Carrie Hart
Carrie Hart
News Analyst

The predictability of the unpredictable – Israel’s 4th election

Overview of the Knesset (Israel's parliament). Photo by Carrie Hart.
Overview of the Knesset (Israel's parliament). Photo by Carrie Hart.

On Friday, March 26, 2021, Israelis will be sitting down to a Shabbat dinner one night before the eve of Passover, which begins sundown on Saturday, March 27. Jewish families will be preparing to answer the traditional four questions at the Passover Seder, beginning with: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

This year, the families of Israel will have some additional questions to ask beyond the traditional four questions.

Citizens will be casting their votes on Tuesday, March 23, in the fourth election taking place in Israel in a little under two years. Some Israelis will have to vote in special booths set up at the airport as they finally arrive home after being stranded abroad for over a month by an Israeli government shutdown of Ben Gurion Airport. There will also be a record number of Israelis in the country on Election Day who didn’t get to go on vacation abroad due to government restrictions. Then, there is the soldier vote; the diplomatic overseas vote; the prisoner vote; and other special voting procedures for the sick and quarantined. It will take the elections committee until Friday, and possibly beyond, to count up all the votes before getting the final tally.

The final tally will, most likely, be discussed and debated around every Israeli Shabbat table, and additionally around every Israeli Seder table, this coming weekend.

This follows on the heels of a nationwide protest rally of an estimated 20,000-50,000 people that took to the streets throughout Israel on Saturday evening, March 20. Protesters demonstrated on 1,000 bridges and junctions across the country. These anti-Bibi protestors were speaking out against the policies of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Those who also rallied at the Wohl Rose Garden near the Knesset in Jerusalem, finished on Balfour Street across from the Prime Minister’s residence. The public turned out with black flags and signs demanding that Netanyahu step down because of unfulfilled promises; because of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic; and, because he was indicted on corruption charges.  The rallies also took place in other locations, worldwide, as Israelis abroad joined the demonstrations.

Most political analysts see Netanyahu’s strong polling numbers as indicative that these rallies, gaining steam over the past year, have not had a strong enough effect on the elections. But, others disagree.

Ilana Rachel is an outspoken candidate of the Rapeh political party. She talks about human rights, civil liberties and freedoms that have been oppressed in Israel. She sees the current Israeli government as “over-reaching” into the lives of everyday citizens.  And, believes her political party has been singled out. She is not sure who has been intent on her party not being heard or seen by everyday Israelis.

“We are making incredible ground despite complete censorship. They took off our Facebook pages of 60,000 people. They did everything they could to de-legitimize us. But, of course, they couldn’t succeed.” She also mentioned that after three days of opening up an account with Twitter, the account was taken down, as well.

Small parties in Israel have, historically, faced a massive challenge in being able to break through into the Israeli political system. “They don’t even let us open a bank account to receive donations,” Ilana Rachel claims. “They are doing everything they possibly can because we are coming against the only narrative that endangers them… We are the only people standing up and saying this is unacceptable; this is absurd; this is unreasonable.”

Ilana Rachel is referring to the cumulative five months Israelis have had to stay in lockdowns ordered by the government… a longer cumulative time than any other country. “Five months of sitting in lockdown in our tiny apartments. Israel is a very small country. We don’t have big yards. Children with masks on; or, slumping in front of endless zoom calls.”

She spoke of children not being able to go to school because of Covid, yet wanting to learn with others in the classroom. And, she mainly spoke of the pressure of the Israeli government on every citizen to take what she sees as an experimental vaccine.

In the meantime, the Rapeh party has gone to work, wasting no time. They have formed teams as a grass roots organization, passing out flyers, talking to people, even developing supportive relationships towards a closer-knit community in Israel.

Not only are members of the Rapeh party showing up at anti-Bibi protest rallies, so are small businessmen who have been disappointed with the way Netanyahu has handled the Covid pandemic.

Netanyahu has been accused of giving “protexia” to the ultra-Orthodox whose political parties are his reliable partners and supporters. So, when the coronavirus was widespread in Orthodox neighborhoods, rather than lockdown only those areas, Netanyahu locked down the whole country. Additionally, he looked the other way, at times, when the ultra-Orthodox broke curfews and had big events; or when rabbis continued their Yeshiva studies with their pupils. All this was going on while other Israelis were forced to sit at home.

Shutting the country down in three lockdowns also resulted in a total of five months of small businesses being closed to the public.  Today, 4,000 of 40,000 small businesses have remained closed; unemployment is high; and many Israelis who were on unpaid leave are not expected to have jobs to go back to as the economy opens wider in the next few weeks.

According to Professor Jonathan Rynhold, a lecturer of Political Science at Bar Ilan University, “I think it boils down to the character, the priority, and the capabilities of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu… Lots of small business people suffered major economic stress because of Netanyahu’s personal priorities, and they are angry.”

While Netanyahu has kept his position as Israel’s Prime Minister for the past 12-13 years, his popularity numbers have gone down. Currently, there are approximately 25% of Israelis who have remained steady supporters of Netanyahu. However, despite the decrease, it is still a higher number than for any other political candidate.

