Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Israel's Elections (March 24, 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 Elections


Results as of 3pm Wednesday Israel time, based on close to 90 percent of the votes but not including several hundred thousand ‘double envelopes’ bearing the votes of citizens distant from their assigned polling places: soldiers, diplomats abroad, corona patients and corona ‘isolated’, which will be counted by Friday:

The Netanyahu camp: Likud 30 mandates, Shas 9, Torah Judaism 7, Religious Zionism 6.

The anti-Netanyahu camp: Yesh Atid 17, Blue White 8, Yisrael Beitenu 7, Labor 7, New Hope 6, Arab Joint List 6, Meretz 5.

Prepared in principle to negotiate with either camp: Yamina 7, Raam 5.

(Note that soldiers’ votes tend to augment Zionist parties by a mandate at the expense of Arab parties.)


Q. You are writing less than 24 hours after the polls closed. Nearly 90 percent of the votes have been counted. What can you tell us?

A. There is no clear winner. It is impossible to point to the emergence of an ‘obvious’ winning coalition or stable government. Even after all votes are counted, by Friday of this week, neither the Netanyahu camp nor its opponents will be able easily to form a stable coalition enjoying a majority of more than a mandate or two. President Rivlin will be hard put to agree to assign the mandate for forming a government to anyone, including an indicted Netanyahu whose trial begins in earnest in two weeks.

The most likely outcome appears to be a hectic and fruitless few months of coalition negotiations followed by a fifth round of elections around September 2021. Meanwhile the current government headed by Netanyahu and Gantz will remain in office as a transition government. 


Q. Surely you can point to significant dynamics and developments that emerged in this election . . .

A. Definitely.

First, Netanyahu’s Likud remains far and away the largest party. The right-religious bloc it leads is coherent and committed. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid is easily the second largest party. But it cannot point to a coherent anti-Netanyahu bloc. Lapid’s leadership is not accepted by all parties in this bloc, nor do they necessarily accept one another, particularly in view of right-wing reservations about cohabiting with Arab parties in an anti-Netanyahu coalition.

Second, two parties have emerged that are not firmly committed to either bloc: Naftali Bennet’s Yamina and Mansour Abbas’s Raam. The latter is the first Arab party that is actively seeking membership in an Israeli governing coalition. Despite its Islamist credentials, Raam claims to support collaboration within an Israeli government, aimed at bettering the lot of Arab citizens of Israel. Like Yamina, Raam will leverage its unique position to enter coalition negotiations--with either Lapid or Netanyahu or both simultaneously--based on far-reaching demands that are almost guaranteed to cause the other coalition candidates to revolt or withdraw from negotiations.

Third, all the small parties that on election eve were hovering just below or above the four-mandate threshold (3.25 percent of the overall vote) appear to have entered the next Knesset. Labor and Meretz succeeded on the left, Religious Zionism on the far right, Blue White in the political center and Raam in the Arab sector.

Strikingly, large numbers of voters actually only made up their minds to support these small parties at the last minute, on their way to the polls. One explanation is that Labor and Meretz benefited from a last-minute effort by Lapid to encourage their voters so as not to lose mandates from the anti-Netanyahu bloc if they failed to gain four mandates. Religious Zionism benefited from a similar effort by Netanyahu. Benny Gantz’s Blue White appears to have received an unusual sympathy vote in appreciation of its efforts to keep Netanyahu honest in the ill-fated and dysfunctional outgoing government.

Lastly among the small parties, Raam, an Islamist party, found that its unprecedented readiness to cooperate with a Zionist coalition was appreciated by Arab voters disillusioned with rampant crime and poverty in the Arab sector. Note that Raam, which like Yamina is a necessary component of any coalition of at least 61, intends to make far-reaching demands as its price for supporting either Netanyahu or the anti-Netanyahu camp: heavy economic investment in the Arab sector; a major law-and-order effort there; and radical revision of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Nation State basic law with its blatant bias against non-Jews in Israel.

Fourth, the dominant right-religious mainstream has moved further to the right. The two avowedly right-wing religious-friendly but anti-Netanyahu parties that ran against the Likud, Gideon Saar’s New Hope and Bennet’s Yamina, were punished by voters for their rebellion. Recall that barely two months ago the two were competing for 20 mandates each; now they are both in sad single figures. Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu moved to the secular center and was also not rewarded. 

In contrast, the Religious Zionism party with its Kahanist, fascist and homophobic components exceeded all expectations. Netanyahu cannot conceivably form a coalition without them. Their ideology calls for neutralizing the judicial establishment, racial apartheid inside Israel and legislating against LGBTQ rights.

