A Worthy Fifth?

What we can expect as Israel faces its fifth election in almost four years.

Shmuel Rosner is an Israeli columnist, editor, and researcher. He is the editor of the research and data-journalism website themadad.com, and is the political editor of the Jewish Journal.

Shmuel Rosner
Shmuel Rosner is an Israeli columnist, editor, and researcher. He is the editor of the research and data-journalism website themadad.com, and is the political editor of the Jewish Journal.

You might have heard that complaint before: “It is all about Benjamin Netanyahu.” 

You might have heard that line before: “It’s the fight of only-Netanyahu against never-Netanyahu.” 

You might find this storyline boring, repetitive, devoid of inspiration. 

But that’s our story. Israel is going to the polls once more. Israel is going to decide, once more, does it want HIM or not.  

Israel is going to the polls once more. Israel is going to decide, once more, does it want HIM or not. 

On November 1, Israelis will get yet another chance to stabilize the political arena. A fifth chance in fewer than four years of constant campaigning. Between now and Election Day, there is a hot summer, a holiday season, a life to live uninterrupted by politics. Maybe next year. This summer will be interrupted by the noisy and brutal machine of politics. First, it will be primary season as parties must choose their leaders and lists of candidates. Then, it will be on to finalizing the lists, deciding on mergers and splits. Then, mobilizing an exhausted public, encouraging it not to tire of participation. Then, forming a coalition—if there is one to form. Israel’s political system is like a car with a large engine that’s always in neutral, with a heavy foot on the gas pedal. The level of noise is almost unbearable, while the car isn’t moving anywhere, just waiting for someone to have the power to move the stick to drive. 

Three main questions will determine the post-election political future of Israel:

Will Netanyahu and his bloc of religious parties get more than 60 seats? The polls show that there is such possibility. And if it materializes, Netanyahu will hold all the cards.

Will Netanyahu choose to form a narrow coalition, or decide to use his better cards to form a wider, less ideologically coherent coalition? Historically speaking, and also as a practical matter, it is better for him to be at the center of his coalition and not the most moderate member of it.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a protest against the Israeli government on April 6, 2022 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

If Netanyahu and his bloc do not get 61 seats, will there be an option for a viable and stable coalition that does not include the Likud Party? The outgoing coalition was a creative construct, but a shaky one. It lasted for just one year, and ought to be a warning sign that the creative path isn’t always the most effective path.

They were two: young, verbal, telegenic, fresh. The year was 2012, and their rise was meteoric. Yair Lapid formed a new party, Yesh Atid. Naftali Bennett took over a party, The Jewish Home. A decade later, both have made it to the Prime Minister’s office, both have triumphed, failed, cooperated, both were disappointed by friends, both were manipulated by foes, both operated under the large shadow of the man they came to unseat and inherit, Netanyahu. They were his partners and his rivals. They took him down, and then he took them down back. Now they must part ways: Lapid, to continue his long journey of making Yesh Atid Israel’s main party of the center-left and himself the main candidate of this bloc for the top job; Bennett, to stop and rethink his political strategy for the future, to take a break, from which he intends to return, sooner rather than later. 

For Lapid, the coming election is a dramatic test of viability. Yesh Atid is the second largest party in the Knesset, after Likud, and polls show that it ought to be the second largest in the next Knesset. Netanyahu is the man to beat on the right. Lapid is the man to beat on the center-left. Netanyahu is the leader of his bloc, with no one challenging his authority. Lapid is the leader of the other bloc, who gets most of the credit for forming the outgoing coalition, who gets credit for readily accepting Bennett, the head of a much smaller party, as Prime Minister, who gets credit for being methodical, serious, cunning, patient, polite.  

For Lapid, the coming election is a dramatic test of viability.

Lapid is also the Prime Minister. For a few months, the public will get used to him as Prime Minister, and maybe learn to accept his presence at the PM’s office as something that feels natural and unthreatening. So, in more than one way, the coming election is Lapid’s great chance of becoming Israel’s leader. To achieve his goal, the one thing he must prevent is a 61 majority for Netanyahu and his bloc of Likud, the Zionist Religious party, and the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. 

Why? That’s easy to explain. With 61 seats Netanyahu could form a coalition and could also tempt other parties to join him by way of helping him balance Israel’s government. Take, for example, the leader of Blue and White, Benny Gantz. He is a key character in the unfolding drama of this election for several reasons.

Israeli Minister of Defense, Benny Gantz speaks at the start of a Blue and White party meeting on June 27, 2022 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

First, not long ago, it was Gantz against Netanyahu, not Lapid. And Gantz never truly accepted Lapid as the leader of the center-left bloc. Second, Gantz has better relations with the Orthodox camp than Lapid. He is much less reviled by rightwing voters. Third, Gantz’ party is more to the right than Lapid’s. If Lapid is center-slightly-left, Gantz is center-slightly-right. The bottom line of all these factors is the same: Gantz could become a partner of Likud. He could be tempted into a right-religious coalition in two ways: Netanyahu could tell him that he must join him in his quest to reign in the more radical components of his coalition; or Netanyahu could let him be Prime Minister. True, Gantz already pocketed such a promise two years ago, when he joined Netanyahu, and the promise was not fulfilled. But a second time could be a charm, if Gantz makes sure to sign an agreement from which Netanyahu has no escape. 

This was a long way of making a short argument: 61 is the key. With it, Netanyahu holds all the cards. Without it—it’s not clear what is going to happen. 

In September 2019, the leader of the Israel Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, made a decisive comment: A third election is not going to happen. In January 2020, Lieberman made a similar comment: A fourth election is not going to happen. In March 2021, Lieberman was silent. Ayelet Shaked of the Yamina party made the comment: A fifth election is not going to happen. She was not alone, and she was not wrong—not at the time. A coalition was formed, which lasted a year. Now, a fifth election will take place, and whether Shaked’s prediction should be considered a false prophesy, or a reasonable assessment, is an open question. 

