As the State of Israel once again heads to a new election, its prime minister—who infamously fearmongered against Arab citizens to drive Israeli right-wing voters to the polls—is now appealing to Palestinian Arab voters in the country. What explains this bizarre behavior, especially given that as recently as the last election, Benjamin Netanyahu used attacks against the Palestinian citizens of Israel to prevent his opponents from joining them in a coalition? To understand this political landscape, it is important to explore the context of Israel’s current moment.
Yet Another Election
Like a broken record that keeps repeating the same story, Israel seems incapable of escaping the election cycle. After the collapse of its government at the end of 2020, the countdown toward ballot casting once again restarted, with elections scheduled for March 2021. After two elections in 2019, neither of which resulted in the formation of a government, the elections in the spring of 2020 did produce a cabinet when Benjamin Gantz, the head of the Blue and While opposition party, decided to join forces with Netanyahu during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. The coalition agreement stipulated a rotation at the position of prime minister, which Gantz would occupy after Netanyahu fills it for two years. Few observers believed that Netanyahu would keep his end of the bargain; and sure enough, the government did not make it through the end of the year.
Prior to entering into the coalition with Netanyahu, Gantz represented the latest iteration of the non-Netanyahu candidate, shaping his campaign around the key issue of removing the long serving prime minister from power. In fact, this formula of making every election a referendum on Netanyahu has failed repeatedly, each time keeping him in power in one form or another. By joining Netanyahu in a coalition, something Gantz had said he would never do during his campaign, he compromised what credibility he had gained with Israeli voters who had sought to unseat the incumbent. Gantz’s Blue and White slate split and his poll numbers have nose-dived since. The tenacious prime minister effectively defused Gantz as a political force by embracing him—but that did not bring an end to Netanyahu’s challengers.
For the last several cycles, the models of the anti-Netanyahu candidates have been similar. The reasoning seemed to be that challenging him required candidates with strong security credentials so that the right could not attack them. In addition, such candidates had to be either silent—or adopt right-wing positions—on the relationship with Palestinians and had to espouse a narrow focus on restoring credible leadership in Israel by removing an indicted and corrupt prime minister. In this mold, various former Israeli generals entered the political fray. Along with the former Israeli military chief of staff, Benny Gantz, came Gabi Ashkenazi, who held the same rank. Joining their effort as well was Moshe Yaalon, who also had led the Israeli military and had previously defected from Netanyahu’s coalition.
For the last several cycles, the models of the anti-Netanyahu candidates have been similar. The reasoning seemed to be that challenging him required candidates with strong security credentials so that the right could not attack them.
The military brass entered politics and garnered a significant number of voters, but their efforts were never enough to fully dislodge Netanyahu. By joining Netanyahu in 2020, Gantz deflated his own political prospects. Ashkenazi has announced he is taking time off from politics and will not be rejoining the Blue and White list for another run, while Yaalon remains barely relevant.
The new challenge to Netanyahu is no longer taking the shape of a generic Israeli politician cloaked in a military uniform to lend himself credibility while running against the right-wing Likud. Instead, it is emanating from within Likud itself. The new dynamic in this election cycle is the party led by former high-ranking Likud Party member and Netanyahu rival, Gideon Saar. Since announcing his candidacy, Saar’s party, which he has named “A New Hope,” is consistently polling as the second largest faction in the Knesset after Netanyahu’s Likud. It is noteworthy that Likud continues to poll around 30 seats, which would make it the largest single party by far. More importantly, however, this suggests that Saar’s entry into the race is absorbing votes primarily from the previous anti-Netanyahu parties more than from the Likud itself. Likud, it seems, is retaining its voters even as one of its biggest stars, after Netanyahu, went his own way.
Also new on the scene in this election is longtime Labor Party member and mayor of Tel Aviv for over two decades, Ron Huldai. His party, named “The Israelis” and is polling in the neighborhood of five seats now, will position itself as anti-Netanyahu and rely on Huldai’s background to attract voters who are more ideologically distant from the right. Tallies for the Labor Party, which had long dominated Israeli politics, are currently below the threshold to receive mandates; to maximize their vote count, Labor as well as the Meretz Party might consider uniting into a common list with Huldai ahead of the election.
To be sure, the Likud Party will likely be the largest one, pending any list mergers which may still take place, and thus will put Netanyahu in a position to have the first opportunity to form a government. All recent elections have broken down along similar lines: with Likud as the largest party, Netanyahu may not be able to form a coalition on his own, but he gets closer to it than the opposition. That could change this time, however, as the election is shaping up to put Knesset member Naftali Bennett in the kingmaking position. In fact, it may be Bennett’s Yamina Party that makes the difference. Consistently polling around 10 seats, Bennett’s party could put the opposition to Netanyahu closer to 60 seats than the total for the prime minister and his religious nationalist allies alone. To be sure, Bennett may well be in a position to demand major concessions, and Saar and his New Hope Party may be in a better position to oblige than Netanyahu.
