MS Risk Blog

Israeli Elections 2021: What Could A Potential Israeli Government Look Like?

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On 23 March 2021, Israelis took to the polls to vote in their fourth elections in almost 2 years. The Jewish State has consistently failed to form a government from Israel’s 120-seat Knesset (Hebrew for “Assembly”), and so this time around Israelis hope to break the deadlock. Israel’s representational system requires a majority of at least 61 seats for a government to be formed. Such majorities can be formed either by one party or through a coalition of several – the former a rarity, and the latter with regularity. With this fourth election, one thing promising is that ideologically-aligned blocs of the smaller parties have emerged and begun to converge around the larger parties in Israel. For example, on the one side you have the right-wing ‘Netanyahu’bloc (tallied as holding 53 seats), and on the other side you have the centrist ‘Change’ bloc (tallied as holding 57) .This appears to foreshadow a return to a more stable 2 party system, with the 2 blocs resembling something like a broad-church, 2 party system – predicated on ideological convergence or a spectrum of ideas. Therefore any government formed – at least from this election anyway – will almost certainly be rooted in such blocs.

However, the opposite point can also be argued: that Israeli politics has never been so complicated and ideologically divided, and thus the makeup of any new government cannot be predicted. This is evident in that there are way too many parties on the scene with competing interests and ideological non-negotiables. What’s more is even those parties – and the Members of Knesset (MKs) who lead them – with ideological similarities and who share the same political roots or careers, are oftentimes the most vehemently opposed to allying themselves with each other than with parties dissimilar to themselves. But all points aside, whatever mess the political scene seems to be on paper, it no way compares to the reality of the situation and how it will pan out. This is perhaps why 3 days on from Election Day and since all the votes have been tallied, Israel is still no closer to having formed a government. That being said, for the purposes of humouring oneself, if Israel were to form a government what would it look like? Examples of parties and key actors will be referenced throughout to illustrate theories.

First and foremost when speaking of potential coalitions, what seems most likely is that any government coalition formed will either be headed by or deeply reliant upon Netanyahu’s The Likud party (currently projected as having 30 seats) or MK Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party (currently projected as having 17 seats). This is because being the biggest parties in the Knesset, their buy-in will be needed in order to ensure the best chance of there being a strong majority in the Knesset necessary to form a coalition government that lasts. But an even more obvious reason why it would be logical to assume either party will head any new coalition government is the President of Israel nominally tasks the leader of the biggest party to have the first opportunity to build a coalition.

It is only in rare, exceptional circumstances that the President allows a non-dominant party leader to have a crack at building a coalition – this is because in such circumstances it would first require the agreement of at least 61 MKs to sanction a non-dominant party leader to build a coalition. However, in this election there is a possibility that this could happen due to the frustrations of both Israelis and MKs with the current state of Israeli politics. Being desperate to form a government after three unsuccessful elections, MKs and the President of Israel might opt for a third way to resolving this political crisis. This point will be returned to later in this article.

Meanwhile back to the point about the likelihood of a Likud-led government, judging from both past precedent and ideological sympathies, it seems highly likely that any Likud government would have or at the very least would try to garner the support of both Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox Jewish) parties, United Torah Judaism (UTJ) (currently projected as holding 7 seats) and Shas (currently projected as holding 9 seats). Both have been beholden coalition partners in most of Netanyahu’s terms in office. Both groups are fundamentalist and very much value the Jewish character of state affairs. Both groups also seek to uphold the interests of Ultra-Orthodox segment of Israeli society, which makes up about 18 percent of Israeli society. Because Netanyahu has in his political past ceded legislation to such parties and upheld their interests, both parties have an incentive to maintain the status quo – vis-à-vis keeping the Prime Minister and Likud in power. This means any Likud government will likely include these parties, so as to mutually reinforce each other. Additionally, the values of the Haredi parties are so far removed from the ‘Change’ bloc – who predicate their movement on secularisation in opposition to the interest of the Haredim, universal interest of all segments of Israeli society, and centre-left values – and thus it seems very unlikely that these religious parties will ally with Yair Lapid and his party to form a coalition.

