Israeli Elections: A Fifth Attempt at Forming a Stable Government

Once again, and for the fifth time in four years, Israel is on the brink of an election, and is facing the all-too-familiar prospect of political deadlock—even before ballots are cast. With the country just weeks away from its November 1 election day, political parties and factions are going through the motions of campaigning, sloganeering, and branding exercises. Their efforts seem to be putting a new spin on the same question that voters have been confronting for years: should they or should they not return Benjamin Netanyahu to the prime minister’s office? If the last four elections have demonstrated anything, it is that this round may not help change the Israeli political map in any decisive fashion or produce a more conclusive result for both politicians and the public at large.

How We Got Here

In 2021, after four attempts, an Israeli election finally produced a result that was conclusive enough to allow the formation of a government for the first time since 2015. Such an outcome was possible because the parties participating in the government put their political differences aside to focus on a common goal: keeping former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu out of power. It was also possible because an Israeli political taboo was shattered for the first time when a Palestinian party joined the governing coalition. Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am party—which split from the Joint List, an alliance between Israel’s four Palestinian-majority political parties—agreed to join a coalition with Israeli politicians Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, and Benny Gantz. The result of this partnership was a razor-thin majority in the Knesset for the government that held together long enough to compel Netanyahu to move out of the prime minister’s residence, but ultimately was not stable enough to govern throughout its term.

It was clear from the outset that the Bennett-Lapid government came with an expiration date, and that it would only be a matter of time before it began to crumble.

The coalition was bound by a rotational agreement that would make Naftali Bennett—whose party only had six seats in parliament—prime minister, with Yair Lapid to take over after him. It was clear from the outset that this government came with an expiration date, and that it would only be a matter of time before it began to crumble. Sure enough, in June 2022, defections from the coalition forced new elections onto the calendar just as Lapid was rotating into the premiership.

The reason behind this collapse was clear. The government was put together with one purpose: to end Netanyahu’s premiership. Once it accomplished this goal, its raison d’être evaporated overnight and it became increasingly susceptible to outside attack, including from Netanyahu, who, now the opposition leader, was relentless in his assault on his political enemies.

Same Old Story, But with a Twist

What will the central focus of this election be? Much like the last four elections in Israel, this one will not be about who should be the prime minister, but rather who should not be. Although the Israeli electorate has decidedly shifted to the right in the last few decades, and continues, election cycle after election cycle, to egg on extremist candidates, the main question before voters this election is whether Netanyahu, battered by scandals and investigations, is fit to serve as prime minister. Netanyahu has more support to become prime minister than any of his rivals. But that support tops out at around 40 percent, and his previous coalitions have consistently been on the cusp of attaining a majority of seats, but have ultimately fallen short. The last several Israeli elections have all been decided by just a seat or two, which means that every vote counts and that even the most minor parties have outsized power.

Israel’s last election finally resulted in a coalition government that successfully ousted Netanyahu, precisely because the coalition was able to break away from the trap of the numbers game and to bring in a few more seats from a minor party, the Ra’am party, which had never been in a coalition because it is a Palestinian-majority party that has been shunned by nearly all Israeli politicians. Netanyahu, however, courted the Ra’am party and its leader Mansour Abbas, bizarrely conveying upon him a sort of legitimacy from the Israeli Right, which opened the door for Ra’am to forge a relationship with the non-Netanyahu camp as well.

While Netanyahu’s presence and personality have defined all of Israel’s recent elections, the fact that he is now on the outside provides an important twist that could define the outcome of the November 1 election.

What is different this time, however, is that Netanyahu is no longer the incumbent trying to hold onto power, as he was during the last four elections, but is instead the challenger trying to regain it. While Netanyahu’s presence and personality have defined all of Israel’s recent elections, the fact that he is now on the outside provides an important twist that could define the outcome of the November 1 election. The coalition that managed to dislodge Netanyahu promised voters that it would replace him and restore a sense of normalcy to Israeli politics. It certainly succeeded in forming a unique government and produced a prime minister other than Netanyahu for the first time since 2009. And yet, less than two years later, the Israeli political system is right back where it was, in another election cycle where Netanyahu is still center stage.

