You would not have thought it. Israel, long toted as the most stable and only ‘genuine’ democracy in the Middle East (although that depends on who is talking), could potentially have a fourth election in the space of a year. Although even from an Australian perspective, this would seem absurd, there are a number of factors which are pushing parliamentary stability in the world’s only Jewish nation.
How did we get here?
Israel held a statutory general election in April 2019. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has held power since 2009, heads the Likud Party, the dominant centre-right party in Israel.
Although Israel uses the Westminster System of governance, a key historical factor is that aside from once, in 1969, governments are formed via coalitions of like-minded parties. This is because the Israeli government uses Party List Proportional Representation, of which seats are allocated according to the D’Hondt method. Voters vote for the party of choice, and successful parties receive a share of seats in proportion to their share of votes. To gain a seat, a party must meet the threshold of votes. As such, it is near impossible to win an outright majority.
What about the major political parties?
Despite the perpetual hung-parliament (or Knesset as it is known), a trait not dissimilar to other Westminster Governments is the dominating parties which can form coalitions with other smaller parties. Historically, the two major parties were Mapai/Labor on the left, and Herut/Likud on the right. However, as smaller interest parties have been able to enter parliament on reaching the threshold of votes, coalitions formed with them require their confidence to survive.
However, Labor has been on the nose for a decade. Kadima, which supplanted Labor on the left, was voted out in 2009 after PM Ehud Olmert was indicted for corruption. Indeed, Netanyahu’s control over the Knesset largely stems from the lack of a credible opposition party. However, the formation of Blue and White in 2020, led by former IDF Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz, has put Netanyahu’s grip on power under the scope.
And the smaller parties?
As mentioned, the smaller parties have a lot of sway over who gets power and who stays in power. Likud’s main supporters are the two Haredi Orthodox Judaism parties — United Torah Judaism (UTJ), representing Ashkenazi (European) ultra-orthodox Jews; and Shas, representing Mizrahi and Sephardic (Middle Eastern and North African/Spanish) Jews. On the left, smaller centre-left parties such as Meretz support the left.
The Joint List, representing Arab-Israeli parties, has emerged as a potential kingmaker on the left, having won 15 of the 120 Knesset seats at the March election. However, angst between these parties over supporting Israeli parties often proves fractious, particularly in 2015. Of the Joint List, the left-wing Hadash has been supportive of allying with the left to prevent Netanyahu. Hadash had themselves given support to the Rabin/Peres governments of the ’90s.
However, the Palestinian nationalist party Balad opposed such a move, leading to the Joint List opting against entering a coalition. Likewise, Gantz has shied away from Arab support. However, the Joint List did recommend Gantz for Prime Minister after the March 2020 election.
Another potential kingmaker is the Right Wing, Russian Immigrant interest party Yisrael Beiteinu. Led by the pugnacious former defence minister Avigdor Liberman, the party takes a hardline stance towards Palestine and national security but opposes ultra-orthodox influences in Israeli politics, and supports state interventionalist economic policies. In the past, Yisrael Beiteinu has thrown its weight behind both sides of the coin, supporting Olmert and Netanyahu.
However, in both cases, they quit over ideological differences and, in the case of Netanyahu, a personality clash with Liberman. In the 2019 elections, Yisrael Beiteinu stated they would only support a grand coalition between Blue and White/Likud, although supported Gantz in 2020. Some would, however, argue that Liberman’s posturing towards both has contributed to the electoral instability.
Where is Israel now politically?
After the March 2020 election, a Unity Government was formed between Likud and Blue and White. Part of the agreement involves a revolving Premiership, with Netanyahu to hold power for the first 18 months. Gantz would then be Prime Minister for the next 18 months. Although the deal largely materialised due to the necessity of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, such a deal had been mooted for several months.
Indeed, such deals are not unique in Israel, with the unity government of the late 1980s between Likud/Labor rotating the Premiership between Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres. However, unity governments in Israel are often fractious. The Likud/Labor government collapsed after Peres’ failed attempted to manoeuvre against Likud (the so-called ‘Dirty Trick’).
Whether such a deal between Likud/Blue and White will survive or fall is a matter of speculation. However, the signs do not look good. Gantz has lost a large amount of clout by agreeing to be Netanyahu’s partner. Netanyahu himself appears willing to take advantage of such slump, reportedly pursuing the option of a fourth election. However, UTJ and Shas have reportedly thwarted such move.
That being said, things do not look good for Netanyahu himself, already standing trial on charges of corruption. His wife, Sara, was herself convicted and fined in 2019 for misusing public funds, and coalition ally Yaakov Litzman of UTJ is facing investigation for allegedly obstructing the Malka Leifer extradition to Australia over child sex abuse allegations. However, this may not have that big an effect as anti-corruption efforts are often sidelined for the purpose of national security.
What could cause a fourth general election?
The biggest issue facing Israel, as has been since the nation was established in 1948, is the question of national security. Indeed, this is Netanyahu’s trump card among his strongest supporters. Although long accused by Liberman of making weak decisions in relation to Palestine, Netanyahu has long taken a hawkish approach towards matters such as Jewish settlements in the West Bank and relations with the Palestinian Authority.
