The final tally wasn’t completed until this morning, and the official results will probably only be published after Passover, but the facts of the matter have been clear since Wednesday night. For the fourth time in two years, and despite winning a plurality of Knesset seats, Benjamin Netanyahu does not have the votes to form a government. Let’s talk a bit about why this happened and what’s likely to happen next.
Netanyahu went into this election feeling justifiably confident. As several commenters pointed out, he was in many ways playing against an empty net. The unity government he formed with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party broke the back of the most persistent threat to his premiership in more than a decade, turning public opinion against Gantz, not only for betraying his voters and agreeing to be a part of Bibi’s government, but for taking the word of a man who has built his career on breaking his promises when it best suited him (and indeed, Bibi went back on his word at nearly the first opportunity, refusing to pass a yearly budget and offering instead a series of short-term budgetary measures, which would make it possible for him to call an election at almost any time). His opponents on the Zionist left, Labour and Meretz, who ran jointly in the 2020 election, were shattered when three of their five members chose to join Netanyahu’s coalition, with many pundits predicting that Labour was likely to vanish from the political map forever.
Netanyahu faced an in-party rebellion in the form of long-time adversary Gideon Sa’ar, the last non-acolyte standing within Likud’s upper echelons, who broke off to form his own party. But Sa’ar’s numbers plummeted when his statements revealed him to be more nationalistic right than economic right, and thus less appealing even to Likud voters who don’t consider themselves Bibi cultists. And the months-long protest movement against him, in which thousand of people all over the country engaged in weekly demonstrations over his corruption and mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis, failed to coalesce politically, leaving its members free to choose from an array of left, center, and even right alternatives, thus diffusing their power.
Even the aforementioned coronavirus mismanagement—including over 6,000 dead, a million unemployed, and tens of thousands of shuttered businesses—has paled against the undeniable achievement of mass vaccination. Everyone took it as an election gambit when Israel reopened almost fully in early March, and assumed that we’d be headed for another lockdown in Passover. Instead, infection rates have plummeted, and one can tentatively say that coronavirus in Israel is over. Rightly or wrongly, that achievement has been laid at Netanyahu’s feet.
Most interestingly, Netanyahu was able to disarm the threat posed by a politically active and united Israeli Arab community. This was not, to be clear, entirely his doing. The Joint Arab List, which for three election cycles has been the third largest party in the Knesset, was bound to fracture eventually, the strain between its left wing (under the leadership of Ayman Odeh) and its right (mainly represented by the Islamist Ra’am party, led by Mansour Abbas) ultimately proving insupportable. But Netanyahu—who has for years used anti-Arab rabble-rousing as a rallying cry for his supporters—turned around and began courting Abbas, essentially promising him the same deal he’s made with Haredi and settler leaders: go along with my national and foreign policy objectives, support my efforts to evade prosecution, ignore anything outside of your own bubble, and the money and appointments will flow your way.
The fact that Gantz’s best hope for forming his own government sans Bibi was scuttled due to refusal within his own party to sit with the JAL must have crystalized to Abbas, and many within the Arab community, that the only politics available to them was the politics of favoritism. The result was both the normalization of Likud’s baseline racism, and increased apathy among Arab voters—even taken together, Ra’am and the JAL have lost several seats in 2021 compared to their results in 2020 and 2019. (For a longer and more in-depth discussion of the political situation in Israel’s Arab community, and of the responsibility borne for it not just by Netanyahu but by leaders on the center and left, I highly recommend this article by Edo Konrad.)
And yet, despite polls that seemed to guarantee a runaway victory for Netanyahu, despite the news media hurrying to crown him victor before Tuesday’s election had even started, and despite the celebrations on Tuesday night when the two-digit gulf between Likud and its nearest competitor, Ya’ir Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, became clear, experienced election watchers were pretty certain that nothing was going to change. Now that the dust has settled, the numbers are stark. Netanyahu and his “natural allies” (the religious and settler parties) have 52 Knesset seats. The anti-Bibi block—a grab-bag that includes Lapid, Sa’ar, the Zionist left, the JLA, and even the extremely shady, Putin-associated Avigdor Liberman—have 57 seats. Ra’am have four, and Naftali Bennet, who is extremely to the right but who has clashed with Bibi enough times that he won’t immediately commit to joining his government, has seven. Netanyahu needs both swing parties to get to 61, but convincing Abbas might prove problematic, since in order to shore up Likud’s numbers after Sa’ar’s departure, he brought Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir and his supporters into Likud’s fold. Even by political standards, those two parties in a single coalition would be strange bedfellows.
On the other hand, the coalition that would have to form to oppose Netanyahu and form a government without him seems even more unstable, to the extent that it isn’t even clear who its prime minister would be. And, as previous coalition-wrangling rounds have proven, individual lists are quite unstable. It’s perfectly legal for an Israeli MK to leave their party and join another one (along with the fact that most parties have closed lists, this is my choice for the most disruptive, anti-democratic element in the Israeli system), and Netanyahu is almost certainly already scouring Sa’ar’s party and Blue and White for “defectors” with whom he can make up the two votes he’d be missing if Bennet agrees to sit with him (which he probably will). My best guess is still that we’re headed for yet another election in September or October, but a far-right government under Netanyahu is very possible.
Two other points that are worth considering: until a new government is sworn in, the coalition agreement between Likud and Blue and White has legal force, and under that agreement, Benny Gantz will become prime minister in November. There’s speculation that his plan is to draw out the stalemate until that point, though that would require another round of elections and another hung parliament. Secondly, one thing that has been obscured by the constant churn of parliamentary elections is that at some point in the next few months, the Knesset needs to vote on a new president. There’s some speculation that Netanyahu is looking to make a deal that would see him nominated to the presidency in exchange for stepping down, and even that his longer-term plan is to reshape the presidency into less of a figurehead role, in the vein of Putin and Erdogan. I find this a little far-fetched (for one thing, what Israeli politician would agree to be prime minister with Bibi Netanyahu as president) but it’s certainly true that no other frontrunners for the presidency have emerged so far.
So, has this election been different from any other elections? In some ways, yes. Despite Likud’s overwhelming dominance over other parties, and despite the continued enthusiasm for Netanyahu among his hardcore supporters, the vote share for Likud has dropped significantly, including in cities where it has been the dominant political presence for decades. Many Likud supporters said “Only Bibi” to pollsters and their neighbors, and then simply stayed home. Maybe it’s the coronavirus crisis, maybe it’s the corruption trials, maybe it’s the recognition that this fourth election was entirely of his making, but at least some of Netanyahu’s spell has dissipated. What’s more, both Labour and Meretz emerged from this election strengthened (and Labour in particular has been revitalized by the election of a new chairwoman, Merav Michaeli). Even the split among the Arab parties has helped to clarify the point that it is no longer possible to conduct Israeli politics without the input of at least some representatives of 20% of the population. It’s still possible for Netanyahu to form a government, evade justice, and lead Israel further down the path towards a hollowed-out democracy in the style of Russia or Turkey. But he’s going to get a serious headache doing so, and I’m not at all convinced that he will succeed.