On March 23rd 2021, the Israeli population went back to vote amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In the last two years, Israel held the elections four times in total: in April 2019, in September 2019, in March 2020, and lastly in March 2021. In every election, the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, representing the right-wing political party Likud, and Benny Gantz, representing the party Blue and White, got most of the votes and have been for the last two years battling for the majority. In the last elections, the voting resulted in a coalition between Likud and Blue and White, in which both Netanyahu and Gantz would at their turn fill the position of Prime Minister. Nevertheless, the agreement was not favoured by the public, as many Blue & White voters felt betrayed by the coalition announcement, and, eventually, the government fell in December 2020 due to a bureaucratic misstep.
Meanwhile, following the last elections, although most of the votes were for Netanyahu’s Likud, they were not enough and thus there is no official winner yet. At the same time, Yair Lapid, representing the centre-left party Yesh Atid, has been getting more prominent in the Knesset as opposition leader. Following the 2021 election, while the Likud received this time 30 seats at Parliament, Yesh Atid got 17 seats (The Israeli Government 2021). Tension has been at the centre, as both Netanyahu and Lapid are trying to ally with as many parties as they can in order to get to the majority, and, at the same time, the reputation of Netanyahu plays also an important role.
There are many factors that are shaping Israel’s future, from Netanyahu’s corruption trial, the pandemic, to the need for difficult collaborations of smaller parties in order to make a majority.
Therefore, it becomes important to ask what are the factors and what effect do they have on Israel’s future amid the talks for possible cooperation between parties. Accordingly, the next article will analyse Benjamin Netanyahu, his upcoming corruption trials, and how he managed to handle the coronavirus pandemic. Secondly, the article will explore the general elections, their results and what are the possible coalitions and consequences. Additionally, it will be argued that, given the past administrations of Netanyahu and the ideologies of his right-wing bloc, the parties of Bennett and Abbas will likely try to cooperate with Lapid or, given the various internal fractions, Israel will likely go back to elections for the 5th time.
THE CURRENT PRIME MINISTER: NETANYAHU
Source: The Times of Israel, 23.01.2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-said-planning-new-aid-to-small-businesses-ahead-of-election/.
Benjamin Netanyahu has been one of Israel’s longest Prime Minister, in which he has been at the centre of public attention for various aspects. On one side, he is admired for “his statesmanship, strength and skill”, but on the other side, he is criticised for “being divisive, domineering and dirty” (The Economist 2021).
In fact, since 2016, the Israeli police has been investigating Netanyahu and this situation has played an influential role in the minds of the Israeli people and in the recent elections. Netanyahu has been accused of “fraud and breach of trust”, as he allegedly received presents “from powerful businessmen in exchange for favours” and he allegedly helped to improve the prominence of the newspaper Yediot Ahronot “in exchange for positive coverage”. Lastly, he has been indicted for “bribery, fraud and breach of trust” when he allegedly “promot[ed] regulatory decisions favourable to the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for positive coverage by Mr Elovitch’s Walla news site” (BBC 2021). Since the investigations started, Netanyahu did not resign and remained Prime Minister, while facing the trial. Although the trial began already in 2020, it resumed on February 8th, 2021, with Netanyahu denying the charges (BBC 2021).
Another factor that has been playing a prominent role in the status quo is how Prime Minister Netanyahu handled the economic situation amid the pandemic. In fact, following numerous national lockdowns in order to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, it seems that Netanyahu failed to provide in a fast way the financial aid that he had promised and “appeared to lose interest in managing the crisis and failed to prepare a clear exit strategy after the first lockdown”(Cohen 2020). In addition to this, Netanyahu has been severely criticised for “turning a blind eye to violators within the ultra-Orthodox community that provides a power base for his key coalition partners” (Heller “Vaccination” 2021). Thus, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, it seems that in July 2020 only 29.5% of the participants believed that Netanyahu could handle the crisis (Cohen 2020).
As such, with the investigation and trial against him for fraud, corruption and bribery, his decreasing popularity, and the economic crisis amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Israeli population have thus since July 2020 participating in nationwide anti-Netanyahu protests. In fact, the protesters have been demanding Netanyahu’s resignation over the scandals (Al Jazeera “Protest” 2021). Nevertheless, according to experts, Netanyahu saved his elections campaign thanks to the implementation of the vaccine in Israel. In fact, Netanyahu has secured millions of doses of the Pfizer vaccine, so that the entire nation could be immediately be vaccinated, in comparison to other countries which are currently struggling to implement the vaccination to the population. The success of the government’s vaccination has been at the centre of his campaign speeches, in which his “proven leadership” secured the implementation of the vaccination. Nevertheless, the Israeli population has been wary about Netanyahu, as they believe that he did not pay full attention to other aspects of the pandemic that was inflicting Israel (Heller “Netanyahu” 2021).
THE 2021 ELECTIONS
These most recent elections have been getting more prominent, as voting is more seen as a dilemma between keeping Netanyahu as Prime Minister or voting him out, instead of choosing one of the political parties according to their own political belief.
Following the 2021 elections, reports indicate that Netanyahu’s Likud has been leading with 30 seats, while, on the other side, there is Lapid’s Yesh Atid with 17 seats and many smaller parties that have each their own few seats in the Knesset (The Israeli Government 2021). Even though the Likud party holds 30 seats, it still is not the winner, as the party needs to have 61 seats to have a majority and thus form a government. As such, Netanyahu has been taking part in talks with other parties and his right-wing bloc, made of the religious party Shash, the United Torah Judaism, and the Religious Zionist Party, would in total come to 52 seats. On the other side, according to the polls, it seems that the “anti-Netanyahu bloc” would be made mainly of Yesh Atid, New Hope Party, Yisrael Beytenu, Blue and White, Labor and Meretz with a total of 57 votes (Al Jazeera “Deadlock” 2021).