“For those who are opposed to the prime minister, his character and his priorities are a major reason affecting their vote, because they see him as only caring about himself, and being corrupt,” Rynhold explains. And, he adds that Netanyahu wants to pass a law, in the future, that would give himself a pardon, so he wouldn’t go to prison if convicted.

In Israel, in order for a political party to get seats in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), they need to receive 3.25% of all votes cast. This comes to somewhere between 120,000-150,000 votes, and is critical. There is a chance that a large number of parties that oppose Netanyahu may not cross the threshold this time. Rynhold says, “Netanyahu’s ability to form a government will be greatly impacted by whether the smaller parties cross the electoral threshold or not. Because, if they do, his chance will be much smaller. And, if they don’t it will be much higher.”

Rynhold is mainly talking about political parties who have already been in the Knesset for years. He is not talking about the new protest political parties that the pollsters have chosen not to poll at all.

According to Ilana Rachel, journalists and political analysts do not even count the smaller parties, like Rapeh, in their polls. “They refuse to acknowledge our existence. Rapeh is not listed in election polling.”

There is also the issue of the turnout – those Israelis turning out to vote. There are a record number of undecided voters in Israel, even though the country is so close to Election Day. Many of these undecided voters may stay home, disillusioned that Netanyahu’s support is high again, and that he might remain in office.  This “stay home” attitude works in favor of Netanyahu.

Dr. Chaim Weizmann, a lecturer at IDC, and the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy, is a political analyst who spoke with this writer. He acknowledges, “I believe the Israeli public is tired and exhausted. It’s skeptical regarding the possibility of change.”

Weizmann explains there are too many undecided voters — at least 15% of those who are eligible to vote.  It makes it harder to predict who will win the elections. And, it appears, this is only helping Netanyahu. “Today, Netanyahu’s situation is better than in the last three months. He managed to make the coronavirus disappear from the agenda. Nobody is talking about his trial. Nobody is talking about the failures of the government.”

Weizmann admits that Netanyahu is closer than ever to forming a coalition. “It’s his great coalition which would allow him to change the law so he won’t be tried – to stop his trial. Right now, I am not sure he will be able to do it.”

Weizmann says Yair Lapid, Chairman of the Yesh Atid political party, has been running a very controlled campaign. “He did not declare himself the next prime minister. He is avoiding it in any way he can. I think he has the chance. Don’t underestimate him.”

Other possible candidates who could possibly head-up forming a coalition are:  Naftali Bennett, Chairman of the Yamina party, and Gideon Sa’ar, Chairman of the New Hope party. There is an outside chance that Benny Gantz, current Israeli Minister of Defense, and Chairman of the Blue and White party, could have an effect on the Israeli government, if Israel ends up going to 5th elections.

Meanwhile, because of Netanyahu’s vast experience in foreign policy, and in the security of Israel, there are citizens who think he is the only one capable of successful diplomacy on Israel’s behalf. But, this election has not been about international relations. Rather, it has been about domestic policies and about the trust factor regarding the current Israeli leadership. Weizmann claims that most Israelis do believe Netanyahu, Chairman of the Likud political party, is the only one to run the country. Weizmann negates this assumption. “That is why it is so important to have the change because it is nonsense. People must realize that nothing will happen to the state of Israel if there is another prime minister.”

And, if by surprise the protest parties are given a voice, Ilana Rachel sees that as a great victory. “We are looking for a cohesive voice. We are not splintered but rather want to join our voices together.”

Political analysts think the elections could go in several directions:  (1) A right-wing Netanyahu coalition government with either far-right political parties joining, or the Arab Islamic Ra’am party joining.  (2) A centrist coalition government, most likely led by Yair Lapid, incorporating right-wing parties that have refused to join with Netanyahu; plus, left-wing parties. (According to some analysts, it will be harder for this to happen, but it can be done). (3) A two year emergency government, which will be put together by those on the right who want to stay conservative, but without Netanyahu in charge. (4) An inability for any coalition to be formed, and a fifth election taking place in the future.

This is the first time in two years that an Israeli election has not been faced with an escalation in violence from Hamas in Gaza. It is also the first time in years that the United States has not interfered in an Israeli election with an American president letting his preference be known. In Israel, this year is a great improvement over last year, when the Israeli government — fearful of a major Covid catastrophe — would not allow Israelis to come together to celebrate Passover.

Yes, this Passover will be different than other Passovers. Hopefully, diaspora Jews, who have been refused entry into Israel this year because of the Covid government restrictions, will be able to say around the world, “Next Year in Jerusalem!”

Protest rally in Jerusalem, Saturday night, March 20. Photo courtesy of Ben Matthews.
Protest rally in the Wohl Rose Garden near the Knesset, Saturday night, March 20. Photo courtesy of Ben Matthews.
About the Author
Carrie Hart is a news analyst reporting on political, diplomatic, military and social issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East, and the international community.
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