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24 March 2021

Israel elections 2021: can Binyamin Netanyahu break yet another political stalemate?

With 90 per cent of the vote counted, the Prime Minister does not have a clear coalition – but neither do his rivals.

By Alona Ferber

After a nail-biting election night, Israelis woke on 24 March to a yet another likely stalemate: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu weakened at the polls, and a surprise potential kingmaker in an Islamist party that previously didn’t look like it would pass the electoral threshold.   

Final results are still days away, but with nearly 90 per cent of the votes counted, Israel’s unprecedented fourth election in two years has not yielded a clear path to government for either Netanyahu or his opponents. As in the past three elections, neither bloc has a decisive edge. Fifth elections are a possibility. 

The minimum majority needed to form a coalition is 61 seats. Early last night, Netanyahu thanked Israeli citizens for handing the right wing in general, and his Likud party in particular, “a major victory”.  But these latest results have the prime minister on just 30 seats, a sharp drop from the 36 he won at the last election, in March 2020. So far, only 52 seats have gone to parties that explicitly said they would support him. ­Despite Israel’s world-leading vaccine roll-out, voters did not look too kindly, perhaps, on Netanyahu’s shambolic handling of the pandemic response, the attendant economic crisis, and even his ongoing criminal trial for fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Election fatigue was also part of the equation: voter turnout was 4.3 per cent lower than last time.  

As the exit polls predicted, the centrist Yesh Atid party remains the second largest, with 17 seats at time of writing. The pro-Netanyahu bloc, which includes his Likud party, the two ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism and the extreme-right Religious Zionist Party, have 52 seats between them. If they can count on Naftali Bennett’s right-wing party Yamina – which is open to joining a Netanayhu coalition but could go either way in theory – they still have only 59. The anti-Netanyahu bloc, meanwhile, which includes parties on the right, left and centre, has just 56 seats. It could cobble together a majority with Bennett, who, with seven seats, has ended up with far less leverage than election polls had predicted. Last night, Bennett said that, whatever happens next, he would act ”with only one guiding principle: what is good for Israel”. This could mean anything.  

There is a surprise addition to both sides’ calculus, however. According to last night’s results, the Islamist party Ra’am did not pass the electoral threshold – but this morning it was safely in the Knesset with five seats. In theory, the party could make the difference to either bloc. Earlier in the campaign, the party leader Mansour Abbas, said he is open to collaborating with Netanyahu, yet on 24 March claimed that he is beholden to no one.

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Anti-Arab racism and the taboo in Israeli politics on Arab-majority parties in government could still be a major barrier to a coalition being formed. During the past two years, Netanyahu and his party worked hard to delegitimise such cooperation as an option for Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, branding Arab politicians supporters of terrorism, and any government reliant on them an existenial threat. Various members of Netanyahu’s Likud are now split over whether Abbas should form part of a government. Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, meanwhile, has reached out to Abbas, and the two plan to meet this week. 

[See also: Alona Ferber on the fragmented opposition to Binyamin Netanyahu]

The results from all ballot boxes should be in by this afternoon, but the full result won’t be in until later this week, after 450,000 remaining absentee votes – including from soldiers – have been counted. Given how tight the race is, even the difference of a seat or two could shift the result.  

In the meantime, a number of parties that were thought to be in danger seem to have made it into the Knesset. The extreme-right Religious Zionist Party is on track to win six seats, far more than anyone predicted, and ensuring that two lawmakers associated with anti-LGBT policy and the Jewish Supremacy of the deceased ideologue Rabbi Meir Kahane are now in the in the Knesset. Netanayhu’s election strategy has banked on their support.

Gantz’s centrist Blue and White, which betrayed voters in the last election by joining the coalition with Netanyahu, got a shock result of eight seats, far higher than even he was expecting. 

Read more: Israel elections 2021: What does Benny Gantz’s fall mean for the opposition?

The left also experienced a surge. Israel’s Labour Party and Meretz are on track to win seven and five seats respectively. Last time they only had seven between them.

The Arab-majority Joint List, a slate of three parties, is down to six seats, however. In March 2020 it won 15, but that was before Ra’am left in February, a split encouraged by overtures from a wiley Netanyahu. New Hope, the right-wing challenger to Netanyahu led by the former Likud member Gideon Sa’ar, is on track for six seats, also a major drop from the 20 or so seats it was polling earlier in the campaign. ­

So far, the results – which may well change – rule out the hard-right coalition Netanyahu had been touting. He will either need to rely on support from Abba’s Islamist Ra’am, or to convince lawmakers from opposition parties to support him (or even defect to Likud). 

For the opposition, the picture is hardly rosier. It will be very difficult for Lapid to build a coalition of the left, right and centre, with support from the Arab-majority parties.

Coalition negotiations could take weeks. If a fifth round of elections go ahead, parties opposing Netanyahu may try to pass legislation disqualifying him because of his ongoing trial. 

Netanyahu is not the only existential issue facing the country, however. Aside from the immediate coronavirus crisis, the country is in urgent need of a national budget. Broader questions over the moribund peace process with the Palestinians have been pushed to the side-lines for too long. 

If Netanyahu somehow manages to pull a rabbit out of the proverbial hat and form a government, not much would likely change on that front. The majority of his coalition would still, for instance, support unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank. But even if the opposition camp manages to form a coalition, it would still be hampered by competing interests from parties of the right, left and centre. The question in that case is how long such a government could put aside its differences to function for the sake of a nation in crisis. 

[See also: can the Israeli left reinvent itself?]