Israel is about to hold its fourth elections in just two years, a sign of political instability. Yet in each of the six national elections over the last 12 years, the result at the top has been the same: Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. Meanwhile, the Israeli left has gradually disappeared.
What does this mean for Israel’s political future? And is there a way out of Israel’s political stalemate?
The Q&A below features Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
Why is Israel holding a fourth election in just two years, and can it avoid a fifth election?
We are heading to a fourth election because Mr. Netanyahu was not able to achieve the majority he needed both to become prime minister and put in place the judicial changes that would enable him to subvert, undermine and suspend the legal process he is facing. On the other hand, no one else had the majority to form an alternative stable government. As long as there is no decisive outcome, we might end up going to cycle number five and six, as absurd and sad as it sounds.
So he’s got the wherewithal to get elected but not the wherewithal to protect himself from legal prosecution?
We’re two years into Israel’s worst political crisis in its history: virtually no legislation. No budget. No reforms. Very few key appointments of top civil servants. Decision-making has been suspended for two years, and for the last year we’ve had the worst economic crisis in a decade resulting from the COVID crisis.
Why aren’t the Israeli people taking our fate into our hands? Our prime minister is under indictment, but he’s using his personal clout and political savvy to address his legal needs.
And there are inherent weaknesses in our electoral system, our constitutional system — the fact that we don’t have a constitution — and some loopholes in our legislation, for example the fact that even if you’re indicted you can continue to serve as prime minister. The outcome is virtual paralysis for the last two years.
Does the Israeli judicial system offer any exit from this deadlock — for example, forcing Netanyahu out if he’s convicted?
Not for the foreseeable future. Because even if there is a conviction in district court, there are Supreme Court appeals, and the legal processes take years.
How is this affecting voting patterns and the general discourse?
For Mr. Netanyahu, his key interest is no longer serving as the prime minister of everybody. His primary political goal is to hold onto his base, so he speaks to his base and his key political allies, the ultra-Orthodox parties. This brings about far more divisive rhetoric and political dynamics. He has a very solid base of about a quarter of Israelis that believe in his leadership capabilities and are persuaded that the indictment is politically motivated and can be overlooked.
On the eve of the 2015 elections, Netanyahu made a divisive comment about “Arabs coming to the polls in droves” that stirred outrage overseas. Now he’s making those kinds of comments all the time, warning of an invasion of Black converts from Africa, disparaging Reform Jews. It seems like he just doesn’t care.
Netanyahu’s perspective toward the Arab minority has changed, in a very interesting development. The strategic imperative of Netanyahu’s premiership, even since his first premiership in the 1990s, was to nurture, preserve and strengthen the alliance with the ultra-Orthodox and delegitimize the participation of representatives of the Arab minority. It was a decades-long project that secured his grip on power. This project peaked in the 2015 statement about Arabs being bused in droves to the polls. Even in September 2019, the main theme of the election was ‘The Arabs are going to steal the election.’ This project was successful: When the Blue and White party had a majority to form a government with the Arab Joint List, the alliance was perceived as insufficiently legitimate in the eyes of the broad Israeli public and this is why it wasn’t formed.
Now Netanyahu is changing his strategy and trying to lure votes of Arab citizens because he sees the numbers and the potential. We’re no longer in a campaign of Likud voters confronting Arab voters. This actually has an effect on public opinion. A record number of Jewish Israelis support and think it’s legitimate to have the Arab Joint List as part of a coalition. This is quite a dramatic change.
With respect to the Reform movement, this is a group that is persecuted in a repulsive manner by ultra-Orthodox representatives in a way that is completely un-Zionist and un-Jewish and uninclusive. Netanyahu is so dependent on the ultra-Orthodox that he basically granted them a monopoly on domestic issues, especially issues of religion and state.
Could the Arabs parties join a Likud-led government without discrediting themselves?
About 85 percent of Israeli Arabs — who comprise 20 percent of Israel’s population — want their elected Knesset representatives to be part of a coalition government. This is a break from the past, when being part of a Zionist coalition was perceived as illegitimate. Now it’s different. Israeli Arabs increasingly want to be part of the state, and they understand this is their fate, future and fortune. Their representatives are responding accordingly.
On the one hand, if the center-left wants to be in power, they need some kind of an alliance with the Arab minority. On the other hand, it’s illegitimate in the eyes of many Jewish Israelis.
Yair Lapid [leader of the Yesh Atid party] understood this complexity. He played a dual game. He said he wouldn’t ally with the Arab Joint List before the March 2020 elections and then he went all out to build this alliance in the post-election. Now Lapid changed his stance. He constantly says, “I think it’s legitimate, and I have all intention if need be to form a coalition with them.”
What are the possible scenarios to come out of the March 23 elections?
One, Netanyahu achieves an absolute majority in the Knesset — at least 61 out of 120 seats — with his natural allies: the ultra-Orthodox parties, Likud, Naftali Bennett [leader of the Yamina party], Bezalel Smotrich [leader of the Religious Zionist party].
Two, Netanyahu does not achieve 61 and there’s some kind of broad right-left-and-center coalition of the Zionist parties that do not support Netanyahu: former Likud member Gidon Saar [New Hope party], Avigdor Liberman [Israel Beiteinu party], Bennett, Lapid, Meretz, Labor and Blue and White. All of those parties together form some kind of broad coalition. It could be a very short-lived coalition if differences within it break it up.
Three, continued deadlock: Neither side achieves 61. Netanyahu continues to lead an interim government and in September 2021 we’ll be talking about a fifth election.
Over the last 20 years there’s been a dramatic diminishing of the Israeli left. Is that going to continue?
The long-term trend is a decline in the share of Israelis that self-identify as left-wing, now about 15 percent of Israelis. There’s been a dramatic increase in the last 20 years of those who define themselves as center, now 25-30 percent. And about 55 percent define themselves as right wing, roughly divided into one-third center-right, one-third right wing and one-third far right. Plus there’s the Arab minority.
Netanyahu closely identified with the Trump administration. How might this affect his relations with the Biden administration?
Netanyahu has built a reputation within the Israeli public as a diplomatic heavyweight. Although he doesn’t have the same level of coziness with President Biden, it doesn’t mean Israelis consider him a lightweight in foreign policy.
Beyond the election, the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is way more than a relationship between two leaders. If Mr. Biden decides to move forward on the Palestinian issue in a way that Israelis would object to — something I don’t really think would happen — Netanyahu would have the benefit of being seen as standing up to the U.S. administration and preserving the national interest.
The main issue that will define the relationship between the two administrations is Iran. There we expect real decisions to be made, and real interests are going to be affected. It’s not only politics, it’s real life. It’s too early to say because we still don’t know what will be the American policy, how the Iranians will respond and what will be the view in Israel — not only of the prime minister but also of the professional defense establishment.