By Jonah-Kaufman Cohen
On November 1st, Israel will hold its fifth election in four years. After the first three elections (two in 2019 and one in 2020), Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, managed to retain power. In 2021, a broad coalition of parties defied nearly every set division in Israeli politics to unseat Netanyahu. Against all odds, the diverse coalition of left, right, and center parties– uniting for the first time in government Jews and Israeli Arabs– held until this summer. On July 1st, Yair Lapid of the (center-left) Yesh Atid party replaced Naftali Bennet of the right-wing Yamina party as the leader of the governing coalition. With the change of prime minister, elections were bound to follow. The upcoming elections will once again pit the motley crew of anti-Netanyahu parties against the former prime minister's opposition coalition of right-wing and religious parties.
The Current Coalition
Yair Lapid’s governing coalition currently holds a majority in the Knesset by only one seat. His main support comes from his Yesh Atid party which bills itself as a centrist party representing the interests of Israel’s secular middle class. His coalition also includes what remains of the Blue and White party which arose during the 2019 elections in a failed bid to unseat Netanyahu. Lapid also has support from Israel’s old left– the Labor party– which once held a monopoly over Israeli politics and has rebounded from dismal showings in the 2019 and 2020 elections. Also on the left, Lapid’s coalition includes the Mertz party of social democrats.
The other side of the coalition consists primarily of the right-wing party Yisrael Betanu, led by Avigdor Leberman. Although Leberman was once an ally and protege of Netanyahu, he has found common ground with the parties of the coalition because of his staunch opposition to the political power and privileges of Israel’s orthodox community. Also on the right is Bennett’s Yamina party which brings together both secular and Zionist orthodox supporters and is closely-alinged with the interests of the West Bank settlers.
The most surprising party in the coalition is the United Arab List (Ra’am). Ra’am is the first Arab party to sit in an Israeli government. Their inclusion was pivotal in bringing an end to three years of Israeli political chaos and unseating Netanyahu as prime minister. Ra’am is an Islamist party, and thus at first glance seems at odds with its coalition partners. While the coalition of Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid may be united primarily by a shared hostility towards Netanyahu, there is an underlying policy coherence. The parties share a vision of Israeli society and destiny that is not dominated by the growing orthodox community or defined by the conflict with the Palestiniansians. They share a realistic– and even perhaps optimistic– view of a secular and pluralistic Israel.
Based on the most recent poll, Netanyahu stands one Knesset seat away from a return to power. His opposition coalition is centered around his Likud party, which holds more seats than any other party in the Knesset. Likud, along with Labor, remains one of Israel’s oldest parties. Perpetually in opposition until the 1970s, Likud has represented the right in Israeli politics since before the state’s founding. Buttressing Likud stand the two Haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. These parties reliably back Netanyahu because he has always protected the powers and privileges of Israel’s most religious Jews. They are joined by the party of the religious Zionists and also by the remaining Arab parties in the Joint List.
Current forecasts expect the voters to endorse the tenuous status quo: two evenly sized blocks of parties opposing each other and unable to form a solid government. As things currently stand, neither side is likely to radically alter the balance of power in the 61/59 divided Knesset. That means more messy coalition bargaining. The question is less will the Israeli people choose Lapid or Netanyahu to lead them; but will Lapid be able to hold together his shaky coalition after election day and stave off Netenyahu’s powerful Likud? After all, Lapid can’t afford to lose even a single seat. The only thing we can count on is more uncertainty. A new election is unlikely to rescue Israel from years of political turmoil and stalemate. Whether Likud and its allies return to power or Lapid’s anti-Netanyahu coalition continues to beat the odds and hold on, neither side will have the political strength and stability to move Israel forward and provide sustainable solutions to the nation’s challenges. Israelis may struggle to agree on a government, however they all face soaring cost of living expenses. Unfortunately, whatever November brings is unlikely to alleviate their burdens. Perhaps the most likely outcome is... a sixth election.