Fifth, one very negative aspect of this election campaign was intimations emanating from the Netanyahu camp, particularly when it was trailing in the pre-election polls, that the electoral process would be sabotaged by the left. Here the Likud was unabashedly borrowing an election-delegitimization tactic from Donald Trump. Depending on how the election results sort themselves out, we may not have heard the last of this.


Q. So what are the possible outcomes? What happens when the smoke clears?

A. First, note that the vote count will only conclude this Friday. Official results will be presented to President Rivlin only after the Pesach holiday, in early April. Right now, it is pointless to do back-of-the-envelope 61-member coalition calculations that turn on the fate of parties that could in the coming days lose or gain another MK.

Because at least at this point the situation is so murky, it seems more helpful to relate to the options facing the 120 members of the new Knesset by describing the dilemmas they face, rather than inventing imaginary coalitions: 

+ Netanyahu faces the impossible task of including in his coalition both the Islamist Raam party and the Religious Zionism party. Ostensibly, neither extremist party can coexist with the other.

+ Thanks to Raam’s success in exceeding the four-mandate threshold, Naftali Bennet will not be alone in seeking to leverage a far-reaching achievement vis-a-vis either potential coalition. Raam wants to abolish or amend the Nation-State basic law, but Bennet with a measly seven mandates wants to be prime minister by rotation, either with Netanyahu or Lapid. And because nobody trusts Netanyahu’s commitments, Bennet would want to be first in the rotation of a right-wing coalition--a non-starter. Nor will Bennet commit to support legislation designed to neutralize Netanyahu’s corruption trial. Of course, either of these two parties could back down from their demands. But what would they tell their voters?

+ Alongside Raam’s apparent success, the Joint Arab List has done very poorly, dropping from 15 members (including Raam) in the outgoing Knesset to a mere six MKs. Will those six now support an anti-Netanyahu coalition? At what price? And can they adopt Raam’s successful tactic of agreeing for the first time to enter the nitty-gritty of Israeli politics. These are momentous days for the political future of the Arab citizens of Israel.

+ Both Gideon Saar (New Hope) and Bennet promised in their campaigns that they would not join a coalition under Yesh Atid’s Lapid with its centrist and secular ideology. But their vote totals are so low as to conceivably force them into backtracking on this commitment.

+ Will President Rivlin agree in April, just as Netanyahu’s corruption trial gets under way in earnest, to give the mandate for forming a government to an indicted politician? So far, in three previous rounds of elections over the past two years, Rivlin was spared this decision, either because a tie vote mandated another round of elections or (following round three) because Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to form a two-headed government. Rivlin leaves office in a few months. He has integrity; he can refuse. 


Q. Bottom line?

A. First, a large number of politicians now face the need to make far-reaching concessions and abandon previously iron-clad ideologies and principles in order to form any coalition. They will have to remind their constituents, quoting Bismarck, that politics is the art of the possible.

Second, when all is said and done, and after months of negotiations and haggling, a fifth round is a very likely outcome. Meanwhile, Benny Gantz remains alternate prime minister and Blue White, now reduced to around eight MKs, will retain equal voting rights within the government until a new coalition emerges or another election is held.

And if a fifth round of elections also ends in stalemate? Then the provisions of the Netanyahu-Gantz two-headed government agreement that followed the third round are still valid. In November 2021, Gantz becomes prime minister.

Meanwhile, who knows what effect Netanyahu’s corruption trial might have on Israeli politics.

Finally, it bears repeating that the Israeli political system has become thoroughly dysfunctional and unmanageable. It should be changed. Yet the very politicians who would have to vote to do this are the ones with a vested interest in the status quo: the perks and privileges of Knesset membership. Sadly, system change is not likely to happen. And only when Benjamin Netanyahu leaves politics is the existing system likely to regain equilibrium.


Q. Hold on. At least tell us whom you voted for in this crazy election, and why?

A. I voted for Benny Gantz and Blue White. Not because I particularly admire Gantz or support his policies. Rather, I assessed (and still assess) that these elections are likely to end in a draw and a fifth round. That means Gantz is the only politician with the authority to counter Netanyahu’s right-religious initiatives within the government. That might even mean, after a fruitless fifth round, that Gantz is the only politician who can dislodge Netanyahu from the premiership.

But in order to fulfill this destiny, Gantz had to remain a member of Knesset. Blue White, a party decimated by Netanyahu’s maneuvers and manipulations and its own naivete, had to exceed the four-mandate threshold. Hence the importance of voting Blue White. For me, this was purely a tactical, even cynical choice. Of course, in the event that an anti-Netanyahu coalition does become possible, this will only be because no small party list of the left and center, Blue White included, scored under the threshold and wasted votes.

Had I known Gantz would ultimately get double four mandates because additional voters shared my concern, I would have felt free to vote my conscience.