Stalemate in Israel

On Israel’s Channel 12, a few days after the latest elections, the talk-show panelists did their best to find a bottom line. The final results made it clear that Netanyahu’s party, Likud, had secured the largest number of seats: 30, with 24% of the vote. Yesh Atid, the so-called ‘centrist’ party led by Yair Lapid, won just over half that number: 17 seats at 14%.

In regular times, Netanyahu’s vote share would make it easy for him, as an acting Prime Minister, to form a coalition, roping in the ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties to make up 61 seats (the key figure needed to guarantee a majority in the 120-seat Knesset).  Yet these are not regular times. The 2021 poll was the fourth in less than two years, and Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial has been a constant background presence. As the frequency of elections has increased, the opposition to Bibi’s right-wing leadership has been reshaped.

There is not only the ideological resistance of the shrinking left, but also a centrist ‘in the name of democracy’ opposition and a right-wing ‘in the name of Jabotinsky’ opposition. The most prominent member of the centrist camp is Lapid: a former TV anchor and journalist who founded Yesh Atid in 2012. Despite serving as Netanyahu’s finance minister in the national unity government between 2013 and 2014, Lapid won plaudits from anti-Netanyahu centrists when he refused to join the PM’s coalition following the 2020 elections. Since then, he has increased his popularity by parroting the key points of the Israeli consensus. When he speaks – with the charisma of a TV presenter – he usually waves Jewish-Israeli flags, invokes the memory of the Holocaust, praises the IDF and excoriates the BDS movement.  

Bibi’s main rivals on the right are Naftali Bennett of the New Right party, Gideon Sa’ar of New Hope, and Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu (‘Israel Our Home’). Of the three, Bennett is aligned with the religious-nationalist strand of Israeli politics – although he has recently appeared to place nationalism above religious purity, highlighting his refusal to take orders from the Orthodox rabbis. More secular in character, but as right-wing and pro-settlements as Bennett, Sa’ar’s New Hope has positioned itself as a ‘clean’ version of Likud, reviving the tradition of Menachem Begin (whose son, Zeev Benjamin Begin, left his father’s party to join Sa’ar). Its electoral pitch has revolved around Netanyahu’s personal sleaze and unfitness for high office. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu has traditionally been a party of the extreme right, oriented toward ex-Soviet immigrants like Lieberman himself (who was born in Kishinev and emigrated to Israel in 1978). Yet in the past four elections it sought to broaden its appeal, playing to secular and anti-Haredi sentiments while abandoning its usual Arab-baiting rhetoric.

The balance of these forces has produced a deadlock. Although there is a record number of right-wing parliamentarians, Netanyahu cannot find 61 MPs who will support a coalition under his leadership. This is because a large proportion of Israelis voted tactically for right-wing anti-Netanyahu parties who vowed not to strike a deal with the incumbent. Many who identify with the centre – and even with the left – decided to support Sa’ar or Lieberman, as they believed this was the best means of ending the Netanyahu era. As a result, the anti-Netanyahu opposition now has more than 61 MPs, yet this bloc includes a mix of parties who do not share much common ground apart from their contempt for Bibi, and would have serious trouble forming an alliance. It is still possible that the insurgent right-wing groups will try to band together with other parties and oust Netanyahu by appointing Bennett or Sa’ar as PM. Yet this is far from certain given the rifts between them; and before that can happen, Netanyahu will spend weeks attempting to eke out a majority. On the Channel 12 panel discussion, one of the guests presented her conclusion: ‘This is already the fourth election campaign in a row in which Netanyahu did not win. It is obvious that he didn’t win’. Another panelist responded: ‘It is also certain that he did not lose’. That, in a nutshell, is the story.

It must be remembered that for Netanyahu, the number 61 is crucial – not only because this is where his political survival lies, but also because this is where his personal freedom may be found. If he succeeds in creating a sturdy coalition, Netanyahu will be able to start fighting his legal case – not from inside the courtroom, but from outside it, pitting the executive against the judiciary. There are various speculations regarding what he will do should he reach the magic number: sack the current State Attorney and appoint someone who is softer on corruption; hire a new, flexible Minister of Justice (Israel currently has no one in that position as Netanyahu refuses to enable a permanent appointment); introduce the ‘French Law’ which would prevent a sitting Prime Minister from being convicted; select an agreed candidate from Likud to be the PM in return for a coalition vote on Netanyahu becoming the next president; and other such creative ideas. Anything that would prevent the incumbent finding himself in the position of former Prime Minister Olmert – behind bars.

