Israeli Elections 2021

Israelis go to the polls even before the Palestinians do – in two weeks on 23 March. Unlike the Palestinian elections that have not been held for fifteen years, this will be the fourth election in Israel in two years. That is but one of many differences in the political lives of the two nations. As indicated in the previous blog, though the progress of planning for the Palestinian camp has become more positive, it is still perilous. In contrast, the Israeli election is a certainty. The conduct of the Palestinian elections, especially for Palestinians in East Jerusalem, depends on Israeli cooperation. Israeli election will go ahead independent of any policies or practices of the Palestinian Authority or the government in Gaza.

The main problem facing Palestinians is the number of lists that will run. The existing Palestinian authorities want to reduce those lists to a minimum, ideally one so they can have a unity government to face the Israelis. However, we now know there will be at least two main lists and probably more, including a split in Fatah. In contrast, the Israelis have multiple lists already and their problem will not be how many parties run for election but how to form a coalition after the election. The Palestinian dilemma is a problem of forming coalitions before the election.

The 14 Israeli parties running for election on 23 March in alphabetical order are:

  • Blue and White                        (13)                                12
  • Joint List                                 (12)                                  8
  • Labor                                      (15)                                 2
  • Likud                                      (51)                               36
  • Meretz                                     (10)                                    4
  • New Economic Party               (11)
  • New Hope                               (20)
  • Religious Zionists                    (10)
  • Shas                                        (12)                                  9
  • United Arab List                     (5)
  • United Torah Judaism              (14)
  • Yamina                                   (16)                                 3
  • Yesh Atid                                (30)                                19
  • Yisrael Beiteinu                       (10)                                  7               100

The number in brackets after the name of the party indicates the number of names on that respective list and provide some indication of the electoral prospects, or, more accurately, electoral hopes for that party. The actual number of seats held in the current Knesset is indicated in the number not in brackets in the last column. Note that the number of parties for this election has actually declined from 16 to 14.  

Agudat Yisrael                                            3

Blue and White

Dagei Hatorah                                                5

Derech Eretz                                               2

Gesher                                                        1

Habayit Hayehudi                                       1

Israel Labor

Joint List

Meretz

National Union                                           2

Ra’am – United Arab List                            4

Shas

Ya’al – Arab Movement for Renewal           3                           21

Yamina                                                      

Yesh Atid

Yisrael Beiteinu

One might believe that the party system is very fluid in Israel with new parties being created and old parties disappearing, disintegrating or combining. That indeed has happened, but an overall picture reveals a much greater continuity and constancy. However, there have been some significant shifts and innovations. First, the Labor Party, the once grand old party of Israeli politics that had declined to only two seats in the last Knesset, has shown signs of a minor revival under the leadership of the only female leader of a party, Merav Michaeli. She is expected to win about 7 seats. However, the left in Israeli politics has been in a precipitous decline over the last two decades and this election is unlikely to restore the left as a major force. In fact, there is a read danger that Meretz, the party of the furthest left among the Jewish parties, will be wiped out in this lection. The members of Meretz may regret their failure to merge with Labor and present only a single party on the left.

On the other hand, there is a great deal of hope that Michaeli will lead a resurgence and restore Labor’s relevance and importance in Israeli politics. Although that may be a stretch, given her successful career in the media, she does provide a clear and concise progressive voice on the left pushing not only women’s rights but Arab Israeli citizens’ rights as well as the peace negotiations with the Palestinians. However, in spite of her attractiveness as a leader and candidate, there seems to be no prospect of a left government in Israel in the foreseeable future. (For an introduction to Merav Michaeli, Americans for Peace Now held a webinar with her on 25 February that was very informative.)

As with the Arab parties in Palestine, the lists are largely on the right – assuming that right and left still have some meaning in politics. But they mean something somewhat different in Israel than in Palestine. In both nations, there are extreme right and religious factions – Hamas among the Palestinians and a number of right-wing religious parties in Israel. The far right Otzma Yehudit, a progeny of the fascist Kahanist Party, was induced to join forces with the even more radical Noam faction by Bibi Netanyahu. The ultra-Orthodox Noam group is anti-gay and anti-Reform. The two parties agreed to run as a single list in order to cross the minimum threshold of 3.5% of the votes cast in order to take a place in the Knesset. Even then, there is a danger that the merger will be insufficient to achieve that goal and, if they fail, their votes will be lost to the right. That is why Netanyahu pushed them together, to try to get them over the threshold so that they could be part of the right that backed his selection as Prime Minister after this coming election.

The other ultra-Orthodox parties are not so extreme. But collectively they have held enough seats to ensure a right-wing government in Israel and thereby punch above their real weight in the Knesset. They have traditionally in past parliaments had a powerful influence over issues of state and religion as well ass education and budgets and particularly obligatory military service. The parties are, however, not necessarily anti-Arab, as is the case with Noam.