Would you bet against a sixth election? I’d urge you to be cautious. In fact, under the current circumstances it is quite easy to see such a scenario materialize: Netanyahu and his bloc fail to get the 61 needed seats; Gantz refuses to join in and become Netanyahu’s savior; Yamina under Shaked (with Bennett having a “time out”) doesn’t cross the electoral threshold; Lapid cannot convince New Hope to sit alongside the Arab Joint List. Voilà! In February 2023 we can have our sixth election. Not the worst scenario for Lapid, as he will stay as the Prime Minister until then. 

And what about Netanyahu? Once more, there are whispers among politicians and pundits that another failure would be one too many for Netanyahu. If he fails to form a coalition in a fifth election, then he must go. Haredi leaders are warning that they might consider joining a coalition under Gantz to save Israel from another election, and themselves from staying in the opposition. And of course, that could happen, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Netanyahu proved time and again a durability that confounded his peers and rivals.  

Once more, there are whispers among politicians and pundits that another failure would be one too many for Netanyahu.

In October 2021, former Speaker of the Knesset and Likud member Yuli Edelstein announced that he intended to challenge Netanyahu. “Netanyahu was a prime minister with many achievements. I worked with him a lot, but the facts speak for themselves. Four times we had an election, four times the Likud Party won many seats, four times the result was not a Likud-led government. So, we need to draw conclusions.” That was Edelstein, one year ago. 

And how about now, when a fifth election is coming, and the primary election within Likud is near? “Now that we are facing a critical election campaign, I cannot drag the Likud movement into a confrontation within its ranks, so I have decided to withdraw my candidacy for the party leadership in the upcoming elections.” The panther is a pussycat. Edelstein realized that he has zero chance against Netanyahu. And the lesson for other, future challengers is clear: Betting against Netanyahu staying, even amid another failure, is hardly a sure bet.

Is there anything interesting about the upcoming election? Anything that might be worthy of attention? There is, and it’s not among the usual suspects: Lapid and Netanyahu, Gantz and Lieberman.  

The interesting fight is taking place among Arab Israelis. The interesting fight concerns the most daring deed of the outgoing coalition—forming an alliance with the Islamist Raam party. It concerns an important question: Was Raam’s historic participation in the coalition a revolutionary moment that ignites a process of change, or a blip that signals nothing except the very special circumstances and the tendencies of a very special leader, Mansour Abbas?

The interesting fight concerns the most daring deed of the outgoing coalition—forming an alliance with the Islamist Raam party.

The stakes cannot be higher: Israel was established as a State for the Jewish People. It includes a significant Arab minority (about a quarter of its citizens). This situation was a cause for trouble. The Jewish majority was always suspicious of the minority, because of the minority’s reluctance to accept the reality of a Jewish state. The Arab minority was frustrated with the reality of the Jewish “newcomers” having the power to set the direction of the country the two people share (of course, Jews didn’t see themselves as newcomers but rather as a returning indigenous people).

Mansour Abbas, the head of the United Arab Party (Ra’am) delivers a speech on April 1, 2021 in Nazareth, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

It started with bloodshed, when Israel was born in a war of independence, and continued with ebbs and flows of tensions, hostilities and forced, often inconvenient, coexistence. Gradually, some Jews concluded that the time is ripe for a bolder attempt at inclusion. Gradually, some Arabs gradually realized that Israel is not a temporary arrangement, and also learned to appreciate its relative stability and prosperity compared to all other (Arab) options in the region. 

But political processes aren’t always in sync with public moods. The attempt to form a coalition of Jews and Arabs was bold and necessary. Yet it was not a clear and undisputed success. Of course, it was not a success because of political considerations. Too many politicians had a stake in ruining the experiment. But it was also not a success because of the tendency of Jews to remain suspicious and the tendency of Arabs to remain uncommitted. Abbas was committed, but not other members of his party, nor all Arab members of Labor and Meretz.  

The attempt to form a coalition of Jews and Arabs was bold and necessary. Yet it was not a clear and undisputed success.

And now, a real test is coming: the test of voters. A bitter and highly personal battle between two Arab leaders—in the last day of the Knesset, Abbas of Raam and Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List exchanged words that cannot be printed in a family friendly newspaper—is moving to the street. Arab voters will have to make their voices heard: Do they want a process of integration and involvement in the Israeli game of politics, or do they prefer to remain on the sidelines as a permanent opposition as their parties tended to do? 

It’s not as if all Jews accept the idea of integration. The outgoing coalition was under immense pressure from the right, of leaders and experts who believe, not without reason, that Arab intentions are unclear and even suspect. Rightist experts believe that Raam’s grand vision is an Islamic caliphate, and not a Jewish Israel. And they have proof: Raam leaders, including its impressive, communicative head Abbas, paid visits to families of killers and terrorists who sit in Israeli jails. They participated in receptions for such terrorists when they were released from jail. Of course, whether to consider such past behavior as tolerable for a coalition partner is a matter of expectation—and political interest. The center-left opted for yes, the ideological right for no.

But now it is time for Arab voters to speak their minds. If they say no—for example, if Raam fails to cross the electoral threshold, as some polls suggest is possible—then there is little point in Jews becoming enamored with the idea of an evolution toward integration. On the other hand, Arab voters can speak their minds in ways that would force their leaders—not just from Raam—to change course and accept compromise in return for participation. If that happens, it will be an important development. A dramatic development. It will be a development that makes a fifth election less annoying, and maybe even worthwhile.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.

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