Ahead of the vote, there were several factors that worked in Netanyahu’s favour. First, support for Benny Gantz’s Kachol-Lavan (‘Blue and White’) alliance collapsed after it betrayed its promise not to enter government with Netanyahu. Gantz had sleepwalked into Bibi’s disingenuous offer of a rotating prime ministerial position, proving himself easily manipulated and alienating much of his base. That left no other political force whose popularity could rival Likud’s.

Second, Netanyahu made the most of the successful Israeli vaccination operation. His campaign slogan, ‘Hozrim la-Hayyim’ (‘going back to life’), was also the Ministry of Health’s vaccination slogan. (Netanyahu knew that Likud’s appropriation of this motto would be outlawed by the Supreme Court, but he ploughed ahead with it anyway, and managed to print these words on countless billboards before the court ruling arrived.)

Third, Netanyahu went into the election having secured four peace-deals with Arab countries – the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco – during Trump’s final weeks in office. These states displayed a willingness to normalize relations with Israel and pursue their shared economic interests in the region without demanding any concessions over Palestine – a coup against those who believed that Israel would have to end its occupation and improve relations with the Palestinians before it could establish warm relations with the Arab world.

Fourth, the union of Arab parties known as the Joint List had won a record 15 seats in the last election, yet its unity was severely damaged after one of its components – the Islamic Movement led by Mansour Abbas – began a flirtation with Netanyahu. Splitting with other Arab parties, Abbas declared that he was open to the possibility of joining a Netanyahu-led coalition. This created a division in the Arab community which, combined with its general apathy, led to a decline in Arab voter turnout – from 65% in 2020 to 44% in 2021. (The overall Israeli turnout of 67% was the lowest since 2009, having decreased by about 4% since the 2020 elections.) With a growing number of Arab citizens backing Zionist parties including Likud, the Joint List’s seats fell to 6 (down from the 15 it had when unified with the Islamic Movement), while Abbas and his allies picked up 4.

Throughout the election campaign, Netanyahu continued to court the Islamic Movement while pandering to Israel’s Arab citizens, nicknaming himself ‘Abu-Yair’ (literally ‘Yair’s father’, the traditional Arabic way of naming a person after his eldest son), and claiming that the Jewish nationality bill – a law enacted in 2018 which demotes non-Jews to the status of second-class citizens – was never designed to target Arabs. It was merely an attempt, he said without blinking, to stop illegal immigration from Africa.

While reaching out to this demographic, Netanyahu simultaneously cheered on the far-right Religious Zionist Party – a group that harks back to the racist legacy of Rabbi Meir Kahane, pledging to annex the West Bank, legalize settlements, roll back LGBT rights, expel ‘disloyal’ Arab MKs and scrap Israel’s commitment to gender equality. The PM knew full well that if this group did not pass the electoral threshold, then votes from the pro-Netanyahu camp would likely be wasted. His electoral strategy therefore relied on cozying up to the Arabs and the ultra-right-wing-Zionists who want to transfer them out of the country. It is hard to believe that someone can move from saying green is black to red is yellow so quickly, but for a politician who could teach Machiavelli a few lessons, this came as no surprise.

Yet the bottom line, if one looks for one, is this. Despite all the hocus-pocus, Netanyahu cannot form a coalition in the present circumstances. The evidential stage of his trial has now begun. This means three hearings every week to pore over accusations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in connection with three separate cases. The Israeli political system is more stuck than ever, and on each side the outlook is bleak. For Netanyahu, the principal aim is to evade a jail sentence. His foremost rivals, from Lapid to Bennett, want him to face justice, yet their ambition is to lead a coalition that will continue the main tenets of his rule. The Israeli ‘opposition’ may question Bibi’s morals, but they pose no threat to his politics.  

Read on: Yitzhak Laor, ‘Israel’s Peace Camp’, NLR 10.