2021: AN UPCOMING 5TH ELECTION?
Source: France24, 25.03.2021, https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20210325-islamist-dentist-and-gentleman-the-rise-of-israel-s-unlikely-kingmaker.
As such, there are two political parties that will these days play an important role in the future of Israel: the right-wing political party Yamina led by Naftali Bennett and the United Arab List (Ra’am) led by Mansour Abbas.
From Netanyahu’s side, the bloc would need both groups in order to get to the 61 seats. Bennett is reported to have met with Netanyahu on Friday, April 2nd and remarked that “the two discussed the need to form a ‘stable, functioning government as soon as possible” (Hoffman 2021). Although his party received only 7 seats, it is known that Bennet has been requesting the possibility to become Prime Minister by sharing it with either Netanyahu or Lapid (TOI Staff “Bennett” 2021). According to unofficial resources, it seems that Netanyahu would not be offering a rotation as PM, but only crucial ministerial positions. Nevertheless, even if he did offer the PM role, Bennett would still be suspicious of Netanyahu, as in the last coalition with Gantz Netanyahu did not rotate his role with Gantz. In addition to this, the United Arab List is also playing a crucial role. Its leader, Mansour Abbas, has declared its support for “Arab-Jewish cooperation and harmonious coexistence in Israel, based on tolerance, mutual respect and full equality” (TOI Staff “Bennett” 2021). Although it would be a profitable solution for the country, forming a coalition between right-wing parties and an Islamist party would not be beneficial and would only cause more conflicts and divisions due to different ideologies. For example, the leader of the Religious Zionist Party, Bezalel Smotrich, announced on April 2nd that his party would “not sit in a government with Ra’am or ‘other supporters of terror’”(Hoffman 2021).
On the other side, these two groups are also utterly important for Yesh Atid and its anti-Netanyahu bloc in order to succeed. On Saturday 3rd April in the evening, Bennett is expected to talk about any coalition opportunities with Lapid, who is predicted to offer Bennett the first round for sharing the role as Prime Minister. This coalition would be beneficial, as he has been pointing out the importance of “‘ending the chaos’, ‘no fifth elections’ and ‘national healing’”, always as long as he also receives his role as PM (Makovsky 2021, 2). Lapid has also already been in contact on March 28 with Abbas, as the latter has reportedly discussed with him the possibility to join the coalition and has “presented a number of demands for potential support, including voting freedom on LGBT matters, a freeze on the controversial Jewish nation-state law and the Kaminitz Law […], as well as recognition of unrecognised Bedouin villages in the Negev” (TOI Staff “Lapid” 2021), in which Lapid also agreed and showed awareness of the issues.
There are many possible outcomes. Taking all things into account, it seems that both sides are in a deadlock and only the two parties Yamina and Ra’am will seal the fate of the country any time soon.
Naftali Bennett, a former adviser of Netanyahu, has not yet decided his preference for the coalition. Although his meeting with Lapid still needs to take place soon, it seems that Netanyahu is unwilling to offer him a rotating role as PM and there is also a high level of distrust on Bennett’s side, as in the past Netanyahu did not implement the rotating system with Benny Gantz. In addition to that, given Netanyahu’s long time serving as Prime Minister and given his beliefs for “ending the chaos” due to Netanyahu’s past administration, experts suggest that Bennett more likely to choose Lapid if he is offered the role of PM.
Mansour Abbas, an Islamist political party that holds the key to the elections and plays an even more intriguing and important role, as its collaboration can change the whole country. Its leader has been holding speeches on the importance of coexistence between Arabs and Jews and has been supporting various current issues, from the recognition of Bedouin villages to the voting freedom on LGBT matters. It is very unlikely that Abbas will join forces with Netanyahu, as one of his main allies, Smotrich, has made it clear that his party will never cooperate with Ra’am due to different ideologies. By choosing Ra’am, Netanyahu might lose the Religious Zionist Party, but would still be unable to reach the 61 seats. In addition to this, even if the right-wing bloc would ally with Ra’am, during the administration there would surge numerous conflicts between Ra’am and the Religious Zionist Party, as they are unlikely to agree on some delicate matters. That would thus lead to the government fall and again to re-elections. As such, Abbas is likely to join forces with Lapid, as the latter seems to understand and agree on various matters that Abbas has wanted to discuss. If it happens, it would be the first time ever that a Palestinian party has joined a coalition in Israel and thus might improve the current political and social situation.
As such, if they still decide to choose Netanyahu, making him Prime Minister, the Israeli population will most likely continue showing their disapproval of Netanyahu by continuing to take part in the weekly national protests. In addition to this, the process of bribery, corruption, and fraud against Netanyahu will continue and, if proven guilty, might be compelled to resign, sending the population again to vote.
Lastly, another possible outcome would be if both sides cannot form a government given their own different ideologies. This would lead to internal conflicts and disagreements, leading thus to the 5th elections.
Nevertheless, the talks are still undergoing and on April 5th, Israeli President Rivlin will discuss with the party leaders who they want as PM and on April 7th, President Rivlin will choose one of the candidates with the objective of forming a government.
Written by Stefania Rinaldi
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