Israel’s fourth election in two years has again delivered a stalemate, leaving Israelis with an understandable sense of déjà vu. Bibi Netanyahu, who has dominated Israeli politics for decades and been prime minister longer than David Ben Gurion, is finding it difficult to gather the 61 seats required for majority in the Knesset. The opposition parties too, united only in their antipathy to Bibi, do not have a clear path to forming the government. Israel is again facing weeks of uncertainty and deal-making as both sides make attempts to cobble together a coalition of the unlikeliest of bedfellows. The alternative – a fifth election – is not attractive either; the relatively low turnout of 67.2 per cent this time speaks of election fatigue.
For the moment, the political landscape in Israel resembles a battlefield at the end of day, the contestants sitting around in sullen clumps, bedraggled and wounded, unable to claim victory but reluctant to admit defeat. Netanyahu’s Likud has 30 seats and its likely partners, the ultra-orthodox religious parties Shas and United Torah Judaism as well as the very far-Right Religious Zionism, have a handful each, all in single digits. The main opposition centrist party, the wishfully named Yesh Atid (There is a future) has gathered only 17. Again, its likely partners Labour, Meretz and the Arab Joint List have seats in single digits. Two potential kingmakers are sitting on the fence: the former defence minister-turned-Bibi critic Naftali Bennet’s Yamina party has seven seats; the second is an Arab dentist-turned-Islamic leader Mansour Abbas, whose party Ra’am has the five seats that could make all the difference.
It is not just the arithmetic that is difficult. Positions too are deeply entrenched such as the unwillingness from both sides for Israeli-Arab parties to be part of government. Things however seem to be changing and Mansour Abbas, after breaking from the Arab Joint List, has been playing political footsie with Netanyahu, ostensibly to be able to address the concerns of the Israeli Arabs that form 20 per cent of the country’s population. Netanyahu too has openly courted Arab support in an effort, now successful, to break up the Joint List. Even then, an Islamist party sitting in government with the virulently Right-wing Religious Zionism party, may be a bridge too far.
Similarly, Netanyahu’s erstwhile colleagues-turned-critics like Bennet and Gideon Saar, who heads the New Hope party, would find it difficult to walk back on their anti-Bibi campaign positions; their credibility, with the distinct possibility of a fifth election, would be at stake.
Coalition politics and frequent elections are not new to Israel and governments have hardly ever completed their term. The country’s fractious politics reflects Israel’s population mix of Jewish migrants from all over the world and its layered diversity in religious, cultural and political beliefs, ranging from the ultra-orthodox to the so-labelled secular. The current malaise, however, goes deeper.
Israeli politics now hovers between the centre and the Right; the once-powerful Left is on life support, having become identified with the idea of dialogue with the Palestinians and territorial concessions, themes that are not popular in Israel today. Even within this band, there is absence of serious platforms and well-considered policy agendas: Bibi Netanyahu himself has become the issue and elections are being fought on the platform of continuing his rule (he has, after all, been called King Bibi) or removing him.
King Bibi is the issue
There is no doubt that Netanyahu is a gifted leader who, as Likud’s leading man for three decades, has served Israel’s interests well. His supporters project him as Israel’s “protector”, not just for its security but for winning American and international support. His roaring relationship with former US President Donald Trump resulted in significant diplomatic victories including the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem, the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, and keeping the Iranian threat at bay by making common cause with Sunni Arab countries and encouraging the US to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. Netanyahu has successfully ridden the populist wave, presenting himself as a victim of elite politics, media, academia and the judiciary.
His detractors, on the other hand, paint him out as cynical and opportunistic, interested only in staying in power, not least to get immunity from prosecution in the corruption cases – fraud, bribery and breach of trust – that he faces. They also point to the damage that Netanyahu’s divisive policies have done to Israel’s democratic institutions and deepened several schisms, including the one between Israeli Jews and American Jews. This dissatisfaction has spilled over in wide-spread protests in recent months.
Not counting this one, Netanyahu has fought nine elections: he won four, lost two and the last three can be called a “draw”. He went into this, his tenth, election with a very strong hand: an immensely impressive vaccine roll-out, a decent economic performance and the historic Abraham accords, which promise to fundamentally change Israel’s place and role in the region. Despite this, Likud’s showing of 30 seats is less than impressive; clearly, Israel is looking for change, but the path is yet unclear. Meanwhile, the almost continuous electoral cycle is hampering Israel’s tremendous economic and technological capabilities and strategic advantages. The immediate future – either an unstable coalition, or a fifth election – does not look rosy. Israel deserves better.