The Israeli Knesset once again voted to dissolve itself, setting the stage for new elections this fall, which will be the country’s fifth in just three years. As this situation makes clear, political instability in Israel has become the new norm, even as its system of apartheid endures. When the most recent government of Israel was formed after four different attempts, the resulting coalition promised both stability and change. One year later, that government has collapsed after being on the verge of dissolution for months, and once again elections will be held in the fall. Far from reflecting stability and change, this most recent Israeli political experiment only underscored that instability now reigns in Israeli politics.
This is not, however, the result of an ideologically divided polity—as is increasingly the case in the United States and some other nations. Rather, political instability in Israel has risen alongside greater ideological homogeneity as right-wing parties have come to hold more seats in parliament than ever before. Instability is also due to Israeli politics having become a referendum over one man: former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s biggest political personality. As ideological divides have receded, personality politics has taken their place, and in this regard, the number of candidates who can go toe-to-toe with Netanyahu is slim. No other individual has his resume, stature, and name recognition. Instead, several personalities have attempted to band together in an effort to replace him, with the results of this approach now on display as Netanyahu prepares for another attempt at the premiership.
One of the central characters in this drama was Mansour Abbas, a Palestinian citizen of Israel whose party, Ra’am, joined the most recent coalition government, securing it a narrow majority in the Knesset.
One of the central characters in this drama was Mansour Abbas, a Palestinian citizen of Israel whose party, Ra’am, joined the most recent coalition government, securing it a narrow majority in the Knesset. This previously unthinkable move—a Palestinian party joining a Zionist government—highlighted how ideological divides were being bridged for a larger goal. Abbas splintered from the Joint List—a political experiment in Israel whose failure foreshadowed that of the most recent government—before joining the coalition. Similar to the coalition, the Joint List was an amalgamation of various Palestinian factions that spanned the ideological spectrum but came together for a greater purpose: to represent Palestinian citizens in greater numbers as a unified slate. But while initial results seemed promising, the experiment fizzled out when it became clear that there was no vision for the next step. The most recent government coalition came together for a similarly singular purpose: unseating Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. After multiple attempts, the coalition finally succeeded in making this historic change, but then, with its biggest goal having been accomplished on day one, it lost any sense of direction.
Whatever one might have to say about Netanyahu, it is clear that he has a political vision, one that is rightist and that has become hegemonic in Israeli politics, even during this turbulent period of political instability. With or without Netanyahu at the helm, the politics of Israel continues to move further in the direction with which he is most pleased.
What Comes Next?
Barring a dramatic turn of events, ballots will be cast for the next Knesset this fall, likely around November 1. There is a slim but quickly dissipating possibility that an alternative coalition could be formed prior to the election of a new parliament, but this is unlikely. What is far more probable is that all candidates will gear up for a lengthy election campaign. Election campaigns in recent years have been closer to the 90-day minimum mandated by statute, but the current schedule looks to be nearly double this length.
What makes this election different from all the previous elections? Unlike the several elections that preceded the last, all of which resulted in inconclusive outcomes, this election comes after an alternative coalition had the opportunity to demonstrate its capabilities. Its key promises to voters included removing Netanyahu and ending the seemingly endless cycle of elections by forming a stable government, both of which it only temporarily succeeded in doing. Netanyahu is not gone; he is vying for the premiership once again in yet another election after the fall of a government that lasted only one year. Voters who trusted the coalition have now had an opportunity to see what such a constellation of politicians is capable of doing, which in the end amounted to little more than passing a budget before unceremoniously falling apart. It took four elections to finally put together the slimmest of majorities needed to dislodge Netanyahu and now Israel faces the definite possibility of his return to office.
Netanyahu is not gone; he is vying for the premiership once again in yet another election after the fall of a government that lasted only one year.
Will Israeli voters give a coalition another shot, even knowing how incapable this one was of governance? If previous elections have shown us anything, it is that Israeli voters are more than willing to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results, so there are sure to be many voters who will remain locked into their voting decisions starting today. But there will likely also be a portion of voters who are less ideologically inclined and more concerned about stability, and who will recognize that the anti-Netanyahu coalition failed when given a chance and that the right-wing nationalist coalition that Netanyahu would piece together would be more likely to hold up under pressure. Are there enough of these voters to make a decisive impact? We will have to wait and see. But given how slim the margins are, it is a strong possibility.
