Photo by Cole Keister on Unsplash
Israel is holding its fifth election in less than four years on November 1. In selecting the members of the 25th Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, voters face a complex system with one binary question: welcome or reject former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
After Mr. Netanyahu lost a majority coalition in 2021, he was forced to hand over his role as prime minister to Naftali Bennett, who then handed control over to Yair Lapid in June 2022 following the loss of his majority. Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is also the subject of ongoing corruption charges, which he denies.
Mr. Netanyahu hopes to ride the worldwide wave of right-wing populism back into the premiership with the help of far-right figures like Jewish Power leader Itamar Ben-Gvir. But this wave may not be enough to form a lasting coalition that would stave off yet another election for four years, as Mr. Netanyahu has vowed to do.
The historic ideological diversity of Mr. Bennett’s coalition will not be replicated in this election: Mr. Netanyahu is a polarizing figure that attracts far-right parties and fervent religious Zionists; Mr. Lapid is trying to resist this push by trying to attract center and center-right parties.
Recent polls suggest that neither Mr. Netanyahu nor Mr. Lapid’s voting bloc has an outright majority in the Knesset, which has 120 seats. Mr. Netanyahu is just one member short, projected to win 60 seats, while Mr. Lapid’s coalition is expected to win 56 seats. If neither coalition leader is able to secure a majority and pass a budget, there will be another election, likely to be held in early 2023.
Israelis are divided on both Mr. Netanyahu’s aggressive nationalist policies and his electoral competency. Without a functioning government with a clear mandate to govern, Israel will be left floundering in the midst of inflation, continuing conflict with Palestine, and various conflicts worldwide.
June dissolution and the Knesset
After Naftali Bennett formed an eight-party unity government with the slimmest of majorities — 61 of 120 Knesset seats — he struggled to move forward with a coalition united largely by the repudiation of Mr. Netanyahu. When right-wing Yamina member of the Knesset Idit Silman left the coalition in protest of what she viewed as Israel ignoring Jewish law, Mr. Bennett’s coalition was left with exactly half of the seats in the Knesset. After a Palestinian Israeli lawmaker quit the bloc, Mr. Bennett was forced to dissolve the Knesset and hand over the premiership to Yair Lapid, who is currently serving as caretaker prime minister until a new governing bloc is formed.
Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party holds the most seats in the Knesset of any individual party — 29 of 120 — but Mr. Lapid’s liberal Yesh Atid party is not too far behind with 17 seats and has the key advantage of being the less polarizing party of the two. Likud could ally with the religious conservative Shas party, which holds the third most seats at 9 and has been part of every governing coalition since 1984 until joining the opposition against Mr. Bennett in 2021.
The twenty-fourth Knesset failed to stay together largely because of the incompatible ideological stances of its members; Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Lapid hope to make the twenty-fifth Knesset a stable force able to accomplish the goals Israel needs to progress.
Election policy and politics
Twenty parties are vying for power with leaders who have already been selected prior to the upcoming general election. Each party must reach the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the vote to win any seats in the Knesset; that number is determined by the proportion of votes that that party wins compared to the entire number of votes cast. This is meant to limit very small parties from preventing the building of a coalition.
Israel uses the Bader-Ofer method that effectively allows parties to share what are considered to be excess votes; that is, votes that would not affect the number of Knesset seats a party would win. This election has four pairs of parties that agreed to work together with the Bader-Ofer method:
- National Unity Party and Yesh Atid (two center/center-right parties);
- Labor and Meretz (two social democratic parties);
- Religious Zionist Party and Likud (two right/far-right parties); and
- United Torah Judaism and Shas (two religious conservative parties).
Voters will decide which roster, not which candidate, for which to vote, but voters are aware of who is on each party’s ballot. In a country that has been plagued by governmental inconsistency in recent years, voters will be looking for a leader who can create a mandate that would govern for the four-year term established by Israeli Basic Law.
The clearly right-wing parties will rally around Mr. Netanyahu to put him back at the helm of the Knesset, while the centrist parties will seek to elevate Mr. Lapid from caretaker to prime minister. The question remains: who will drive the most votes?
Far-right extremism and the Israeli Arab vote
Benjamin Netanyahu is allying with far-right figures to drum up intense support for his campaign. Should he win, Mr. Netanyahu would rely on Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party. Mr. Ben-Gvir was barred from serving in the military for his connection to extremist groups and was convicted in 2007 of supporting terrorist organizations and inciting racism. He has vowed to “dispel” any Arabs — who represent 21.1 percent of Israel’s population — who are insufficiently loyal to the Israeli state, and he has openly encouraged the use of lethal force against Palestinians.
Ironically, Mr. Netanyahu is also trying to court Arab voters with Arabic-language social media posts. Mr. Netanyahu is well aware of the fact that without at least some support from Israel’s Arab citizens, any potential government of his would surely collapse. Any Jewish voters that Mr. Netanyahu loses could prove to be a fatal flaw in his campaign; he is seeking to allay this risk prospect by encouraging Israeli Arabs to vote for him.
The Islamist Ra’am party has warned of the threat posed by the religious far right, and it has come out in strong opposition of yet another Netanyahu premiership. But there are concerning signs about Arab voter turnout, even after having the first coalition government with an Arab party. Many voters feel that their politicians have not done enough to secure wins for their communities. Mr. Lapid will be relying on Arab voter turnout to stave off the resurgence of Mr. Netanyahu, and it appears that he will not have the support he needs for this victory.
The winning coalition must form a majority with a minimum of 61 members; if that fails, the runner-up will have the same opportunity. If both coalitions fail to create a functional government, Israel will be forced into its sixth election season in four years. A strong shift to the right has the potential to inflame already high tensions between Israel and Palestine, but the lack of any government at all may have similar consequences.
In a time when reactionary politics perpetuate a cycle of political extremism, Israel needs a clear leader with the ability to unite. Mr. Netanyahu, though, would much rather dominate Israel than guide it. And he appears to be right on the cusp of realizing that goal.
One thought on “Israelis Return to the Polls Amid Far-Right Rise”
Vincent, Your Uncle Matt just introduced me to your blog. Excellent summary of the pre-Israeli vote picture. Well, we now know that yet another country has made a sharp right turn. Big surprise–Netanyahu has appointed Ben-Gvir as the top security minister. In this way, Israel’s Palestinian apartheid can be expanded and extended.
As a side note, I have no trouble differentiating my Anti-Israel state position from my anti-antisemitism position. Jews are no more the state of Israel than Republicans are the state of America.
Thank for your essential work.
“He who dances on freedom’s grave shouldn’t expect it to come rushing to his aid.” (The Order of the Day, Vuillard)