Israel is going to hold its FOURTH round of elections in two years in March. Based on early polling, it looks like the choice for Israeli voters will be between a corrupt right wing-religious government and a more honest and even more right-wing-secular one. The list of variables is long, and if the last three elections are any guide, there will be deals and coalitions formed that can have a dramatic effect. But we have a fairly clear picture of where things stand at this moment.
The sense one comes away with is how difficult it will be to form a government, even compared to the other, recent rounds. The state of play, which will certainly change by March when the election will be held, looks like this (first number is the result from a poll published Tuesday by Israel’s Channel 12, the number in parentheses is how many seats the party currently has in the Knesset):
Likud 29 (36)
Tikva Hadasha 18 (-)
Yesh Atid-Telem 16 (17)
Yamina 13 (5)
Joint List 11 (15)
Shas 8 (9)
UTJ 8 (7)
Yisrael Beiteinu 7 (7)
Meretz 5 (3)
Kahol Lavan 5 (14)
Gesher 0 (1)
Labor 0 (3)
Jewish Home 0 (1)
* Current Likud seats include one from Kulanu, which will not be running independently this time. Two seats are held by Derech Eretz in the current Knesset, but both members have agreed to join Tikva Hadasha
Two factors have led to big changes in the electoral map since last March, when this Knesset was finally formed after three tries. One is the complete collapse of support for Benny Gantz, an entirely predictable consequence of his political surrender to Netanyahu and smashing of his promise to voters not to join a Netanyahu-led government. The other is the emergence of the new Tikva Hadasha (New Hope, not a joke, Star Wars fans), led by Netanyahu’s erstwhile challenger in Likud, Gideon Sa’ar.
I have an introductory article to Sa’ar at Responsible Statecraft, as I know many people outside of Israel are not necessarily familiar with him. I also discuss what the election might mean to the incoming Biden administration there.
Sa’ar challenged Netanyahu for the Likud leadership in 2019, and he failed badly, with Netanyahu coming away with 72.5% of the vote. That loss seemed to make it clear to Sa’ar that his pitch of a more honest Jewish nationalism would not appeal to Likud voters, and was probably the biggest factor in his decision to bolt the party.
The early polls indicate it was the right move. Likud is projected to lose about seven seats, but a lot of that has to do with the crises of the moment, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent history shows that once Netanyahu gets into campaign mode, he tends to damage the opposition enough to gain an advantage. Whether he can do that again, with the pandemic still around and protests against him still fresh in people’s minds, is an open question. But it’s never wise to underestimate him.
Sa’ar’s party drew a good deal of strength away from Netanyahu’s other right-wing rival, Yamina, headed by Naftali Bennett. Yamina had been polling between 20 and 25 seats but, in this latest poll, dropped to 13, a huge loss. This is to be expected, as Sa’ar and Bennett are both radical nationalists, and both head secular nationalist parties (although Bennett himself is orthodox and Sa’ar calls himself “traditional”).
Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party—which lost half its strength when his partner, Yair Lapid, split with him over joining the Netanyahu government and has been hemorrhaging support ever since—might not even qualify for the next Knesset. Gantz had drawn some support from the center-right as an alternative to Netanyahu, and those votes are heading elsewhere now, at least some of them going to Tikva Hadasha.
Sa’ar seems to be positioning himself as the anti-Netanyahu, the man who can be a nationalist without the corruption. He is also not beholden to the orthodox parties like Netanyahu, and his relatively liberal attitudes on issues like women’s and LGBTQIA rights will help in him in some sectors.
Sa’ar will be hoping to join with right wing groups like Yamina and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, both of which are led by former Likud men who are as alienated from Netanyahu as Sa’ar is. Such a right-wing bloc could draw support from Lapid’s center-right Yesh Atid party. According to this poll, those parties would have 54 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. It’s quite possible for them to pick up a few more seats, especially if Blue and White’s collapse gets even worse. And some election day wheeling and dealing with groups not projected to get to the Knesset could put them over the top as well.
On Netanyahu’s side, Likud and its likely partners – Shas and United Torah Judaism—are projected to get only 45 seats, which means it would be very difficult for Netanyahu to get to a 61-seat majority if none of the right-wing parties currently alienated from Netanyahu defects back to him. But, again, Netanyahu has already survived six elections despite scandals and declining popularity. He’s an outstanding campaigner and no one knows the Israeli political game better than him. He’s also shamelessly self-interested and, like his friend Donald Trump, is deathly afraid that prison awaits him after he leaves office.
That means Netanyahu will offer other party leaders all sorts of goodies—ministries, funding for their interests, legislative support—that might be too tempting to refuse. So it would be foolish to count him out.
Finally, there are two parties that have not been mentioned here, the Joint List and Meretz. Their absence from this analysis is indicative of where any kind of left wing or pro-Palestinian constituency in Israel is.
The Joint List may or may not stay together for these elections. Together, the Joint List is projected to lose four of its current total of 15 seats in the Knesset. If they break up, it’s likely they will have even fewer seats and some of their component parties may not make the next Knesset at all.
This also highlights the foolishness of Meretz’s recent decision to reject the proposal to become an explicitly Arab-Jewish partnership party. Hadash, one of the parties in the Joint List, is the only such party right now.
The Joint List, because it specifically represents the Arab community in Israel, is politically untouchable. If well-publicized legislation needs their votes to pass, it often becomes politically “tainted” by anti-Arab racism. The List exists, in many ways, inside the Knesset but outside Israeli politics.
Meretz is, in many ways, to the left of much of the Joint List, some of whose parties are quite conservative on domestic and social issues, but it is a Zionist party. This makes a partnership between the two exceedingly difficult, and is one reason why an explicitly progressive, Arab-Jewish party is necessary, although how Meretz would balance that with a Zionist ideology, or whether they would become a non-Zionist party (something not unheard of for Jewish parties, as some ultra-orthodox parties are non-Zionist) is certainly a difficult question that Meretz would need to grapple with.
But the necessity of some major change is clear. Meretz is now nearly as isolated as the Joint List, in a contest where the choice before Israeli voters is between right-wing secular and right-wing religious. The Labor party is likely to finally fall off the political map entirely after decades of decline. The Israeli Overton window has shifted so far that, aside from Meretz and the Joint List, the center-right parties Yesh Atid-Telem and Blue and White represent the left “wing” of the Israeli political spectrum.
While much can change in three months of Israeli politics, Palestinians are clearly looking at this race as a choice between nightmares. And unless Meretz and the Joint List find a way to work together on a long term project to build support for peace and human rights—something there seems to be little hope for right now—it’s only going to get worse.