Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Israel's March 23 Elections (February 8, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Israel’s March 23 elections: the lineup and its significance 


Q. The parties’ election lists are final as of last Thursday, February 4. Now the real campaigning begins. Does any camp have an obvious advantage? Have the past weeks of jockeying for power and influence generated any significant developments?

A. In terms of organization and composition of party lists, Netanyahu and the right enter the electoral final lap with a serious advantage over the fragmented center-left. And yes, there are significant developments, some definitely unanticipated, in terms of who is running, who has dropped out, and why.


Q. Why does Netanyahu begin the campaign with an advantage?

A. Despite, or alongside, his colossal failure managing the covid pandemic, and despite the fact that his corruption trial began in earnest on February 8, Netanyahu remains head and shoulders above his opponents in terms of political cunning. He set himself a clear strategic objective in these elections: garnering a majority of 61 members of Knesset who are committed to legislating his way out of his corruption trial. That means not wasting any right-wing votes to the four-mandate threshold, while encouraging and manipulating the left and center to waste votes. To that end Netanyahu has exploited every possibility of leveraging patronage as prime minister.

Accordingly, in the days leading up to the February 4 deadline, Netanyahu persuaded four fringe religious far-right parties, one of them out-and-out Kahanist-racist, to consolidate. Three of them--Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), Noam and National Union--merged, with the Likud list picking up one of their members in order to increase their representation in the next Knesset. A fourth, HaBait HaYehudi (Jewish Home, what for generations was the Mafdal or National Religious Party) agreed to drop out in return for the promise of a ministry. That means Netanyahu’s next coalition, if he succeeds, will feature one or more neo-fascist ultra-nationalists in ministerial positions and will depend on a Kahanist vote.

Turning to the Arab far left, Netanyahu offered enough inducements to Raam, an Arab-Islamist party, to split the Joint Arab List. This is hastening the latter’s downward spiral in the polls from its 15-MK representation in the outgoing Knesset to as few as nine MKs in the upcoming elections. Every mandate lost by the Joint List is a potential mandate for the Zionist parties, including the right, when the 120 Knesset seats are divided up based on the election outcome. Besides, Netanyahu has now legitimized the option of bringing Raam (if it can garner four mandates) into his potential coalition--or for that matter the option of his opponents on the right bringing the residual Joint List into their coalition. 

Imagine a victorious Netanyahu-led ‘ultra-pluralist’ coalition of at least 61 that spans the extremist spectrum from Raam on the Islamist far right to the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit on the Jewish far right. Not only is no one in the Likud apologizing. They are all praising Netanyahu’s political cunning.


Q. Wait, where is the Zionist left and center-left?

A. Hopelessly fragmented. As February 4 approached, several candidates whose polling showed they clearly would not pass the four-mandate threshold saw the writing on the wall and dropped out. These include Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon along with Former Mossad Head Danny Yatom and Yesh Atid rebel Ofer Shelah. But too many borderline parties remained in the running. In other words, the left did not consolidate to the extent of the far right. This raises the specter of lost votes and lost mandates on the left, all to the benefit of the more successful parties.

Thus Labor and Meretz, each polling just above the four-mandate threshold, are running against one another with near-identical platforms and candidate lists. They are also competing roughly at the level of four mandates or fewer with what is left of Benny Gantz’s Blue-White after Netanyahu decimated it. Another list that refused to quit even though it is polling below the threshold is focusing on the economy. All four are competing for roughly the same voters. Yet there almost certainly remains not enough electoral room between the center (Yesh Atid) and the Joint Arab List for even three more parties. Unless at least one of the four drops out before March 23, votes are liable to be wasted here, to Netanyahu’s advantage.

The drama of drop-outs and survivors on the Zionist left clearly points to a leadership gap. The left is left with ideology. But that is no longer what voters appear to want.


Q. Yet the main challenge to Netanyahu is from the center-right . . .

A. And here there are four parties certain to enter the next Knesset. They are polling anywhere between seven mandates (Avigdor Liberman’s rightist Yisrael Beitenu with its constant appeal to the Russian vote) and 18 (Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid). In between are Gideon Saar’s neo-Likud New Hope (15) and Naftali Bennet’s right-wing Yamina (11). Assuming these figures hold, we are potentially looking at an anti-Netanyahu center-right bloc of around 50 mandates. Together with whoever survives on the Zionist left and the Joint List, there appears to be an anti-Netanyahu majority here.