United Torah Judaism is itself a union formed in 1992 as an alliance between Degel HaTorah formed in 1980 and Agudat Israel, the first of the two Ashkenazi Haredi political parties which traces its roots to the beginning of the Zionist movement. For this election, in light of the Supreme Court ruling recognizing Reform movement conversions, it is running on an explicit anti-Reform and anti-Supreme Court platform, hoping, thereby, to stimulate its base to turn out and vote. Shas, in comparison, is a Sephardic and Mizrachi ultra-Orthodox and traditionalist party and somewhat more moderate than the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties. Its numbers have held relatively steady over the last number of elections.

Because of Israel’s system of proportional representation as distinct from a constituency-based electorate, small parties can hold the balance of power, especially when there were two large blocs rivaling for power – Labor and the Likud. They used to form parts of a Labor-led coalition at one time. However, in the last several decades, they have supported the right.

In fact, the right has grown such that it now has a super-majority, even excluding the Arab parties. It is estimated that 80 out of 120 seats in the next Knesset will be held by right-wingers. The only issue is whether enough of them will be elected who refuse to join a coalition on the right led by Netanyahu. After all, the main issue in this election is a referendum on Netanyahu. The New Hope Party is led by Gideon Sa’ar, a once prominent member of the Likud government and a defector from Likud expected to win a significant number of seats, thereby depriving Netanyahu of the possibility of leading a coalition.

As an alternate to Sa’ar, Naftali Bennett as the leader of Yamina might equivocally include Netanyahu in his possible coalition. However, he initially plans to approach others in the anti-Netanyahu bloc – Yair Lapid, Gideon Sa’ar, Avigdor Lieberman, Merav Michaeli and Nitzan Horowitz – to try to convince them to support himself as the leader of the coalition, otherwise he threatens to join with Netanyahu. His pitch – “restore the country to sanity” and “enable the next election to revolve around competing ideologies rather than one man.”

The other possible choice is Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atiid who is a middle-of-the-road anyone-but-Netanyahu pragmatist. Of course, that was the hope when Benny Gantz was elected as head of the Blue and White with a significant number of seats. But his prospects have diminished enormously as he has been treated as a combination of traitor for joining Netanyahu’s coalition and a naïve sap who was used, manipulated and then discarded by Netanyahu. He and his party are expected to suffer severe losses and Lapid is expected to gain at Blue and White’s expense and expects to grow from 18 to 23 or 24 seats.

Lapid supported the Israeli Supreme Court ruling that accepted Reform conversions. He is known as an individual who opposes the imbalance of influence that religious parties have in Israeli governments. So does Aviqdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, another party on the right rooted in secular migrants from the Soviet Union. Lieberman is running on an explicitly pro-secular platform and promises to join any coalition that excludes the ultra-Orthodox parties. He has also made a special appeal to the youth vote to broaden his solid Russian-voter base, Thus, in addition to Netanyahu’s leadership as a major issue, the relation of religion and state has once again come to the fore in influencing the election results.

Then there is the interesting role of the Joint Arab List. The Arab Israeli parties formed a Joint List out of four parties and mounted a major breakthrough winning 15 seats in the last Knesset. However, Netanyahu of all people managed to convince Mansour Abbas, who is himself a religious Muslim, ironically more aligned with Hamas than any other ideology, to run as the head of a separate United Arab list. As a result, the Arab Joint List based on three Arab parties (Balad, Ta’al and Hadash) is expected not to do as well as when they ran on a combined platform.

So where does that leave us? I have never observed an Israeli election where there is so much consensus. The agreement is that no one has any idea how things will turn out. There are just too many moving parts. Minor shifts will make a tremendous difference in the type of coalition that can be formed and who can be the prospective leader. There is a uniform agreement also that the right will hold the most seats but, depending on the results and the number of seats Lapid wins, it is possible to imagine him forming a secular government of both the right and left but excluding the religious parties.

In other words, who knows! We do know that the Palestinian issue is not first and foremost in the minds of Israeli voters in this election. Bread and butter issues are, but perhaps more importantly in this election, other than Netanyahu’s leadership, is the much broader debate over the ultra-Orthodox, particularly in their general lack of compliance with public health norms in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of these and the uncertain fate of many of the smaller parties, we are unlikely to even know on 23 March for coalition building tends to be a long, protracted exercise. In that sense, what is taking place among the Palestinians leading up to their elections will take place after the Israeli elections.

We do know that the Israeli right will win a clear majority of seats. We also, unfortunately, know from surveys that anti-Arab racism is on the rise in Israel. On 8 March, the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media published the results of a survey showing an increase in violent discourse against Palestinians and Arabs by 16% compared to 2019. Due to the Corona pandemic, racist discourse towards Palestinians and Arabs increased by 21%, with hate speech constituting 29%, and incitement 7% of these posts.

The other stat that seems relevant relates to the increasing importance of turnout. At present, only 62% of Israelis currently plan to vote. Magaar Mochet polling has projected a record low turnout, especially among Arab-Israeli voters. However, based on the compilation of polls thus far, of 23 polls, only two showed Netanyahu’s bloc, including Yamina, winning the necessary 61 seats. 20 polls predicted that the anti-Netanyahu bloc – including Yamina but excluding the Arab Joint List – would win a Knesset majority. On all counts, the exercise in coalition building is too close to call.

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