Variables to Watch
Shifting alliances and figureheads
With each election comes the impulse to reshuffle parties, slates, and personalities. Several politicians who ran in the first round of elections three years ago and aimed to unseat Netanyahu have now retired from politics. There may be others who will join them in quitting politics this time around, including Naftali Bennett and Mansour Abbas, both of whom took significant political career risks to make this coalition work. Bennett broke with Netanyahu at the cost of alienating the very constituent base that helped him build a political career. The same can be said of Abbas, whose only gain for his willingness to partner with a Zionist government was to become just another member of the government. It doesn’t look like it will be worth either Abbas or Bennett repeating this strategy. Early polls show Abbas’s party may not even make it past the electoral threshold to hold seats in the Knesset, while Bennett’s may only end up with four or five seats, falling toward the threshold as well. And more importantly, the political leaps both men took might well result in them jumping right out of politics all together.
The optimism that surrounded Palestinian unity was quickly replaced by the harsh reality of operating in a Zionist-dominated political system.
There is also a potential for realignment that could change what is possible when it comes to coalition formation. Some slates could combine, or names from the sidelines could rejoin the fray. What is certain is that this election’s long campaigning season affords plenty of time for all these dynamics to play out.
Recent elections also brought forth far-right religious nationalists in the mold of deceased Israeli political extremist Meir Kahane. These Kahanists have begun to take root in the Knesset in recent years, after being ushered into the political scene by Netanyahu himself as he looked to expand his array of potential coalition partners. Now, however, they may be primed to grow into even great positions of power, especially as the religious-nationalist voting base of Naftali Bennett continues to defect from him. Early polls predict that the slate that includes the Kahanists will end up with nine seats in the upcoming election—the fourth largest bloc in the Knesset.
The Palestinian Vote
Over the years the voting behavior of Palestinian citizens of Israel has varied, reaching a high point around the initial introduction of the Joint List in 2015 and a low point as the list began to splinter in recent years. Several questions surround the Arab vote in this election: What will become of Mansour Abbas? Will the Ra’am party be able to remain viable on its own, or will it fail to pass the threshold? Given political divisions in the Palestinian community, what will turnout look like? The prospect of not being represented in the Knesset was the original impetus for the Joint List, after the electoral threshold was raised to 3.25 percent in an effort to eliminate smaller parties. Although this threat could once again bring the slate back together, recent divisions are so deep and scarring that even the possibility of falling below the threshold might not be enough to make common cause. Even if the band does get back together, the initial rosy glow has long worn off the political experiment known as the Joint List. The optimism that surrounded Palestinian unity was quickly replaced by the harsh reality of operating in a Zionist-dominated political system. Barring some unexpected development that refocuses and effectively mobilizes the Palestinian vote, it is likely that turnout among this constituency will be low in the coming elections.
What All This Means
For Benjamin Netanyahu, this moment was not a matter of if, but of when. Now that his awaited moment has arrived, he is once again poised to make a run at the premiership, and looks to have a better chance than anyone else at winning. At the moment—and as has been the case in the last decade and a half of elections—Netanyahu’s right-wing allies are likely to win more seats than any other rival bloc, but will probably fall short of the number needed to govern alone. That said, much could change in the coming months as the reality of another election sets in among Israeli voters. The fact that Netanyahu is once again in this position following a year out of the top spot, and with a criminal trial for corruption ongoing against him, speaks to his political survival skills. If he becomes prime minister, he will be seated with a far more right-wing government than those he previously led, each of which was more right-wing than the prior one.
For the United States, this is also an awkward moment. President Biden is slated to visit the region, and the government with which he was coordinating his visit will not be around by the time he arrives. In fact, the prime minister who invited him to Israel, Naftali Bennett, will not be the one who greets him when he lands. While the fragile coalition in Israel has been a factor in shaping US policy due to its constant teetering on the edge of collapse, this Democratic administration is not overly fond of Benjamin Netanyahu, and the prospect of his return will also likely mean the possibility of increased partisanship in the US-Israel relationship.
For Palestinians, this changes little in the big picture, as no Israeli government—whether led by Bennett, Netanyahu, or others—has had any inclination toward reaching a just and lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. But an election campaign season almost always features heightened anti-Palestinian rhetoric and the increased prominence of Kahanists in the public sphere. Both are part and parcel of the continuing rightward drift in Israeli politics, and result in a greater than usual risk to Palestinian life and property since the Israeli Right repeatedly works to stir up mob violence and encourage attacks on Palestinians.
Regardless of the apparent mania for elections in Israel, the fact is that half the population living under Israeli control either has no representative in the government that rules them, or is effectively consigned to second class citizenship. If the Israeli government were concerned with the rights of Palestinians in both Israel and the occupied territories, it is safe to say that it has in fact failed them. But the reality is that this is a merely performative democracy thinly veiling an unlawful system of apartheid that is likely to persist regardless of which Israeli political personality forms the next government.