Israel: The election is over… Long live the election?
Anton Rovenskyy, Master of International Relations, International Political Scientist
The fourth snap parliamentary elections finished in Israel on March, 23. However, this voting is not likely to stop a long-lasting political crisis, a 'new normal' for nowadays Israel. In a few months, one can expect a new, fifth, early parliamentary election campaign.
Israeli political crisis started in 2018 due to a number of internal and external factors. In foreign policy, PM Benjamin Netanyahu was not successful in reducing Irani influence in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon and Syria, which forms a key goal for Israel. Moreover, complicated relations with Turkey and Russia, both of which became much closer during the Syrian conflict, turned out to be even more complicated due to Netanyahu's actions.
At home, Netanyahu has not stopped Avgidor Lieberman, a leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu ('Our Home Israel') party and a former Defence minister, from leaving the office as a result of the IDF special forces failed operation in Gaza District. Israeli PM came out to be in a weak position due to early elections in Knesset, announced in April 2019.
In 2019, following two early election campaigns, Netanyahu failed to form a government for three times in a row. Even the unprecedented assistance of the official Washington during the Donald Trump administration did not help the Israeli PM. Despite this, Netanyahu managed to maneuver between allies and opponents, maintaining the levers of government following the results of two early parliamentary elections in 2019. Amid a permanent political crisis, the Israeli prosecutor's office investigated a number of criminal cases against Netanyahu on charges of fraud, embezzlement and bribery. However, the Israeli prime minister has built an effective defensive line, which made it possible to block the consideration of cases in courts on the basis of merits.
Logically, a constant failure to form a government led Israel to its third consecutive early election in April 2020. However, the new post-election political balances collapsed later that year, when the government and Knesset failed to agree on the adoption of the draft annual budgets for 2020 and 2021. This became a starting point for a new early election, dated March 23, 2021.
During the election campaign, Netanyahu relied heavily on the success of the government COVID-19 vaccination program. Despite that in 2020 Israel had one of the worst statistics on coronavirus in the world, the country has almost completed its vaccination plan, which finally allows it to cease lockdowns. At the same time, Netanyahu actively promoted his successes in restoring relations with a number of Arab states due to the support of the US.
Benny Gantz, the leader of the Kahol-Lavan ('Blue and White') party, incumbent Defense minister, a prominent opponent of Netanyahu and at the same time his former political partner, in his turn was supposed to replace Netanyahu in 2021 as a PM. This framework of agreements appealed to the military political and security issues within the election campaign. First of all, it relied on a need for more decisive measures to contain Iran in the region and strengthen Israel's position in the Middle East.
The election results were mixed. At the same time, one can hardly call it a victory for Netanyahu as well as the real starting point to finish the protracted political crisis. Although Netanyahu's Likud party took 30 mandates (the best result), it lost 6 seats compared to the last elections in March 2020. At the same time, Likud and its allies in the right-wing religious political spectrum have only 59 mandates out of 61 necessary to form a coalition and a government (as the Knesset has 120 members in total).
Theoretically, the arab party Ra'am, which has won 4 seats, could join the coalition of Netanyahu and his partners. However, this option looks speculative and very unlikely, as it generates significant reputational risks for all the parties to such an agreement. However, Ra'am also admits participation in a centre-leftist coalition with Netanyahu's opponents. This is also relevant to the Yamina party (7 seats in Knesset), viewed as an ally of Netanyahu, but it can also join a coalition of the PM's opponents under a number of conditions.
One can point out, whoever eventually forms a parliamentary coalition in Israel, such a coalition will be extremely unstable and situational. If Netanyahu does not have enough votes to form a majority, then the opposing political forces can unite only to remove him from the PM position, after which the goals and interests of its participants will diverge sharply. Moreover, Netanyahu's opponents need the support of two Arab parties: Ra'am and the Joint List (10 seats in general) to form a majority.
In the near future, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will start consultations with representatives of parliamentary factions on the government formation. If attempts to form a government prove unsuccessful, fifth early parliamentary elections may be announced in a few months. By the way, in July 2021 Rivlin's presidential term ends, and therefore Israel can expect another electoral epic, despite the fact that the president is elected by the Knesset, not by popular vote.
For now, Netanyahu seems to have the last opportunity to form a majority. Israeli society is tired from the endless political process (turnout in the March elections was 67.2%, the lowest since 2009), and Likud is likely to lose a few more seats in the fifth early elections. Such an outcome would significantly reduce its chances to become the basis for a parliamentary majority. At the same time, Netanyahu opponents will be much more active in the media, showing him as the main obstacle to end political turbulence and a continuous series of elections.
So far, it is clear that the political crisis in Israel is far from its finish. The change of power in the US also forms a factor of uncertainty for Israeli public and political life. While Donald Trump was considered as an Israel lobbyist on the international stage, the Democratic establishment tends to sympathize with the Palestinians. Though Joe Biden is unlikely to withdraw the decisions of his predecessor on the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the state or the Golan Heights as the part of Israel, as well as he is unlikely to return the US Embassy to Tel Aviv, the level of support for Israel from the United States will obviously decrease.
One should also note the growing intensity of the political crisis in Lebanon, which threatens to become a real social catastrophe; declarations of Turkey and Saudi Arabia on their ambitions in the Middle East; and high chances of a new conflict escalation in Syria. In a word, the external situation for Israel has all the prerequisites for deterioration. Definitely, it will be projected onto the internal politics of Israel.
Meanwhile, intensive behind-the-scenes negotiations on the results of the parliamentary elections will continue in Israel. The thesis seems to be relevant throughout 2021.