Unlike previous editions of the Israeli election saga, this version does not involve voters trying to imagine Israeli political life post-Netanyahu, because they are, in effect, living that reality. The fragility of the most recent governing coalition allowed Netanyahu to add another argument to his campaign, one that he is deploying alongside his usual racist, anti-Palestinian, and populist rhetoric. Now, Netanyahu is arguing that he will bring in a stable, right-wing nationalist government, one that would stick together and put off elections for four full years, thus ending the country’s seemingly endless trips to the ballot box. Netanyahu argues that his opponents finally had a chance to bring stability, but failed to do so.

The question remains as to whether Israeli voters will put their dislike for instability ahead of their antipathy toward Netanyahu. In an election that will be determined by a thin margin, even a small number of voters could swing things in Netanyahu’s favor. Importantly, with every additional election, the cost of instability goes up. Polls conducted just weeks ahead of the Israeli election foretell a familiar story, in which Netanyahu and his allies win more seats than an opposing coalition, but not enough to reach a majority. Still, a number of factors could shift things decisively as election day approaches.

Wild Cards

The Dis-Jointed List and Voter Turnout: The Joint List effectively broke apart in the last Israeli election when the Ra’am party went off in its own direction, and even went as far as serving in a coalition government. Fissures began to show between the remaining three parties—Balad, Hadash, and Ta’al—in the last series of elections as well, when there was disagreement over how the slate would cast its votes when it came to recommending a candidate to form a government. Ahead of this most recent election, these parties failed to agree to run on a joint slate, leaving the Joint List whittled down to Hadash and Ta’al, led by Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi, respectively, while the Balad party, led by Sami Abu Shehadeh, decided to strike out on its own.

The disagreement between the Palestinian parties likely centered around what the slate would do when it came time to endorse a candidate for prime minister.

The disagreement likely centered around what the slate would do when it came time to endorse a candidate for prime minister. This means that three distinct Palestinian-majority party slates will run in this coming election, rather than a combined one. Far from the concept of unity that initially produced the Joint List, this now disjointed list is likely to further reduce already low voter turnout among Palestinian voters. Despite its having failed to create any real policy change, the Joint List still appealed to many Palestinian voters because it amplified the Palestinian voice and presence in Israeli politics, even if it was perpetually relegated to the role of the opposition.

Now, however, even the prospect of a combined Palestinian slate has evaporated, making it even harder for many Palestinian citizens of Israel to feel motivated to vote. This reduced turnout also means that some—or even all—Palestinian parties may not meet the necessary threshold to qualify for seats in the Knesset. That threshold, which sits at 3.25 percent, was raised in 2014 in an attempt to eliminate smaller parties, and specifically to target Palestinian parties. This threat to Palestinians’ political existence is what initially motivated them to form the Joint List. Recent polls show that Balad will likely fail to cross the threshold, and has even been disqualified from the elections by Israel’s Central Elections Commission—though they are likely to win an appeal.

Jewish Home and Religious Zionism: Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and current Minister of the Interior Ayelet Shaked have had bizarre and twisted careers in Israeli politics, despite having not long ago burst onto the national scene. Both went from working as aides to Netanyahu to becoming disgruntled Netanyahu allies, before finally becoming his opponents. Bennett somehow managed to parlay his small number of seats into a brief tenure as prime minister, only to find himself out of politics altogether in this election. Shaked, who had previously been attached to Bennett at the hip, was running solo for the first time in the last election, and was feeling the weight of this shift.

As leaders of right wing religious nationalist parties, Bennett and Shaked, who live on the Israeli coast and not in the hilltop settlements of the West Bank, did not always fit the mold of their constituents.

