that related to the divisions in the Joint List and the breaking away of Mansour Abbas’s United Arab List. This has created a shuffling of the cards in possible coalitions. There are expectations that the Arab slates that win seats in the Knesset might refrain from endorsing a prime minister or throw their weight behind an opposition figure, as happened in the last election when they supported Gantz.

The United Arab List’s secession from the Joint List may have caused a major realignment when it announced that it is adopting a new approach of cooperating with Netanyahu under the pretext of providing services for the Palestinian Arab communities and areas. 

The United Arab List’s secession from the Joint List may have caused a major realignment when it announced that it is adopting a new approach of cooperating with Netanyahu under the pretext of providing services for the Palestinian Arab communities and areas. The list’s leaders have said that they are not beholden to anyone, but they oppose the Joint List’s advocacy of LGBTQ rights and other important social issues. Many observers have speculated that the list’s leader, Mansour Abbas, may have crossed a red line by cooperating with Netanyahu because of promises from the prime minister. If Abbas’s list gains seats in the Knesset, its support for a Netanyahu-led government can be a serious new development. Abbas does not have to vote for Netanyahu; he could abstain from voting against him and thus allow him to become premier. For example, if Netanyahu can secure a coalition of 57 seats and Abbas’s list gets four seats, the latter’s abstention could give the incumbent another term.

Netanyahu’s switch from attacking Palestinians to courting them. Previously, Netanyahu was keen to incite against Arab citizens, delegitimize their vote, and attack the Joint List. Today, he embarks on a strategy of courting the Arab vote by paying visits to Arab villages and towns and declaring that he only objects to those who supposedly stand “against Israel.” His overture to the United Arab List is simply a vehicle to endear himself to Palestinian Arab leaders. Netanyahu also must have arrived at the conclusion that his incitement against Arabs only helps Arab parties; the last time, it helped them gain 15 seats in the Knesset. Interestingly, his recent attempt is being emulated by other Zionist parties that are offering to put Palestinians, especially women, on their lists; this helps them garner Arab support and gives them a liberal appearance, as is the case with Meretz, Labor, and Yesh Atid.

Netanyahu Remains the Central Figure

Many observers claim that Netanyahu has succeeded in utilizing repeated elections as a tool for holding on to the position of prime minister in transitional governments. This could be true since the upcoming election does not appear to be able to change the prevalent political stalemate. What seems to be certain is that many factors will affect how a governing coalition will be formed: general turnout, turnout among Arab voters, Bennett’s and Sa’ar’s shares of seats (over or under ten each), which parties cross the electoral threshold, and whether the Kahanist right or Meretz and Blue and White make it to the chamber. There also is the open possibility that the ultra-Orthodox might throw their weight behind Sa’ar instead of Netanyahu.

But whatever the electoral map and configuration, Netanyahu remains the pivotal figure today, for those supporting him and those in opposition. This, while important issues such as the occupation of Palestinian land and peace with the Palestinians are absent from electioneering and discussions. What is real is a Zionist consensus on rejecting the International Criminal Court––except for Nitzan Horowitz from Meretz (and the Joint List)––and a clear dominant role of the right in Israeli society. Importantly, there is also agreement among major parties about Jerusalem as the unified and eternal capital of Israel, rejection of the complete dismantlement of settlements, accord on annexing the Jordan Valley, the Jewish nature of Israel, and denial of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Honaida Ghanim is a Palestinian sociologist and anthropologist. She serves as the general director of the Palestinian Forum of Israeli Studies (MADAR). This is a translation of an article she wrote in Arabic for Arab Center Washington DC.