In the Hebrew calendar—13 Nissan 5781—is the day observant households burn all remaining traces of bread in preparation for the Passover Holiday. On the Julian calendar, however, March 26, 2021 should formally be rebranded as Israeli Groundhog Day, when the beleaguered Israeli Elections Commissioner certified the results of an election that was just as deadlocked as the three before.
By most accounts, the 25th Knesset, elected on March 23, 2021, will be little more than a parking lot for the 26th. The anti-Netanyahu block gained the numerical advantage this time, but its seven parties are too riven by ego and ideological divisions to have a snowball’s chance of forming a viable coalition. At the same time, Benjamin Netanyahu is still two seats shy of a coalition even if he can coax his erstwhile protege, Naftali Bennet, back into his coalition. As coalition negotiations commence, there is already talk of the next election.
Unless, in the spirit of Passover, a desperate Netanyahu does something that would make this election different from all others and invites another ultra-religious party opposed to gay marriage into his coalition—Mansour Abbas’ Ra’am party.
Chances that the other ultra-religious anti-gay party in Netanyahu’s camp will accept to sit in a government with Non-Zionist, Palestinian Arabs, are slim. But, shattering this singular taboo in Israeli politics is not only Netanyahu’s best and possibly only hope for evading judgement in his pending corruption trial, it may just be the only way for Israelis to escape their perpetual election loop.
More Fractured than Ever
The results of the March 23, 2021 election confirm that a majority of the Israeli electorate is exactly where they have been for over a decade: firmly divided between those who want a center-right government led by Netanyahu, and those who want a center-right government led by someone else. In such situations, Netanyahu will always have the advantage, even as his personal liabilities mount.
First, as architect and engineer of the Post-Oslo consensus, Netanyahu’s challengers must demonstrate their commitment to the central tenets of his vision while simultaneously arguing why they should replace him. Second, unlike his challengers, he is not hamstrung by principles or commitments to particular ideological positions in forming a viable coalition.
Case in point, while Netanyahu is demonstrably secular, he has learned to live with the persistent demands of Shas and United Torah Judaism, the two ultra-orthodox parties in his coalition. Bibi continues acquiescing to these parties’ proposals on budgets and their routine non-compliance with secular rules and regulations as long as it keeps him ensconced in the Prime Minister’s residence on Balfour street.
In contrast, while the parties in the anti-Netanyahu block largely agree on the imperative of limiting the influence of the ultra-orthodox rabbinate in society, they struggle to bridge fierce disagreements on how to approach the conflict with the Palestinians.
Yet, even if they could find a way to paper over their ideological differences, there is still one barrier that makes it all but impossible for the parties in the anti-Netanyahu block to build a 61 seat coalition—the taboo against forming a government that includes parties representing the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Since 2009, if not before, there haven’t been enough votes in the center or center-right to forge a coalition that doesn’t include either the two ultra-orthodox parties or the Non-Zionist Arab parties. The days in which a center-left coalition of Labor and Meretz (a green, left-wing political party) could forge a majority with a small number of centrist parties are not only long gone; they never actually existed.
In 1992, when Labor had its strongest showing since the 1970s, and Meretz swelled to twelve seats, the late Yitzhak Rabin still needed six seats from Shas, a Haredi religious political party, to form a government. He was forced to rely on the tacit cooperation of the three Arab and Non-Zionist parties to ensure the passage of the Oslo agreements. After 1996, neither party ever recovered.
This time, the parties of the traditional Zionist left managed to claw back a few seats from the center, not by championing the pursuit of peace, but caterwauling over the fate of Israel’s democracy. While this strategy saved both Labor and Meretz from electoral oblivion, it did little to shift the political center of gravity. On the contrary, the opposition is more fractured than ever. Other than Yesh Atid, none of the parties in the so-called “Netanyahu block” won more than eight seats and most came in at seven.
A Taboo Solution
Despite holding a numerical majority, a governing coalition depends on shoehorning together parties with ideological and policy differences. Such parties would also need to accept that their leaders will most likely not rise to be Prime Minister.
Unless, of course, the parties of the center and the left are willing to form a government with the two Arab parties, which is something none of them—not Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Labor or even Meretz were willing to consider. Rather than risk being dubbed a radical leftist, which Netanyahu was already more than willing to do, Benjamin Gantz allowed himself to be duped into believing he could save Israel from a fourth election if he broke his campaign promises. In March 2020, he took his Resilience faction into a narrow unity government with Netanyahu as Prime Minister. It did not.
Despite that humiliation, each of Netanyah’s challengers somehow believed embarking on the exact same strategy with the exact same electorate would yield a different result. The hope was that Netanyahu’s cozy relationship with the ultra-orthodox parties would put a dent on his popularity in the working-class neighborhoods hardest hit by the pandemic lockdowns prolonged by defiance in the ultra-orthodox communities.
And by all accounts they were right. Likud had its worst showing since 2015, in no small part due to rising frustration with Netanyahu’s brazenly self-serving style of governance. But a final victory would have required a ten-plus seat gutting, equivalent to what Labor suffered in 1996 or 2009, to allow the possibility of a centrist right party coalition forming the government.
Instead, the most likely outcome, anticipated by pundits and pollsters alike, was either deadlock, or a narrow right wing government that included the new Religious Zionist political bloc. The Religious Zionist bloc is an arranged marriage between three small parties on the fascist fringe of the settler movement.
Netanyahu believed this bloc would boost his overall majority and drain seats from Bennett’s Yamina party, which had not formally committed to join his government.
For a while, it looked like Bibi had pulled it off, and the story of the day would be Netanyahu’s tenacity and the amount of damage his quest to stay out of prison would inflict upon the Israeli judiciary. But the polls didn’t hold.
Even with the six seats won by Religious Zionism, Netanyahu would need one more seat than those won by Yamina to clinch a majority. And that deficit makes it less likely he will be able to cajole Bennett into coming home.
The perennial phoenix of Israeli politics now has three options for survival.
The first, and most palatable, is to coax a few members of defector Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope Party back to Likud. Sa’ar’s adamant assertion statements that no members of his party will sit with Netanyahu is a good sign those conversations have already taken place and not gone well for the Prime Minister.
Second, The second option is to accept defeat, and run out the clock to the next election as a caretaker Prime Minister. However, that strategy is even riskier than the last time around. Netanyahu’s personal negatives are becoming too apparent and the opening of the evidentiary stage of his corruption trial in the coming weeks is likely to mean he would have to campaign as a criminal defendant with his dirty laundry part of the daily headlines.
That leaves Netanyahu with the third option of taking a step no Israeli leader has been willing to take do since the founding of the country and round out his majority with four seats from Mansour Abbas’s Islamist Ra’am Party, which broke with the Joint List over, you guessed it, concern that the impact of a secular agenda was having a negative influence on the morals of young people in the Arab-Israeli sector.
While unlikely, it is possible that like Begin returning the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt at Camp David, only Netanyahu has the capacity to break this historic taboo and a rightist Israeli PM (Bibi) will embrace the far right Palestinian Ra’am to create a functioning if not deeply disturbing Israeli and Palestinian ruling coalition.
If Netanyahu does not take this step, the deadlock of recent years will continue.
Allison Hodgkins is an assistant professor of international security and conflict management at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Prior to joining AUC, she directed the CIEE Study Center at the University of Jordan from 2006 to 2012, and served as academic director at the Middle East Peace and Conflict Studies program of the School for International Training between 1995 and 2001. She taught at the University of Jordan, Bentley College, and Northeastern University. She is a regular contributor at Political Violence @ a Glance. On Twitter: @ABHodgkins.Read More
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