Consistently polling around 10 seats, Bennett’s [Yamina] party could put the opposition to Netanyahu closer to 60 seats than the total for the prime minister and his religious nationalist allies alone.
For this reason, every single seat matters. While Netanyahu knows he will not be able to form a coalition outright, he will be in a weaker position than he was in the previous three elections if the opposition can get closer to 60 seats.
The Arab Vote and the Margins
So why is Netanyahu courting the Palestinian Arab vote? With an election whose entire outcome could hinge on a few seats and with Netanyahu in a more vulnerable position, he is extra wary of how he might lose power due to the dynamics of coalition formation. In the last election, the Joint List, a merger of several Palestinian Arab parties, took a step that had not happened in decades: they backed Zionist parties in the coalition formation process from the outside. This allowed Benny Gantz to have a crack at forming a coalition, although he was unsuccessful. But the prospect scared Netanyahu. Knowing that the inclusion of the Joint List in a coalition would surely mean the end for him, he attacked his political opponents mercilessly for seeking to ally with the Arab parties. “It’s Bibi or Tibi,” Netanyahu’s campaign would proclaim, trying to portray the election as a decision between the sitting prime minister and the head of a minor Palestinian party, Ahmad Tibi—the aim was to scare voters into thinking that a Netanyahu loss would make the Palestinian Arab parties kingmakers.
Could the Palestinian parties back a non-Netanyahu coalition again? It is hard to say. The first time, the decision was fraught and it also failed to bring down Netanyahu while putting the Joint List’s credibility with its own voters on the line. But the possibility itself this time could mean the end of Netanyahu’s political career, as an opposition party led by Saar might be more capable of picking off one of the religious parties than one led by Gantz. In short, Netanyahu cannot be as confident as before.
This election looks like one that will be won—or not lost—depending on the margins. Therefore, going after the Arab vote makes a degree of strategic sense for Netanyahu.
For this reason, this election looks like one that will be won—or not lost—depending on the margins. Therefore, going after the Arab vote makes a degree of strategic sense for Netanyahu. He obviously will not come close to winning this constituency, but whatever votes he does win from it will nibble away at the total and potentially put further pressure on a Joint List, which is currently rife with internal division. Splitting up the Joint List, which could be a secondary effect of Netanyahu’s Palestinian vote outreach effort (and perhaps his main goal), might easily push one or two of the Joint List parties below the electoral threshold. The Joint List won 15 seats in the last election but, ahead of this election, it is consistently polling around 10. If they fracture, the individual parties would be in significant trouble, and if they fall below the threshold, this could benefit the largest party whose vote totals would come to represent a larger share of the electorate and thus would qualify for larger mandates.
In addition to this complicated and cynical numbers game at the margins with the Palestinian vote, Netanyahu is also hoping to goad small far-right factions to unite and organize to get above the threshold. If they manage to do this, they could take up some seats that would only support a Netanyahu-led government.
Could It Work?
What are the chances that this chess game of Israeli elections will be decided not by major pieces but through Netanyahu’s maneuvering of pawns? Mansour Abbas, one of the leaders of the Joint List from the Ra’am faction, might know something about the answer to this question. He has said he would not only be open to supporting a Netanyahu-led coalition but also that he would consider serving as a minister in one to advance his party’s goals. It is not clear why Abbas thinks his Palestinian Arab party could count on Netanyahu’s trust when even the former Israeli military chief of staff, Benjamin Gantz, learned that he could not. This does not seem to give Abbas pause, however. It is important to note that Palestinian citizens of Israel are facing multiple crises. Not only is the coronavirus pandemic hitting the population in addition to the systemic discrimination in a state defining itself as Jewish, but crime within the community has run rampant and violent crime-related deaths have become all too common, leading community members to organize for greater police intervention. Abbas, who heads a Knesset committee on this issue, argues he might be able to advance it more effectively from a position within the government.
It is important to note that Palestinian citizens of Israel are facing multiple crises. Not only is the coronavirus pandemic hitting the population in addition to the systemic discrimination in a state defining itself as Jewish, but crime within the community has run rampant.
The Joint List was a unique experiment in the politics of Palestinian citizens of Israel, bringing various strains together in a national unity that looked beyond smaller community differences. As a unified force, it routinely enjoyed the status of one of the larger parties in the Israeli Knesset—though never actually in government—and became an important platform for communicating the issues of concern for Palestinian citizens on the Israeli national stage. Today, this experiment is under unprecedented strain from which few politicians stand to benefit more than Benjamin Netanyahu.