Gantz, on the other hand, prefers a more conciliatory approach, emphasising the need for a peaceful resolution with Palestine. Such a policy is no doubt popular internationally and, from a long-term perspective, makes more sense than doubt. However, the upheaval after the 1993 Oslo Accords, the social division, and the wave of terror attacks are fresh in the minds of many Israelis. Netanyahu himself took a hard-line stance opposing the accords, a stance the wife of then PM Yitzhak Rabin argues contributed to his assassination. Although cooperation is the name of the game, such divisive attitudes towards Palestine could have disastrous effects for the unity government should open disagreement emerge.
All this is notwithstanding Netanyahu’s open politicking. As mentioned above, he was investigating the possibility of pushing for an early election only to be thwarted by his coalition partners. If opinion polls are consulted, this makes perfect sense. A range of factors, including Israel’s response to COVID-19, has seen Netanyahu’s popularity increase. Were an election to be held Mid-June, Netanyahu would have won approximately 40 seats, and Blue and White would have collapsed to around 12. However, on the face of it, this approach does look like the infamous ‘Dirty Trick’.
Furthermore, a potential issue could emerge over the annexation of the Jordan Valley. At an international level is increasingly polarising, with swift and strong condemnation flowing from every regional and major power aside from the US. Domestically, however, the proposed annexation has the support of both Netanyahu and Gantz. However, Gantz’s proposal differs from that of Netanyahu. Whereas Netanyahu wants the whole valley, Gantz has indicated a more pragmatic approach.
However, his policy on the matter has been inconsistent, even cryptic, to discern a particular trend. Although having stated he would not annex areas with large Palestinian populations, there is a strong argument that this may not be honoured. On the regional scale, any such annexation may well affect recently warming rapprochement with other Middle Eastern nations.
What effect could this have on the Arab-Israeli Conflict?
This is the million-dollar question. The Palestinian Question has without a doubt been the biggest roadblock in Arab-Israeli relations. In particular, Israeli settlements still remains a hot button topic, with a population estimate of over 400,000 living in the Palestinian West Bank alone. The effect of Israeli settlement in the West Bank has had a detrimental effect on Palestinians, with a UN fact-finding mission concluding that infringements on basic humanitarian and human rights law were commonplace. Israel denies such allegations. However, settlement expansion plans are strongly sported by Netanyahu as state policy.
In contrast, the very existence of Israel as a state has historically been strongly opposed, almost universally, in the Arab world. This has led to numerous wars, notably in 1948, 1967, and 1973. Significant efforts at peace have been made; however, this has led to hardline opposition, culminating in the assassinations of Presidents Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Rabin in 1981 and 1995, respectively.
However, efforts at peace have been boosted by the conflict in Yemen. In light of the involvement of Iran, behind the scenes relations between Israel and several Arab nations have been increasing. Most notably is the increasing diplomatic activity between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Although Saudi Arabia does not officially recognise Israel, both see Iran as a serious threat to regional stability. At the same time, such overtures have seen Arab divestment from Palestine, weakening an already financially perilous situation in Ramallah.
However, there is concern that Netanyahu’s push to annex the Jordan Valley could undo all such diplomatic work. The United Arab Emirates ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba, wrote an op-ed in a prominent Hebrew newspaper warning annexation would be disastrous to Arab-Israeli ties. Indeed, Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab nations with ties with Israel, have also expressed condemnation.
As for Gantz, the mere fact he is propping up Netanyahu at this point of time only exacerbates these fears. In joining a coalition, he has weakened his own support and his own party. Having shunned Arab List support before, Gantz may need to rely on their support if a fourth election is called. If so, the likelihood of a concrete rejection of annexation may emerge, therefore potentially increasing ties with the Arab world. Although distrusted, Gantz’s reputation for pragmatism throughout his political and military career may mean he has no choice.
So, what will happen if an election is called, and is an election even likely?
Probably more of the same. An indecisive result followed by coalition negotiations that go nowhere. Although Netanyahu’s Likud was polling above 40%, enough to give it the numbers to form a coalition government, these have slipped in recent week as turmoil from COVID-19 measures and financial support have caused a decrease in support.
However, as mentioned above, opposition to a fourth general election is strong. The Ultra-Orthodox parties have already rejected any possible election in the short term. However, a recent opposition bill outlawing LGBTQ+ conversion therapy has, which Gantz supported, has caused ructions, with the Ultra-orthodox parties threatening to vote against the coalition.
Despite the constant chatter, a new election does not look likely anytime soon. In any democratic nation, the average wants stability. The whole concept of the unity government was to establish stability, although one must wonder if instability was an inevitability. COVID-19 meanwhile is wreaking both physical and economic havoc on the nation. A second wave has hit Israel in the last month, leading to public demonstrations against Netanyahu.
A fourth election, as well as being a potential health hazard, would likely be the last thing Israelis want at a time of crisis and would punish both Netanyahu, Gantz and company accordingly at the ballot box. And on top of all that is the annexation question. This is the wild card but, with COVID-19 and thawing middle eastern ties, having annexation as a central issue at an election would be callous and out of touch. Although uncertainty breeds anxiety, the matter is likely on the backburner for the time being, perhaps permanently.
The Final Word
Predicting which direction a country will head politically is often as hard as predicting the winner of the AFL Grand Final. However, a fourth Israeli election is hardly likely aright now out of convenience as there would literally and metaphorically be no winners. However, circumstances do change. Unity governments in Israel often fail. Although both sides prefer to avoid an unwanted election, this government may fail like the others.