//Israel: One Month Later, A Country Still Divided

Israel: One Month Later, A Country Still Divided

On the 30th May, the 21st Knesset (Israeli legislature) was dissolved after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition able to secure a majority within the Knesset. This was unprecedented as no other Israeli Prime Minister had failed to do so before.

Israeli governments have generally relied on broad coalitions as the country’s proportional electoral system generally returns a fragmented political landscape.  For instance, in April’s election the largest party – Netanyahu’s Likud – obtained only 26.5% of the vote. To secure support from 61 members of the Knesset, prime ministerial hopefuls must engage in lengthy negotiations with party leaders, striking a fine balance between policy compromises and personal ambitions. In this context, it is crucial to seek support from a variety of smaller parties, commonly achieved via the appointments of leaders to cabinet positions, promises to pass certain laws or by shifting a party’s stance on a particular issue to show commitment to the nascent coalition.

Netanyahu is renowned for his brinkmanship skills in coalition negotiations: in his three terms as Prime Minister, he has managed to hold together a broad alliance of secular right-wing (URWP, Yisrael Beiteinu and his own party, Likud) and Haredi parties (ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and UTJ). No matter how fractured these alliances have been, it was his willingness to accept tough demands that led to his longevity in office as the longest continuously serving Prime Minister in Israeli history. This time, however, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Russian speakers’ nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu, rejected the offer of a coalition. Specifically, Lieberman demanded in exchange for his party’s support that the coalition agree to pass a law which would remove the exemption for students enrolled in Israel’s traditional religious institutions, the Yeshiva, from conscription. Due to opposition to the draft proposal from Haredi parties, Netanyahu was caught in a bind: had he conceded to Lieberman’s demand, he would have lost the support of the Haredi parties, which amounts to 16 parliamentary seats; in rejecting it, he found himself unable to command a majority in the Knesset without Yisrael Beiteinu’s five seats.

Despite Netanyahu’s ability to unify, this isn’t the first time that Lieberman – a notoriously difficult coalition partner – has brought down a government. Indeed, the April election was called after he resigned from his post as Defence Minister, followed by the entire party’s withdrawal from the coalition, leaving Netanyahu four seats short of a majority. In Lieberman’s eyes, Netanyahu had not stood up forcefully enough for Israeli right, catering mainly to the Orthodox Haredi partiers, who – despite having nationalist tendencies themselves – have fraught relationship with Lieberman’s brand of secular nationalism, particularly on the issue of religious exemption from the military draft and Shabbat trading laws.

Talks stalled as both sides were uncompromising on what they wanted out of a new government. When it came to the crucial time of achieving a majority, Netanyahu failed, leaving a new election set for 17th September to salvage his hopes of another term as Prime Minister.

One month later, polling conducted between 30th May 2019 to 20th June 2019 points at two major developments:

  1. Yisrael Beiteinu are doing incredibly well in the polls, meaning the issue of conscription will be difficult to escape for any future Prime Minister, Netanyahu included.
  2. A new election would not be good for the ‘anti-Netanyahu’ bloc within the Knesset as they see their vote share dwindle.

Yisrael Beiteinu surges

The nationalist party has always been the political representative of Russian-speaking Jews.  It is primarily composed of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their descendants, but attempts have been made to reach out beyond its original base as the share of Israelis identifying as Russian decreases year after year as they are integrated into Israel.  These attempts have however proved largely a failure so far, as the party underwent a decline from 15 seats in the 2009 election down to four in 2015. Despite this, Yisrael Beiteinu defied expectations in the April 2019 election: not only did it manage to surpass the 3.25% electoral threshold, which many polls had indicated would be unlikely, but it also increased its number of seats in the Knesset from 4 to 5.  Current polling suggests that this increase can be expected to continue, as data from seven separate surveys shows that Yisrael Beiteinu would achieve an average of 8 seats in the Knesset.

The importance of Yisrael Beiteinu’s rise cannot be overstated, considering their past of unwillingness to compromise: coming out of the election with a stronger negotiating hand, Lieberman would endanger a Netanyahu government yet again, and electoral success would vindicate his choice of defiance over the draft law, making it a sticking point in future negotiations. Even if Netanyahu somehow managed to form a government, the heightened tensions between a strengthened Yisrael Beiteinu, the Likud and the Haredi parties would make any future government highly fractious and unstable.

Opposition woes

Currently occupying 55 seats in the Knesset, the centrist (Blue & White), left-wing (Labor and Meretz) and Arab (previously, Hadash + Ta’al and Balad+ Ra’am, now a unified Joint List) opposition suffers, even more so than the right-wing bloc, from instability and internal rivalries.

The previous election saw the rise of the leader of the newly created Israel Resilience Party, Benny Gantz, who marketed himself explicitly as the anti-Netanyahu candidate.  Gantz hoped to unite the centre ground of Israeli politics to depose a controversial Prime Minister mired in corruption scandals. Together with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Gantz formed the Blue & White alliance which gained 35 seats in the Knesset, the same number as Likud. While the last election was a considerable personal success for Gantz, it wasn’t exactly the killing blow to Netanyahu he had hoped for as he lacked the numbers to form a coalition under his leadership due to the underperformance of other opposition parties.

