March 30, 2020

Israel’s (Third) Election: A Short Guide

Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images

Let me begin by stating the obvious: One doesn’t lose sleep over something that happens often and is likely to happen again soon. So don’t lose sleep over Israel’s election on March 2. There’s a slight chance that it will be dramatic. There’s a greater chance that it won’t. There’s a slight chance that it will be the last election for a while. There’s a greater chance that the next election will come within a … well, that depends on the following factors: 

Voter turnout: In this election, the third in less than a year, the camp whose voters don’t tire is the one with the advantage. And we’re all tired. The campaigns are tired, the streets are tired, the media coverage is tired. It is the dullest election campaign in Israel’s history. It also takes place on a Monday, not the usual day for an election. It’s also happening as the coronavirus is making people nervous about visiting public places. It’s also happening when most polls suggest that nothing will change. So, why bother? 

Arab vote: The Arab Joint List is an important player in this election. The more votes it gets, the more complicated the situation becomes. Why? Because more seats for the Arabs means fewer seats for the center-left bloc (Blue and White, Labor-Meretz, Yisrael Beiteinu). If this bloc doesn’t have more seats than the right-religious bloc (Likud, United Torah Judaism, Shas, Yamina), it won’t be able to form a minority coalition with the Arabs sitting on the fence. Complicated? Keep reading.

Long-term trends: The involvement of Arabs in national politics is an important development. Another interesting trend within the past year: The religious-Zionist camp can’t find common ground and unite around a party (maybe it no longer feels the need to have its own party). And Israel’s founding party — Labor — is gone, merging with Meretz and no longer a major player.  

Netanyahu’s options: If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc (Likud) surprises and wins more than 60 seats, he will form a coalition and govern. If he has fewer than 60 (as predicted), what he wants is a fourth election. That is, keep his job while voters wait for another round. (Netanyahu’s criminal trial on corruption charges is slated to begin March 17.)

The Arab Joint List is an important player in this election. The more votes it gets, the more complicated the situation becomes.

Gantz’s options: If Benny Ganz’s bloc (Blue and White) has more seats than the Netanyahu bloc, he can form a minority coalition. The bloc will vote for it, the Netanyahu bloc will vote against it, and the Arabs will abstain. If his bloc has fewer seats than Netanyahu’s he will face a dilemma and a challenge: Would he and could he form a coalition based not on the abstention of Arabs but rather on their active support? (He will need them to vote for a coalition that includes ultra-nationalists such as Avigdor Lieberman). 

Prior commitments: Many of Israel’s political problems can be solved if some parties decide to no longer stick to prior commitments and habits. These are: Blue and White’s complete refusal to join a Netanyahu coalition (it is a personal condition, not against Likud but rather against him). Likud’s insistence on representing a “bloc” that includes the ultra-Orthodox. Lieberman’s war against the ultra-Orthodox. The ultra-Orthodox refusal to abandon Likud. The inability of Likud leaders to challenge Netanyahu. On election night, look for signs of change in the way the leaders speak about these conditions. 

Losing parties: Which parties are going to be afraid of a fourth election? These will be the parties more likely to become disloyal to previous commitments and accept the need to end the deadlock. Likely losers: Lieberman, whose bag of political tricks seems to get smaller with every round. Yamina — the right-wing party whose commitment to Likud costs it every time. But it also could be Blue and White. If recent polls are correct, Likud might get more seats in this round than Blue and White, possibly signaling that the party’s peak is behind it, and maybe it is time for it to cash in. 

Best-case scenarios: For Netanyahu: a 61-seat coalition. Such a coalition would enable him to govern and also could mitigate his legal troubles. For Gantz: an ability to form a minority government that could survive long enough for Netanyahu to be forced out. For the public: A unity government. A tie could send Israel into another round.

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