As leaders of right wing religious nationalist parties, Bennett and Shaked, who live on the Israeli coast and not in the hilltop settlements of the West Bank, did not always fit the mold of their constituents. Their having turned against Netanyahu in the last election was essentially a form of political suicide. Shaked has tried to recoup some support to run again in this election, but has found the prospect difficult. After a new political platform fizzled out, she returned to the Jewish Home party—in which she initially started out alongside Bennett—and publicly apologized for betraying her supporters while also intimating that she will again support Netanyahu. Jewish Home is currently polling below the required threshold, but its voters are reliably right-wing. If the party does cross the threshold, it could give Netanyahu the votes he needs to get across the finish line and win the premiership. But its failure to meet the threshold could mean the loss of tens of thousands of reliably right-wing votes. Exactly how this plays out in the coming weeks could define the outcome of the election. Should Jewish Home fall beneath the threshold, the seats that it would have won will be divided up among the country’s larger parties. The ideal scenario for Netanyahu is therefore that Balad falls below the threshold and that Jewish Home makes it above it.

An additional twist in this election is what looks likely to be a strong performance by the Religious Zionism party, which brings together a cadre of far-right extremists, noted provocateurs, and Kahanist disciples. The Religious Zionism party—which will likely be dubbed the most right-wing party in recent Israeli history (a distinction that seems to somehow be awarded every election)—is on track to garner somewhere between 12 and 14 seats. This means that it will be one of the largest parties in the Knesset, and the second-largest party in a Netanyahu coalition. The leaders of this party will therefore be in a position to demand significant government portfolios. And although their potential prominence in an Israeli government might lead to outrage both inside and outside of Israel, it remains unclear whether such outrage would actually have an impact.

The Lebanon Deal: Another factor to watch is the ongoing maritime border negotiations between Israel and Lebanon. The dispute, which is being mediated by the United States, is supposed to resolve the demarcation and division of a natural gas field in the eastern Mediterranean. The negotiations are reportedly nearing an end, and whatever the outcome, it is likely that Netanyahu will use the news ahead of the election to slam his chief political opponent, caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, for making or trying to make a deal with a state that houses Hezbollah, which is openly antagonistic toward Israel. The precise parameters of the deal are less important than the broader framing of the issue’s optics, and the timing of the deal provides Netanyahu the opportunity to damage Lapid just ahead of this crucial vote. The possibility of a renewed Iran nuclear agreement also held the potential to be similarly disruptive ahead of the Israeli election, but a deal appears to be off the table for the moment. This means that an agreement with Lebanon is now the latest wild card that has the power to shape the outcome of this election, which will be decided by a razor-thin margin.

An agreement with Lebanon on maritime border demarcation is now the latest wild card that has the power to shape the outcome of this election, which will be decided by a razor-thin margin.

Resistance in the West Bank: The security situation in the West Bank has been steadily deteriorating over time, and especially in recent months. Attacks by Palestinian fighters on Israeli targets and Israeli raids have both grown in number, especially in the northern West Bank towns of Jenin and Nablus. Most importantly, various factions seem to be participating in these attacks, and Palestinian Authority security forces have even been involved as well. More than at any point in the last 15 years, the West Bank seems to be teetering on the edge of a major security collapse. It is hard to tell if this will indeed happen and, if it does, whether it will take the form of one big eruption or of a series of continued attacks over time. Either way, the fact that that this escalation has been occurring in the run-up to the Israeli election is once again fodder for right-wing parties aiming to cast Lapid as having acted naively and recklessly when it comes to Israeli security.

As the November 1 election approaches, it is uncertain whether Netanyahu will again gain power and become the next prime minister. Likewise, Lapid and his partners are far from guaranteed victory. What is certain, however, is that the next cabinet will be a coalition government in which one of the smaller parties—including from the extreme right wing—will undoubtedly play decisive a role. Given the tempestuous nature of Israeli politics, the next few weeks will surely hold numerous surprises for the Israeli electorate, as well as for observers and analysts outside of the country.

Featured image credit: shutterstock/Gali Estrange/1942072762