In particular, the recent election was a crushing defeat for the centre-left Labor Party, as they saw their number of seats decrease from 19 in 2015 to 6, a historic low. Much of this was the work of Blue & White, as Gantz’s charisma and centrist credentials made him a more appealing anti-Netanyahu candidate than the lacklustre Labor chairman Avi Gabbay. Meretz, the other left-wing party, was also hurt by Blue & White, decreasing their number of Members of the Knesset (MKs) from five to four. Overall, in the Netanyahu era the barycentre of Israeli politics has shifted markedly to the right. The main competition is now between a ‘hard’ right bloc and a centrist alliance, while Labor, the party that produced former Prime Ministers such as Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, is now only the six largest force and can at best hope to serve as junior partner to a future Blue & White-led government.

The last election also spelled trouble for the Arab parties. Arab voter turnout plunged from 64% in 2015 to 49% in 2019, resulting in a reduction in seats from 13 to 10 after the April election, with Balad + Ra’am barely making the threshold a party requires to enter the Knesset. Moreover, despite the number of Arab parties’ seats being considerable, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid have stated they are not willing to allow any Arab parties into their coalition, as has been the precedent throughout Israeli history. The recent resurrection of the Joint List, an alliance of the four major Arab-majority parties dissolved prior to the April 2019 election, has led some to hope that a unified Arab-majority party would gain a considerably larger proportion of the seats due to the concentration of votes in a single party. So far, no polls have been released since the re-creation of Joint List so the effects of a unified Arab political parties are yet to be felt.

However, recent polling indicates that a new election would result in far worse result for the ‘anti-Netanyahu’ bloc of Arab parties, centrists and left-wing parties. Overall the bloc would achieve an average of 52 seats, three fewer than in 2019, with the centre party of Blue & White decreasing from 35 to 34 and Labor falling further from 6 to 4. A poll conducted by Panel Politics indicates that Labor may not even enter the Knesset, which would be a historic first and a significant blow for those who hold hopes to see Netanyahu gone from his role as Prime Minister. As for the Arab parties, there is some uncertainty in the polls: some indicate an increase from 10 to 12, others display a decline to only seven seats.

There is very little in the polls to suggest that a new election would be beneficial for Gantz and his supporters, as it was assumed after the breakdown of coalition negotiations. Instead, an election taking place now may well see a gradual decline of his party and those to the left of it. Moreover, the possible rebound of Arab parties may further complicate Gantz’s position in future negotiation talks, possibly require some form of support from the Arab parties – support that he has previously refused. For now, his unwillingness to seek that accord effectively gives Gantz few chances of becoming Prime Minister

Another election, another shot

Not all polling has been bad news for Netanyahu: 8/9 of the polls conducted suggest that another right-wing secular party, the New Right, which is headed by long-time supporters of Netanyahu, will gain enough seats to allow Netanyahu to form a coalition without Lieberman’s support, sidestepping the thorny issue of draft exemptions. Instead, he would replace the six-to-eight seats of Yisrael Beiteinu with those of the New Right, which is projected to gain 5 seats, aided by possible additional gains made by other right-wing parties.

The New Right has had a very rough six months, so this election comes as a welcome second chance to its leaders. Created on 29th December 2018 by a breakaway faction in the right-wing Jewish Home and led by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Education Minister Naftali Bennet, the party failed to enter the Knesset in April, garnering only 3.22% of the vote. Shaked and Bennet have since lost their ministerial positions and were even reported to be seeking to leave the party and find new political homes elsewhere, having lost faith in the project. The latest polling may instead give them reason to stick together as they see a potential to grow their own party rather operating elsewhere. In this sense, the increasing fragmentation of the right under proportional representation has turned out to be a double-edged sword for Netanyahu. In the previous election, the excessive diversification of the political offer for a limited electoral constituency resulted in the underrepresentation of that voting bloc, with the New Right falling just short of the electoral threshold. However, if the New Right performs as the polls suggest, this time fragmentation may ease the process of forming a government for Netanyahu.

Growing divides

It is still unclear how the Israeli voters will approach a new election after the last ended inconclusively. Turnout in particular will be crucial: as seen in Greece and Spain in 2015/2016, elections held a few months after the previous contests tend to register a decrease in turnout, but it’s unclear who this may benefit in Israel. All we have for now is polling, which can only offer the slightest of insights into what we can expect. One thing is for certain: what happens now in Israel is not representative of what will happen in the next three months. Will new parties rise or fall? Will scandals taint leaders? For now, things aren’t looking stable for any parties, and the worst of the deadlock and instability may well still lie ahead.

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Adam is the Team Leader of Asia Elects, and covers Israel and the State of Palestine.