Shifting Tides in Israeli Politics

Israel is going back to the polls again for the fourth time in two years. The Israeli political quagmire continues and based on recent polling the electorate seemingly continues to take a clear right of center swing. The next government will almost certainly reflect that trend. While there is no possibility for a center left government, a religious right government also does not appear likely due to the growing anti-Netanyahu sentiment on the right. Both Naftali Bennett and Gideon Saar have clearly stated that they will not sit with Benjamin Netanyahu. This constitutes the first serious challenge to Netanyahu’s premiership from within the right-wing camp and this article will focus on a new coalition that could potentially bring a paradigm shift to Israeli politics. The next coalition, according to a recent Kan 11 poll, could well consist of:

  • New Hope (led by Saar) – 20 mandates
  • Yamina (led by Bennett) – 15 mandates
  • Yesh Atid (led by Lapid) – 13 mandates
  • Yisrael Beiteinu (led by Lieberman) – 6 mandates
  • Blue & White (led by Gantz) – 6 mandates

Together these five political parties add up to exactly 60 seats, which is only one shy of the necessary 61 to form a government. This is only according to one poll and one seat is well within the margin of error. Additionally, Meretz could potentially join which would bring them to 66 seats. These parties form the clearest path to a coalition both mathematically and ideologically. This theoretical coalition would be led by either Saar or Bennet and would shake up Israeli politics, bring new players into public service, and represent large segments of the electorate.

Let us step back and take a moment to understand the context of how Israel has arrived at this impasse and why elections have been called for March 23rd, 2021:

  1. After three rounds of highly contested elections combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, a national unity government was finally formed last March. Two main reasons for the inability to compromise were Lieberman and Netanyahu’s clash of ambition and disagreements on key issues, specifically defense and the role of religion. After less than a year, the current government, which excludes Lieberman, has collapsed primarily due to disagreements over passing the national budget and limiting the power of Blue & White’s Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn.
  2. Both Likud and Blue & White have dropped in the polls recently due to their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, many Gantz voters justifiably felt betrayed when he agreed to form a coalition with Netanyahu and split with Yesh Atid-Telem. Similarly, many Likud voters are upset with Netanyahu’s alleged corruption charges and his constant political games. Likud will likely lose seats to Yamina and New Hope as they vie for the divided right of center vote. Gantz’s political career, full of hope in the beginning, has most likely come to an end. Yesh Atid-Telem, Meretz, and others on the center left may gain seats at Blue & White’s expense. Labor, which dominated Israeli politics for decades, is projected to not cross the electoral threshold for the first time in Israel’s history.

It is necessary to note that according to the Kan 11 poll, a Likud led government with UTJ, Shas, Yamina, and New Hope would receive 78 mandates and without Yamina would receive 63 mandates. While this is of course possible, Bennet and Saar both seem unlikely to join with Likud for three primary reasons:

  1. Netanyahu has repeatedly taken advantage of Bennet and Saar and they each have a personal vendetta against the Prime Minister. For example, Yamina was excluded from the current government and sits in the opposition. Saar lost to Netanyahu in the Likud primaries and left the party specifically to run against him.
  2. If either Bennet or Saar can succeed in forming a coalition and become Prime Minister without including Netanyahu, they would almost certainly seize the opportunity. One should never underestimate the role that ego and personality play in politics.
  3. Both Bennett and Saar are running on a platform to replace Netanyahu. Each has declared they will not sit in a Netanyahu led government. We shall of course see what happens once the votes are counted. It is important to remember that Gantz made the same pledge and in the end formed a coalition with Netanyahu.

Having reviewed the relevant context, it is now suitable to discuss why the theoretical coalition described above could succeed and also why it might fail:

Why It Might Succeed:

  1. All five of these political leaders have a personal vendetta against Netanyahu.
  2. All of them (except for Lapid) lean right on the political spectrum.
  3. They mostly agree on issues related to defense, economic, and foreign policies.

Why It Might Fail:

  1. There are disagreements on key social issues. For example, should there be public transportation running and commerce on Shabbat?
  2. A coalition of only slightly above 60 seats is extremely narrow and could easily collapse if just one party decides to exit.
  3. Most, if not all, of the five party leaders wish to be Prime Minister. Ego and personality are certainly strong factors in why sensible governance might not be successful.

Additionally, there are many other factors that could complicate the political arena and change the paradigm described above. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Benny Gantz stepping down as the head of Blue & White
  • Ron Huldai founding a new party or joining an existing one
  • Gadi Eizenkot founding a new party or joining an existing one
  • Blue & White and Yesh Atid-Telem merging again
  • Yamina and New Hope merging
  • Yamina and New Hope forming a coalition with Likud
  • Yamina, New Hope, UTJ, and Shas being able to form a government
  • The Joint List splitting up
  • Labor, The Jewish Home, or Gesher crossing the electoral threshold

If any of the above scenarios occur, they could significantly change the division of seats between the parties on how to calculate a path to form a government. Unless Bennett and Saar join with Netanyahu, it is unlikely that the blocs will change significantly enough to provide a clear path to victory. Most likely a compromise across party lines will be needed to form a stable coalition. As has been demonstrated, this has proven difficult in recent years even if it is in the best interests of the public.

To conclude, Israelis are going back to the polls as the political quagmire continues. It appears a new potential coalition government could emerge and, in the end, only time will tell how the political arena develops as we approach Election Day in March.

About the Author
Samuel Rothmann graduated from the University of California, Davis in 2014 and received his Bachelors of Arts degree in Political Science and Religious Studies. He decided to make Aliyah in 2015 in fulfillment of the Zionist dream and currently resides in Tel Aviv.
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