But wait. Not all of this bloc is pledged not to join a coalition led by Netanyahu. Alone of the four party leaders on the center-right, Naftali Bennet refuses to make that pledge. He senses that he will have more leverage with Netanyahu--rotating premiership?--than with Saar and Lapid, each of whom aspires to form the next government.

Bennet intends to position himself to choose between two right-wing coalitions. He is letting all parties know that Yamina seeks the status of swing vote. That factor, coupled with the competition between Lapid and Saar for leadership of the center-right bloc, projects strong competition for votes on the anti-Netanyahu right, with the outcome uncertain. In other words, those 50-or-so mandates could be distributed differently than the polling projection above, and that could affect the choice of a prime ministerial candidate among the leaders of the center-right anti-Netanyahu bloc--assuming they end up with 61 or more mandates.


Q. As sitting prime minister, does Netanyahu enjoy electoral advantages or liabilities?

A. Both. As prime minister, Netanyahu can in the coming weeks leverage his office for electoral PR gains. He can fly to the Emirates for a much-postponed state visit. He may persuade King Mohammed VI of Morocco to visit Israel. President Biden might finally phone and even invite him to talk. Netanyahu can potentially, in all these ways, appeal to voters of all persuasions, including Arab Israelis who approve of the Abraham Accords.

But Netanyahu can also lose points in the coming weeks. When he agreed to elections on March 23 he calculated that a third lockdown would by then be long over, the vaccination campaign would have succeeded and Israel would be first in the world to fully reopen its economy. At this point in time that is not at all certain. Indeed, the opposite--fourth lockdown, deathrate climbing, hospitals bursting--is equally possible, if not probable.     

Then there is Netanyahu’s corruption trial. Will the public be exposed to devastating testimony about his lack of ethics, his greed, his cynicism, prior to March 23? The timing depends on three judges in Jerusalem.


Q. What else have we learned about Israeli politics from the period ending February 4, when the electoral party lists were finalized?

A. A number of fascinating trends emerged.

First, generals out, journalists in. This appears to reflect the primacy of the media and its ‘kinship’ with politics, along with a drop in the military’s centrality to Israeli life and a distinct lack of both charisma and political smarts among the generals. 

In the course of the past few weeks, IDF former chiefs of staff Moshe Yaalon (Telem) and Gabi Ashkenazi (Blue-White) dropped out of the running. From the sidelines, Gadi Eizenkot decided not to go into politics. Only Benny Gantz of Blue-White remains with a handful of supporters, his future uncertain.

In contrast, three parties are now run by ex-journalists: Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid), Labor (Merav Michaeli) and Meretz (Nitzan Horowitz).

Second, and in keeping with the aforementioned leadership gap on the left, with the drop-out decision of Itzik Shmuli from Labor (Stav Shafir preceded him one or two elections ago), the last remnants of the mass socio-economic protests that rocked the country ten years ago have abandoned politics. A promising young generation of leaders with a social conscience is gone.

Third, Arab unity has ended. The Joint List has fragmented. Labor, Meretz and Likud have added Arab candidates and are recruiting Arab votes. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Arab electoral clout has been reduced. After all, Netanyahu of all people has legitimized collaboration with the most extreme Arab list, the Islamist Raam. It’s amazing what desperation can do to a politician.

Fourth the Likud, hovering around 30 mandates, remains amazingly solid. It is virtually certain to again emerge the largest party, albeit not necessarily a party that can muster a 61-mandate majority. When Gideon Saar broke from the Likud and formed New Hope, it was assumed he would poach a lot of Likud votes. That has not been the case--testimony to Netanyahu’s ongoing grip on the party. Saar has taken voters away from every secular Zionist party, from Likud to Meretz.

Fifth, everything surrounding the covid pandemic remains dangerously unpredictable. We still don’t know how well or how long the vaccines work. We’re not done with new and surprising mutations. It is not totally beyond the realm of possibility that another wave of illness and lockdown will lead to Netanyahu begging to postpone the election. Remember, he fastened upon March 23 because he thought the pandemic would be behind us and the public would forget his shocking politicization of pandemic management. 

Then too, covid-19 could reduce voter turnout. This could alter the outcome in ways difficult to predict. It could boost voter percentages among the ultra-Orthodox who obey only their rabbis and belittle the pandemic. But it could also boost turnout in safe ‘green’ cities with low virus rates like Tel Aviv, which votes left-liberal.

So don’t underestimate covid-19. It determined the composition of the departing coalition and it may determine the outcome of this March’s contest.

Finally, keep in mind that yet another dead heat will produce a fifth round in the fall of 2021. . . . .