Israelis went to the polls again on Tuesday to elect a new Israeli parliament, or Knesset. However, exit polls after the election came out with different results that make a complex situation even more confusing.
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Election night began with exit polls predicting current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the parties that support him holding a narrow lead, 61 seats out of 120, in the next Knesset. But as the night progressed and more of the actual ballot counting reports began coming in, it seems that things will not be so simple. As of Wednesday morning, it looks like no side has won a clear victory and no one side in the Israeli political map has a majority to establish a new government.
Another Coalition of Netanyahu and the Right-Wing Parties?
In his final predictions before the election, Netanyahu said he hoped that his Likud party and his natural allies, the religious parties, would win a majority and then negotiate with one of the right leaning parties to join in a coalition government. The leading potential party for such a coalition is Yamina and its leader, Naftali Bennett. Yamina (meaning to the right) is officially a right-wing party representing both religious and secular voters, but in reality the majority of its members are religious Zionists.
Bennett sees himself as a contender for prime minister and would be the first religious leader of the Israeli government. He used to be Netanyahu’s chief of staff.
But like many others, he had a falling-out with Netanyahu and with Netanyahu’s wife, who wields significant influence. Bennett is not a fan of Netanyahu, so what will the Prime Minister do next?
Netanyahu can try to create a rightwing government with Bennett and offer the other rightwing parties that oppose him — Tikvah Chadasha (New Hope) and Yisrael Beyteynu (Israel Our Home) — to join him. These two parties most likely will not join a coalition government. Their leaders established their political careers because of their personal objections to Netanyahu and his long-term control of Likud. They vested all their political capital in their anti-Bibi opposition, and they know what happened to Kachol-Lavan (Blue-White).
Less than a year ago, Kachol-Lavan won 30 seats in the Israeli parliament based on its promise to not join the coalition government and end the Netanyahu era. That didn’t happen. This time Kachol-Lavan barely got enough votes for seven seats.
A New Israeli Government That Lacks Stability Could Be Short-Lived
Let’s assume Bennett joins Netanyahu. This will be a government that lacks stability and every member could exert pressure on the prime minister, making this a very unstable and short-lived situation.
What if all the anti-Netanyahu parties come together? They can get 60 votes and perhaps have some Likud members abstain to avoid a fifth election. However, the probability of such a scenario is low. There is little that unites right-wing parties with the Labor movement and the other left-wing parties besides their mutual distain of Netanyahu; that cannot serve as a basis for a long-lasting government.
Can someone from the Likud party jump ship and join the anti-Bibi coalition? Possibly, but not probable. The likelihood of that happening is poor since most politicians that would do that already have left Likud to join Gideon Sa’sr and his party, New Hope, which did not have very impressive results in the voting, winning only seven seats.
A Fifth Election May Be Necessary
So where are we heading? Perhaps to another election? Netanyahu’s trial on corruption charges is moving slowly. The evidentiary hearings that were scheduled to begin in February promised to be prolonged and more delays will not surprise anyone.
But so far, they have dealt only with procedural issues such as discovery and court dates. The one clear thing from the hot mess we call Israeli elections is that pundits and journalists are far from experts.
Reading Israeli media, and more so Western media covering the election, made this is all too clear. Major American news outlets offer analyses of Israeli elections with a very shallow understanding of Israeli politics and society. Major significant news outlets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv print analyses that summarize this election as a referendum on Netanyahu, or that Netanyahu will win the election due to the success of the COVID-19 vaccination project. Coverage of this election in prominent U.S. media is a prime example of how foreign journalists cover the news through their own national prism, using American political models to describe and categorize a very different political system.
One point that seemed to have escaped many who covered the election is found in the numbers. In the 1990s. almost 80% of Israeli voters went to the polls to exercise their right to vote. After the collapse of the two-state peace process in 1999, that number declined to 67% or 69%. In the past two years polling numbers jumped back to 71%, but this election cycle saw a drop back to 67% again.
Increasing Numbers of Israeli Voters Are Fed Up
It does not take a genius to understand that increasing numbers of Israeli voters are fed up; they do not see a workable option for them and so they choose to stay home. The stalemate that is Israeli politics has not changed in several decades. Israel is split between left and right on questions of foreign policy, church and state, and capitalism. And the needle is not moving.
It seems the solution rests with one man, Prime Minister Netanyahu. Will he take Israeli voters into a fifth election cycle? Will he step aside? Or perhaps run for the position of President of Israel?
The presidency is a ceremonial office with little to no authority, but the president cannot be put on trial for the seven-year duration of his tenure. If Netanyahu goes down that path his trial most likely will be cancelled.
What will he choose? We will find out in the next few weeks as coalition negotiations continue.