Will Fourth Israeli Elections Lead to a Fifth?

A general view shows the plenum at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem, May 29, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun.

On March 23, Israelis will go to the polls for the fourth time in the past 18 months, amid fears that a fifth round of elections could be around the corner.

By this point, repeated elections are seen by many disillusioned Israelis as just the latest sign of a failing political system, which adds to pre-existing hardships — economic, health, or educational — that have been generated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Elections today have come to represent a cycle of political instability, leading many citizens to roll their eyes in cynicism and sorrow.

Question marks hang over whether any party will be able to put together a 61-member coalition required to form a government, and the prospect of a fifth election since April 2019 is not far-fetched.

But unlike the past three elections, which revolved around the sole question of whether Prime Minister Netanyahu should remain in his position or not, another dimension has emerged in this campaign in the form of a new right-wing political force.

Gideon Sa’ar broke away from the Likud in order to challenge Netanyahu, and Sa’ar and his New Hope party are taking voters away from Likud, as well as from the centrist Blue and White Party, once heralded as the party that could oust Netanyahu; yet today, it is fighting just to get over the electoral threshold.

Sa’ar also has the potential to take votes away from his right-wing rival Naftali Bennett and his Yamina party, while center-left parties, such as Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, the second-largest party right now according to polls, are prepared to work with him.

For those unwilling to vote for Netanyahu because of the criminal indictments against him, Sa’ar is the natural alternative. And yet, Sa’ar and New Hope have a problem — they have stalled and are struggling to market themselves as the right-wing alternative to Netanyahu.

While Sa’ar was able to take moderate Likud right-wing MKs with him, such as Ze’ev Elkin and Yifat Shasha-Biton, the party has lost momentum according to polling. Still, the New Hope have a full month to get their act together — and that’s a long time in the Israeli political campaign cycle.

All of Likud’s rivals share a common fear — namely that Netanyahu will take advantage of the successful vaccination program and grow in electoral strength. According to internal Likud polls, the party is on track to capture 33 Knesset seats, compared to current polling, in which it averages 29 Knesset seats.

Meanwhile, on the center and left side of the political map, the big winner is Yair Lapid, who is polling consistently at around 18 seats, and who’s party positioned as the second-largest in the Knesset. Lapid is benefiting from the fact that Netanyahu is deliberately ignoring Sa’ar, in order to avoid giving him media limelight, and is focusing his attacks on Lapid. But this serves Lapid’s interests well.

Lapid’s campaign platform offers the alternative of a “sane government,” and focuses on what he describes as the failed management of the coronavirus crisis.

Netanyahu helped oversee a hook-up between far-right figures Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, creating a bloc that could potentially prevent an opposition coalition from forming, if the list passes the threshold. But doing so may push other right-wing voters, repelled by Smotrich and Ben Gvir, to Bennett’s Yamina party.

This leads to the question of who, exactly, is Naftali Bennett? Because it is Bennett who will shape the fate of the next government. He has not ruled out sitting with Netanyahu, but refused to do so in previous elections. Bennett may well be the primary kingmaker in the coming months. Netanyahu will offer him any portfolio he pleases, including the Defense Ministry, which is most dear to Bennett, as well as the Justice Ministry.

In the event of another tie, the key to the formation of the next coalition could well lie with defectors that move from one party to another — as Knesset member Gadi Yevarkan did when he ditched Blue and White and moved to Likud in 2020. Netanyahu will search for more defectors, and seek out weak links in opposition parties. The number of such defections could mean the difference between forming a government and going to fifth elections.

Danielle Roth-Avneri is a publishing Expert at The MirYam Institute. Danielle is a journalist and reporter on political matters, as well as an editor for the Israel Hayom/Israel Today newspaper, the most widely circulated publication in Israel.

The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.

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Author: Danielle Roth-Avneri


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