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22 March 2021

Israel elections 2021: Political deadlock as nation votes for fourth time in two years

A successful vaccine rollout does not appear to have translated into a boost for Binyamin Netanyahu's party.

By Ido Vock

Israelis will go to the polls on Tuesday 23 March, the fourth national vote in two years. Three previous elections to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, failed to provide a clear majority for either Binyamin Netanyahu, the current prime minister, or his opponents. The previous government, a coalition between Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White, collapsed in December 2020. (Coincidentally, Palestinians will also hold their first elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council since 2006 this May.)

New parties come and go in Israeli politics with every election. To get the macro picture, it is better to look at ideological blocs rather than single parties. Broadly, these can be divided into Jewish parties of the right, centre and left (categorised according to their positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than economics), in addition to groupings representing ultra-Orthodox and Arab populations. 

The right-wing bloc is the most hawkish on the conflict. Its ideological tendencies range from Revisionist Zionist (the territorially maximalist movement developed by the author Ze’ev Jabotinsky) to outright Kahanist (the far-right strain of Zionism which advocates the forced removal of Arabs from Israel and the Palestinian territories, named after the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane). 

The right has long advocated strength through power and is almost universally dismissive of establishing a Palestinian state and giving up land in the Palestinian territories it considers rightfully Israel’s. This bloc, which is headed by Likud, includes other smaller parties such as Yamina, led by former defence minister Naftali Bennett, who advocates annexing most of the West Bank to Israel, and the Jewish fundamentalist Religious Zionist Party. Gideon Sa’ar, a former Likud MP, is hoping to unseat Netanyahu from the right with his New Hope party. The right-wing bloc is currently the largest in the Knesset and is virtually certain to continue to be so after the elections.  

The centrist bloc tends to blend the right’s scepticism of negotiations with the Palestinians with the left’s belief that Israel cannot permanently occupy the Palestinian territories (in short, a Palestinian state, but not right now). Yesh Atid, the leading centrist party, is led by Yair Lapid, a former journalist. Gantz’s Blue and White has seen its support collapse after he went into government with Netanyahu last year and is now polling right on the threshold for entering parliament. 

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The left believes in a negotiated two-state solution to the Palestinian question, which would mean the end of the occupation and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Represented in the Knesset by the historically dominant but now marginal Labour Party and the left-wing Meretz, it is by far the smallest of the three main blocs. If Meretz fails to pass the electoral threshold, a risk judging by the polls, it will be further weakened. 

Finally, the ultra-Orthodox parties represent the interests of very religious voters largely living outside of secular society, making up about 13 per cent of the Israeli population. They generally prefer to align with the right, though they sometimes find themselves in conflict with its more secular members who support, for instance, expanding military conscription to the ultra-Orthodox, who are currently exempt. The Arab parties represent the fifth of Israeli citizens of Arab ethnicity. 

Focusing on individual parties can sometimes obscure the overall picture, which is of a dominant right; a centre which after the last three elections has been just strong enough to prevent a stable Netanyahu government but performed too poorly to gain power for itself; and an eviscerated, largely irrelevant left. 
 
However, the picture is additionally complicated by the distorting effect of Netanyahu personally, who is currently on trial over corruption charges. The desire to unseat him has pushed leaders such as Bennett and Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman towards courting the centre bloc, when they would naturally be allied with Likud. (Indeed, both began their political careers in the party.) Without Netanyahu, a Likud-led right-wing coalition could probably be agreed without much difficulty on current numbers, Abe Silberstein, an American writer on Israel, told me.

The outcome of this week’s vote will largely depend on whether Gantz’s Blue and White and the left-wing Meretz pass the electoral threshold. If they do, Netanyahu will find it more difficult to form a stable right-wing government, just as he has since the first of this series of elections in 2019. If they do not, the path to a right-wing government is clearer and Netanyahu, already the country’s longest-serving leader, will probably be returned for yet another term. 

Israel’s coronavirus vaccine roll-out, the most successful in the world with over 110 doses administered per 100 people, according to figures collated by Our World in Data, a project at Oxford University, does not seem to have translated into much of a boost for Netanyahu’s party, despite the prime minister’s early hopes

The larger picture is of the further entrenchment of the rightwards shift in Israeli politics. A just outcome for the Palestinian people looks ever-more distant as a consequence, even if Netanyahu himself continues to prove an obstacle to the formation of a stable right-wing coalition.

[See also: What does Benny Gantz’s fall mean for the Israeli opposition?]