However, that is not to say that Yesh Atid definitively will not attempt to pander to the Haredi parties and be successful in doing so – on the contrary, this might be a viable option, as if the ‘Change’ bloc compromises its values to be more inclusive of the Haredim, they might just be able to entice them to abandon the ‘Netanyahu’ bloc in favour of joining their coalition. In fact, if the ‘Change’ bloc was successful in even bringing one of the parties on board, that would be more than enough to secure a stable government coalition – the bloc’s 57 seats would increase to 64 if UTJ joined, or 66 if Shas did. On the subject of Yesh Atid, it is remotely possible that they could entice one of the non-aligned so-called “kingmaker” parties to join their bloc – namely Yamina, but also perhaps newly-formed Arab party Ra’am.

HaYamin HaChadash (Hebrew for the New Right) – typically styled as Yamina – currently holds 7 seats in the Knesset. A national-religious party – such parties are mixed both secular nationalist MKs and Orthodox MKs who are more moderate and engaged with Israeli society than their Haredi co-religionists – Yamina nominally would have allied itself with the ‘Netanyahu’ bloc. However, its leader Naftali Bennett seeks to see the long-serving Prime Minister Netanyahu vacate the political scene and make way for a new generation of political leadership.

What’s more, to complicate the situation Bennett’s former party The Jewish Home recently split from the national-religious camp, after he fell out with his number 2, the more inflammatory Betzalel Smotrich, over differences in direction and perspective. Bennett, the more moderate and liberal politician went on to form Yamina, whilst Smotrich ventured further right to form the Religious-Zionists party – the latter sits firmly inside Netanyahu’s bloc, currently holding 6 seats, and had already signed a surplus-votes deal with The Likud. Both of these factors make Yamina a prime target for the ‘Change’ bloc to bring into their coalition. However, Bennett in the past has said he would not sit in a coalition led by Yair Lapid, and that he would not work with Arab parties – which would not work to hold the ‘Change’ bloc together (i.e. Joint List). That being said, Bennett has not ruled out working with Yair Lapid’s party – which suggests he would be open to joining them in some form of a coalition, albeit with Yair Lapid not being the coalition leader / potential next Prime Minister.

Similarly, Bennett also remarked in his speech to his supporters on Election Day that “Now is the time to heal, and heal the rifts within the nation” and that he would seek to do what is best for Israel – namely fostering an Israel that works for all Israelis across the religious, ethnic and political spectrum. From this speech one can garner either 1 of 3 things: he is seriously considering working with other parties outside of his natural inclination (i.e. those in the centre and on the left); he is considering putting his differences with Netanyahu aside to back the right-wing bloc, or that he is edging gearing himself up to becoming the Prime Minister of the new government. Of the second option, it is entirely possible that Bennett could chose to back the ‘Netanyahu’ bloc – albeit not without seeking concessions from the government (e.g. being rewarded with the post of Defense Minister or Foreign Minister for himself or for his Yamina compatriot, MK Ayelet Shaked). He could also request a rotational government with the Prime Minister – which would allow him to become Prime Minister. However, the third option – that he is preparing to become sole Prime Minister of a new government – seems more plausible.

The latter point takes us back to the scenario mentioned earlier: that 61 MKs could suggest the President nominate another Knesset member to form a coalition. Bennett is currently tipped as an outsider to do this. He is the possible third way. Again, the likelihood of this happening is very slim – as it would require the buy-in of many MKs. However, if it did happen, aside from the MKs of Yamina, I predict the MKs that would back it would be those from Yesh Atid, then flanked by MKs from the newly-formed right-wing party, New Hope (6 seats), and then also perhaps Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party (7 seats). It is also possible that some in the Religious-Zionists party could be enticed to back him should this scenario pan out.

