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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Israel’s Elections: Frustrating Outcomes, Positive Trends

Shmuel Rosneris an Israeli columnist, editor, and researcher. He is a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times and is the political editor of the Jewish Journal.

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Shmuel Rosner
Shmuel Rosneris an Israeli columnist, editor, and researcher. He is a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times and is the political editor of the Jewish Journal.

This article is a short version of an analysis I wrote for The Jewish People Policy Institute (you can read it in its entirety here).

Elections, like all campaigns, can be analyzed on the tactical, short-term level or in terms of longer-term trends. On the tactical level, Israel’s elections did not result in a decisive victory for any political camp. This deadlock could lead to a fifth election cycle or, alternately, to the piecing together of an ideologically incoherent coalition that will, therefore, not have a strong chance of surviving. In a series of political moves, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded in splitting his rival camp.

But the outcome remained similar to the results of the previous three elections and did not provide a clear winner. When examining long-term trends, this election seems like a continuation of its predecessors: Israel is stuck in a near stalemate between the two broad political camps, divided along what seems to be a personal issue but is actually much deeper. The key question is whether Netanyahu can continue to serve as prime minister.

The legal situation is clear: Netanyahu can continue to serve, even though a number of indictments have been filed against him for corruption. Netanyahu’s supporters hold strong to this fact and claim that challenging Netanyahu’s legitimacy is only a political move employed by those who do not have enough support to win an election against him. Netanyahu’s opponents claim that most of the public is not interested in continuing his tenure (as public opinion polls show), and therefore, negating his legitimacy is justified.

The socio-political situation is more complex: In order to decipher its implications, it is helpful to look at voters according to characteristics besides whether or not they are against Netanyahu’s continued tenure as prime minister. When dividing the electorate into Arabs and Jews, for example, the 2021 election once again demonstrated Arab-Israeli voters’ difficulty in gaining political representation proportionate to their population share, as well as the practical difficulty of leveraging this representation to influence policy.

However, the split in Arab voters in this election could point to a gradual shift in the Arab-Israeli approach to the Israeli political arena. The Ra’am party, led by Mansour Abbas, announced prior to the elections that it would not rule out any possible coalition partners, including those from the right. This announcement indicates a desire to influence the political system from within through political bargaining to promote the interests of Arab-Israeli voters. This approach would require Arab parties to concede their usual approach, which has been viewed by the public (at times justified and at other times less so) as being more concerned with the “Palestinian interests” of non-Israelis than those of their actual voters.

In this context, after it became obvious that these elections resulted in another stalemate, even strongly right-wing parties, who have at times employed harsh rhetoric against the Arab minority in Israel (especially the “Religious Zionists”), began speaking differently about the possibility of entering a coalition with an Arab party (or at least the possibility of some kind of limited joint action in relation to legislative processes in the Knesset).

The fact that a Likud prime minister has not ruled out political partnership with an Arab is one of the most significant developments of this election.

The fact that a Likud prime minister has not ruled out, and may even require, political partnership with an Arab party — which at least some of his far-right partners are willing to consider — is undoubtedly one of the most significant developments of this election. It is clear that the political system is moving toward this possibility, mostly for electoral considerations, which some have called “cynical.” However, one should not underestimate the conceptual shift and the significance of the Israeli public’s openness to the greater involvement of Arab parties and Knesset members in their political lives. This development should be taken into consideration when examining the overall significance of the current political stalemate. On one hand, this sharpens a number of tensions and highlights deep divisions between groups in Israeli society, but on the other hand, it accelerates surprising societal processes that could bring about positive long-term change.

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