Four elections later, Israel still can’t quite make up its mind about its longtime prime minister.
A majority eludes both Netanyahu and the parties opposed to him as the Jewish state will likely limp along with another unstable, makeshift coalition, making a fifth election likely.
The deadlock in Israel remains unbroken. After the fourth parliamentary election in two years, the basic conundrum of the country’s politics remains in place. Though there is a broad consensus on the security and territorial issues that most of the world still believes are the most important subjects facing the Israeli electorate, the people of the Jewish state remain split down the middle on the one topic that interests them most: Whether Benjamin Netanyahu will remain prime minister.
The results of the Knesset election pending the counting of approximately half a million absentee votes illustrated this fact. Parties either allied with Netanyahu’s Likud or likely coalition partners of it fell two seats short of the 61 needed to form a majority. Yet those opposed to Netanyahu also seem to have no conceivable path to a majority. The anti-Netanyahu forces are a “bloc” that consists of disparate parties ranging from the left to right. It even includes an Arab coalition that opposes Israel’s existence. This bloc is unlikely to ever be able to form a government together.
As was the case with the similar stalemates produced by elections in April and September 2019 and March 2020, that leaves Netanyahu still in power as the head of what now appears to be a seemingly and paradoxically permanent yet temporary caretaker government that will remain in place until some sort of government can be formed. So while Netanyahu’s claim of victory after the exit polls (which initially showed him winning a majority but then were soon revised) proved hollow, it’s also true that his opponents are no closer to evicting him from the prime minister’s residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street today than before.
After twelve consecutive years in power (he also served three years as prime minister in the 1990s), Netanyahu has become something of an institution. He has no rivals within his own party. All potential successors now lead smaller right-wing parties to which they fled after being either forced out of the Likud or leaving in impatience at Netanyahu’s determination to continue in office indefinitely.
He had a strong record of accomplishments as he led the Likud to the polls for the tenth time since 1996 (his record now stands at four wins, two losses, and the last four stalemates). In just the last year, Netanyahu could take credit for a major breakthrough for peace with the Abraham Accords and the establishment of normal relations between Israel and four Arab and Muslim nations. He also stands as perhaps the international leader who navigated the coronavirus pandemic with the most skill: Israel leads the world in vaccinations as a percentage of population and is now starting to completely open up. By contrast, most Americans and Europeans are still waiting to get vaccinated.
But though he retains the loyalty, if not the adoration, of his party’s base, as well as its religious partners, much of the country is tired of his unceasing quest to retain power and political chicanery in which political partners inevitably are betrayed. The three corruption charges made against him by Israel’s attorney general Avichai Mandelblit, another former Netanyahu associate, hang over him (Netanyahu’s trial has begun, but it is likely to last for many months and may not be resolved for years) and have taken a toll on his popularity, even if most of his supporters dismiss them as trumped up, politicized accusations. Though poll after poll shows him as the voters’ first choice for prime minister, with no one else even close, the fact that many who share his opinions about war and peace issues and are considered “right-wing” have joined the growing ranks of the “anyone but Bibi” bloc has created an insurmountable obstacle to his quest to form another stable government.
With 88 percent of the vote counted, it appears the next Knesset will have 72 out of the 120 seats occupied by members who are on the right when it comes to the conflict with the Palestinians. (Israelis vote for party slates rather than individual candidates for constituencies that then receive seats based on their proportion of the vote they received.) But of that total, 20 members of three parties were not pledged to support the prime minister, making it difficult for him to form a majority.
The results still leave Likud as the country’s largest party by far, with 30 seats. The second-place finisher, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party, has just 17. Any thought that Lapid could put together a coalition composed of right- and left-wingers as well as anti-Zionist Arab parties seems like a fantasy.
Where does that leave Israel?
If no one has a majority after the requisite several weeks of coalition negotiations once the vote is certified, the country would have to go to another election, with Netanyahu remaining in place until then. But there is one intriguing possibility for at least a stopgap alternative to the ongoing instability.
The country’s Arab voters, who make up approximately 20 percent of the population, have never had any influence on the government. Arab turnout is less than that of the Jewish majority. The quartet of parties that represent Arab voters range in ideology from secular nationalism to Islamist extremism. These parties are also opposed to the existence of the state and have, both by their own choice and the disdain of the Zionist parties, stayed out of any coalition. But the Joint List of Arab parties, which together won 15 seats in 2020, split before this year’s election and wound up with only 11.
The Ra’am Party, which is Islamist in nature, chose to break away from its former partners because it felt that it was time for Israeli Arabs to stop dwelling on their opposition to Zionism and start thinking about their constituents, who have been ill-served by the corrupt nationalist politicians they elected. Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas pledged to deal with any other party, whether to join a government or to support it from outside the government, in order to increase government aid for Arab towns and cities.
That opens up the possibility that Ra’am might use its five seats to give Netanyahu the votes he needs to form a government, something that might unsettle Likud supporters but would allow the prime minister to remain in power. But even that scenario, which would lead to an inherently unstable and unlikely long-lasting government, is a long shot.
The Biden administration may be gearing up to unveil policies for the Palestinians and Iran that may put it at odds with Netanyahu. But the prime minister can count on the support of the majority of Israelis and the Knesset for his opposition to the discarding of former president Donald Trump’s stances, which were more favorable to Israel. But Israelis remain split over Netanyahu’s future. While perhaps a majority of them would like to move on from the only prime minister many young people have ever known, the dynamics of the political stalemate appear likely to leave him in power until that standoff is resolved.