Israel is heading toward another election again, after having three elections in the past year and a half, making Israel as one of the world’s democracies that holds elections most often. The political landscape hasn’t changed greatly with these elections.
These multiple elections largely can be seen as Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE’s political gamble. His Likud Party receives close to 30 seats in Israel’s parliament, called the Knesset. In the March 2020 elections, Netanyahu got 36 seats; his party got 32 and 35 seats, respectively, in the two elections held in 2019. The rest of the political landscape is made up of a large centrist party, called Blue and White in the last elections, and a series of smaller parties that tend to cater to various sectors, such as right-wing religious voters and the Arab minority.
For Netanyahu, election math is always clear: He needs 60 seats to stay in power, or he needs to prevent the other parties from forming a coalition against him. The math is not in the opposition’s favor. Israel is a divided society and many of the parties on the far right won’t sit with the left or Arab-minority parties. What that means is that all Netanyahu has to do is corral the right-wing and religious sectors and wait out his political enemies. He has done this successfully for more than 10 years — an unprecedented time in power for an Israeli political leader.
How Israel got here is a long process. The country once was dominated by a center-left party called Mapai, which later became the Labor party. That party has all but vanished. The center-right Likud Party, meanwhile, has remained. This left a political wasteland in the center and left and these approximately 1.5 million voters search every election for a new centrist party for which to vote. There was a party called Shinui (Change) and then a Pensioners' Party, Kadima, Yesh Atid, Zionist Camp, and now Blue and White. Along the way, Netanyahu has watched these centrists come and go and often has successfully absorbed smaller parties on the right that might have threatened his position.
Frequent elections have led to complaints that the system is breaking down. Netanyahu faces corruption indictments and he appears to be clinging to power. Perhaps he has discovered that holding elections allows him to govern unchecked while his rivals run to unseat him. All he must do is hold out long enough for a coalition agreement that is in his favor. Consider how his rivals in Blue and White, a party led by three former generals, have sunk in the polls to only six seats.
Yet the risks Netanyahu faces are not only domestic politics. A new U.S. administration may be less favorable to Israel than the Trump administration. The U.S. may want to re-enter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, a strategy Netanyahu likely opposes. At the same time, Israel wants U.S. support to foster and cement its new peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
Tensions with Iran are growing in the region; reports indicate the U.S. and Israel both sent submarines toward the coast of Iran. Israel has conducted unprecedented air defense drills to showcase its abilities to stop an Iranian ballistic missile or drone attack. The U.S. Congress recently approved $500 million in support for Israel’s missile defense systems, funding that raised eyebrows among some in Washington amid the COVID-19 pandemic. All this could put Israel in a tougher spot among critics in the U.S. who think Israel has received too much support.
That must enter into Netanyahu’s calculations in the election campaign. Israel will hold its election two months after President-elect Biden takes over the Oval Office. That may throw uncertainties into the air, in terms of regional stability and who the U.S. and Israel’s allies and adversaries might be dealing with after the election.
Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a Ginsburg/Milstein writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” His new book, “Drone Wars,” will be published in 2021. Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.