But anyway, why Yesh Atid first? Because the leading party of the ‘Change’ bloc that is literally called “There is a future” – and whose leader in his Election Day speech rejoiced at a non-right wing dominant coalition not being possible – would do anything to ensure Netanyahu leaves office and that Smotrich’s party in particular does not get to be in a government. Therefore ceding to Bennett would be a small yet safe choice to make to realise Yesh Atid’s dreams. But, it would be ultimately up to Yair Lapid, and whether he would sacrifice his dream of becoming a Prime Minister for the sake preventing Netanyahu retaining office via enabling another premier candidate.

With regards to why New Hope, the party was formed by a high-ranking member of Likud, Gideon Sa’ar, who grew frustrated by Netanyahu’s leadership. Other subsequent members of Likud joined the party, as did a couple from a smaller centre-right party, as well as one from Likud rival and centrist party, Blue and White. Thus already, once can see that the members of this party have an incentive to keep Netanyahu out of government by any means necessary. The 2 parties also ideologically align somewhat – both parties are right-wing and staunchly nationalist. Additionally, in January 2021 the party signed a surplus-votes deal with Yamina, and thus in a sense New Hope is already beholden to Bennett. However, Sa’ar has not ruled out sitting in a rotational government with Netanyahu, and therefore support for Bennett might not be so clear cut. With regards to Yisrael Beiteinu, they share a similar disdain for Netanyahu’s leadership – with leader Lieberman having experienced it first-hand as a former Likud member, and as a coalition partner of Netanyahu. Lieberman already has ruled out working with Netanyahu. This could entice them to back Bennett as a right-wing rival of Netanyahu.

Aside from the Bennett situation, going back to Netanyahu’s bloc, it still does not have enough seats to make a coalition – and still will not, even if Yamina joins them. This means that the bloc would have to either entice the other right-wing parties in the ‘Change’ bloc to join them – either New Hope or Yisrael Beiteinu – or perhaps even the new Arab Ra’am party. It seems clear that Yisrael Beiteinu MKs will not defect to Likud or the bloc, but perhaps the New Hope MKs might? This could be the case, as the political ambition of MKs in this new party – which I add did not do as well as they expected – might entice them into backing Netanyahu. In fact, it seems likely that if they did back him for Prime Minister, New Hope MKs would be rewarded with high positions in Israel’s Cabinet. Therefore, this too is a possibility.

Lastly, to the plight of the Arab parties: Ra’am (4 seats) and the Joint List of Arab parties (6 seats). The former party split from the latter in late January 2021. Ra’am was not expected to gain many seats in the Knesset, but has actually exceeded expectations. Meanwhile, the Joint List has lost seats – both to Ra’am, but also likely to Blue and White, Meretz and Avodah in the ‘Change’ bloc. This is likely due to social issues in the Arab sector of Israeli society, and the perception that the joint alliance has not done enough to improve the situation of Arabs in Israel. Most, if not all, the parties in both the ‘Netanyahu’ bloc have ruled out working with Arab parties. On the contrary, Joint List sits inside the ‘Change’ bloc, and Yair Lapid sees them as worthy coalition partners. This is a plus-plus for the ‘Change’ bloc.

Meanwhile, Ra’am is believed to be somewhat more open to being in government, but has yet to officially publicise its position. Therefore it is a case of waiting and seeing what they will decide. This makes them a possible, albeit unlikely target for the ‘Netanyahu’ bloc. But, it should be noted that Yamina, New Hope and most certainly the Religious-Zionists have ruled out working with Arab parties. Therefore this solution is unlikely to work. It should also be noted that should the ‘Change’ bloc on the other hand court Ra’am to join their bloc, this would help them to achieve an unstable coalition government. However, a couple of parties in the ‘Change’ bloc have ruled out working with them. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the Arab parties will feature in any new government, should one form. However, the ironic thing is that the Ra’am party might just be answer to the bloc’s problems. Should the bloc secure defections from other parties and then manage to accept Ra’am into the bloc, then Netanyahu could form a coalition – albeit an unstable one.