New rivals, same storyline: What to know about Israel’s 4th election in 2 years

Ben Sales

(JTA) — For the fourth time in two years, Israel is holding an election. 

And for the fourth time in two years, no one knows who will win or what will happen next. In many ways, the election on Tuesday feels like the last three — some of the same central issues, the same dysfunction and many of the same candidates.

In other ways, however, it feels radically different, opening up new possibilities and directions for Israel’s future, no matter who wins. 

It could end just as inconclusively, paving the way for yet another election in a few months. 

While reliable results will be published within a day or so of the vote, Israelis probably won’t know who will lead the next government for a couple weeks or longer. 

Here are answers to five basic questions on the election and what comes next. 

Is Netanyahu going to win again?

No one knows. For years, every Israeli election has mainly been a referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu, who has served as prime minister for more than a decade consecutively in his second tenure in the post. 

As the leader of the right-wing Likud party, Netanyahu is a staunch supporter of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and a close partner of haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, political parties. His campaign says he is a guardian of Israel’s security, an experienced leader with close relationships around the world and the man who spearheaded Israel’s rapid, successful COVID vaccine drive

But Netanyahu was indicted on corruption charges more than a year ago and is the first sitting Israeli prime minister to go on trial. His detractors worry that if reelected, Netanyahu will seek legal immunity in order to avoid a conviction. They also oppose his alliances with haredi and far-right fringe politicians.

In the past, Netanyahu has managed to defeat or outmaneuver the parade of parties bent on beating him. This time, several of his leading opponents are former allies who have soured on him in part because of his alleged corruption, including his party’s former No. 2 lawmaker and two of his past deputies.  

Netanyahu’s opponents may garner enough votes to defeat him, or his bloc of right-wing and religious parties could muster a narrow majority. Or the Israeli parliament, called the Knesset, could be deadlocked again. 

How did we get here?

You know Israel has had three elections over two years, the most recent in March 2020.

Since 2019, Israel’s pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps have been split more or less 50-50. In each election, neither side has been able to gain enough support in parliament to form a majority government. 

Israel’s system forces small parties to join together in a governing coalition that represents a majority of parliament, so the election results are the beginning of the process, not the end. To become prime minister, a candidate must convince a group of other politicians to support their leadership. 

For most of the past two years, no one has been able to muster such backing. The anti-Netanyahu bloc spans a wide political spectrum — from the left to the right — and can’t agree on a common agenda. And Netanyahu has had trouble meeting his allies’ competing and sometimes contradictory demands. An apparent victory in the first round of elections nearly two years ago, for example, was sunk when haredi and secular right-wing parties couldn’t agree on terms for establishing a coalition after arguing about whether Orthodox men should be drafted into the military.

When no one can form a government, Israel holds a repeat election and the prime minister serving at the time — in this case Netanyahu — remains in the post. 

An exception to the gridlock came last year: Following three inconclusive elections and during a pandemic, Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz caved on his central campaign promise and joined the Netanyahu coalition. Gantz justified his flip-flop by saying that COVID necessitated a national unity government that trumped other political concerns. But the Netanyahu-Gantz partnership was beset by infighting and collapsed within a year.  

The result has been a government in limbo for well over a year. Without a functioning coalition, Israel hasn’t passed a state budget or been able to run government agencies properly, though the fractious government did not prevent Israel’s rapid vaccine drive. 

How could this time be different?

While Israeli polls have been less than reliable in the past, Netanyahu’s bloc of allies and that of his opponents are polling relatively even, making it possible that neither will obtain a majority in the 120-seat Knesset and thus force another election. 

But should one side prevail, it will mean significant change for Israel regardless of the winner. 

If Netanyahu loses, it would be the end of an era: Israel would see its first new prime minister since 2009, with different coalition partners and a different opposition. Even though several of Netanyahu’s rivals tend to agree with him on policy, Netanyahu’s personality, conduct and corruption trial have become so central to Israeli politics that another right-wing prime minister would still represent a transformation. Netanyahu has also been a fixture on the global stage for so long that his loss would mean a jarring shift for Israel’s international diplomacy. 

Even if Netanyahu wins, things will be different. In previous election campaigns, Netanyahu has called for a broad range of parties to unite under his leadership, and in the past he’s partnered with politicians who are substantially to his left. Not this time. 

To form a government, Netanyahu will have to rely on haredi parties as well as a new faction, called Religious Zionism, that includes openly anti-LGBT politicians and extremist settlers. So if Netanyahu remains prime minister, his coalition will have shifted even further to the right. 

It’s also possible that Netanyahu will be endorsed by an Islamist Arab-Israeli party that says working with the prime minister is more important than ideological battles. And Netanyahu, just six years after being sharply criticized for warning his voters that “Arabs are going to the polls in droves,” is actively campaigning for Arab votes. 

What will this election mean for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Probably not much. Decades ago, Israel’s electorate split over whether and how to withdraw from conquered territory and make peace with the Palestinians. But despite a high-profile framework for an Israeli-Palestinian treaty that was released by the Trump administration last year, the peace process has been practically dead for about seven years, and there are no major political parties vocally calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state. 

A few of Netanyahu’s most prominent rivals stand to the right of him on the issue. So even if Netanyahu loses, don’t expect the new government to leap into peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. 

If anything, Netanyahu’s reelection could herald the biggest change on the Palestinian front. In recent campaigns, Netanyahu has promised to annex parts of the West Bank to Israel. A new mandate — supported by a coalition of pro-settler parties — could mean that he fulfills that promise. 

Besides Netanyahu, which candidates should I know about?

There are three candidates vying to replace Netanyahu as prime minister:

  • Yair Lapid, a former news anchor and finance minister, is the leader of the opposition in parliament and head of the centrist Yesh Atid party. He’s an advocate for secularism and anti-corruption measures. He is polling second to Netanyahu. 
  • Gideon Saar, a former education and interior minister, once was the No. 2 lawmaker in Netanyahu’s Likud. He’s running on his experience and reputation for competence as a reliably right-wing replacement for Netanyahu, and is polling third or fourth. 
  • Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Yamina party and a former defense minister, is running as a right-wing leader who will have fresher ideas and be more accountable to voters than Netanyahu. Unique among the three, he has not ruled out serving in a coalition under Netanyahu’s leadership and like Saar is polling third or fourth. 

On the left, Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli, a former journalist and feminist activist, has gotten attention for her revitalization of the once-moribund party of Israel’s founders. Polls show that Labor will win only a handful of seats this time. Michaeli, a longtime advocate for gender equality in Israel — she has tried to remove gender bias in Hebrew; wears all black all the time to counter a focus on women politicians’ clothes; and once gave a lecture called “Cancel Marriage” — hopes she can be the one to revive Israel’s former left-wing standard-bearer. 

On the far right, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir lead the Religious Zionism Party, which may win enough votes to enter parliament. Smotrich has made a series of anti-LGBT remarks, recently comparing same-sex marriage to incest, while Ben-Gvir has proposed expelling Arab Israelis and Palestinians who don’t pledge loyalty to Israel. 

Homophobia has also been an issue for another Netanyahu opponent: This week, an Israeli reality TV star caused a minor scandal by alleging that Avigdor Liberman, one of Netanyahu’s allies-turned-rivals, is anti-gay. Liberman didn’t comment on the allegation and has been polling similarly to his performance in recent elections, in which a small but solid base of voters mostly from the Russian-speaking community delivers him a handful of Knesset seats.