GABRIEL MITCHELL, JERUSALEM, AND JUDITH LEVY, JERUSALEM
In chapter four of an endless series of elections, Israel tries again. Will Mansour Abbas, a formerly obscure Islamic dentist, be the one to tip the balance?
Israel has held four elections, with a fifth likely to come, in less than two years. Why exactly is Israel holding elections all the time? What difference, if any, did the most recent one make?
Elections here are based on nationwide proportional representation. To lead the government, a candidate must assemble a majority coalition—usually, a multiparty coalition; sometimes a complicated one—of at least 61 lawmakers. If no candidate can assemble a coalition, there must be another election. In 2019, this happened twice.
The unusual series of elections highlights a flaw in a parliamentary democracy; to wit, it gives disproportionate power to small parties who find themselves in the position of kingmaker. The most recent election, on March 23, illustrates this in a particularly dramatic way.
The results of the fourth election were as inconclusive as the first, second, and third. The serial inability of any party to form a government reflects the depth of the political fracture here, with the subtext of Bibi’s lurking corruption case and his remarkable unmanning of the alternate prime minister, Benny Gantz. (The parallel prime ministry was a constitutional innovation resulting from similarly desperate coalition negotiations in the last go-round. Gantz agreed to be “prime minister in rotation.” They were both sworn in, but Gantz’s turn at the wheel was to come after Bibi’s. It never came.)
Once again, there is no obvious majority coalition. There’s no clear path for Bibi to form a government. There’s no clear path for the anti-Bibi bloc, either. So both sides are now engaged in post-election negotiations, trying desperately to assemble some kind of coalition, however ideologically improbable. The alternative, a fifth election, might well drive voters out of their minds.
As the graph above shows, two parties—Naftali Bennett’s Yamina and Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List, or Ra’am—sit between the two blocs. Israelis have long assumed Bennett would join a Netanyahu government. But the results don’t give Bennett the power to crown Netanyahu and be done with it. Netanyahu still needs more support. There are two options. A member of an anti-Netanyahu party could desert. (Members of the Knesset are not required to remain loyal to their party.) Or Ra’am could help Netanyahu form a government.
This would be particularly odd, because Ra’am is an Islamist party. It claims to support a two-state solution, but the veracity of this position is somewhat open to doubt as its political antecedents are in the Islamic Movement in Israel, which is an offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood. Nonetheless, Ra’am has the votes, and Bibi likes being prime minister very much.
Bennett too is weighing his options and enjoying the courtship of both sides. In theory, the anti-Netanyahu bloc could form a government with his support. But this would require of him major ideological and personal sacrifices; for example, Bennett and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid might have to take turns being prime minister. Bennett is an orthodox center-rightist; Lapid is a secular centrist. They differ not only about big picture issues, such as Israeli sovereignty over portions of the West Bank, but domestic issues, such as same-sex marriage. It would be a curious alliance, but certainly far less surreal than Ra’am-plus-Likud.
The role Arab voters played in the latest election is the most intriguing development. Six years ago, Netanyahu warned his constituents to rush to the polls because Arabs were being bussed in droves to the voting stations. This time, Netanyahu energetically courted Arab voters, visiting Arab communities across the country in the election run-up. He sensed they were ready for something different. Ra’am left the Joint List, an alliance of Arab-majority parties that did remarkably well in 2020, leading some to worry about Arab voter turnout. Israel has an election threshold of 3.25 percent. With the Joint List divided, would Ra’am pass the threshold? Or would tens of thousands of votes be wasted, dramatically realigning the final results?
Arab voter turnout was indeed lower than in the last election, and the Joint List’s seats fell precipitously because Ra’am left the alliance. Ra’am, however, not only passed the threshold, it became the kingmaker. So now an Arab Islamist party has the power to make or break each of Israel’s hostile rival blocs. Both are now wooing the party—and Ra’am could very well ally itself to Bibi, bizarre though that sounds.
On Thursday, Mansour Abbas, only recently an unknown Islamist dentist, delivered a prime time address on national television. He described himself as “a man of the Islamic Movement,” “a proud Arab and Muslim, a citizen of the state of Israel,” and the head of “the leading, biggest political movement in Arab society.” He championed, he said,
a vision of peace, mutual security, partnership and tolerance between the peoples. I reach out a hand in my name and that of my colleagues and on behalf of the public that voted for me—to create an opportunity for coexistence in this holy land, blessed by three religions and of two peoples.
His party, he said,
respects every person whoever they are, sanctifies life and abhors all violence against anybody based on political or national or religious reasons. The time has come for us to listen to each other; to respect each other’s narrative, to respect the other.
These elections have been striking for the campaigns’ treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian problem as an irrelevance. This perhaps reflects the parties and candidates’ self-interest and lack of concern for the broader national interest; but probably in greater measure reflects the disillusionment of the Israeli public with the Palestinian partner. Nonetheless, democracy has an odd way of shaking out. Abbas understands the leverage he now has. He will use his position to obtain concessions from whomever is willing to talk. Perhaps these will include promises related to the larger Israel-Palestinian issue. Or perhaps they will not.
Historically, however, there are very few examples of Zionist parties cooperating with Arab parties. No Arab party has ever joined a government as a full partner. Would Netanyahu’s bloc, which includes some of the most conservative voices in Israeli politics, be open to receiving support from an Islamist Arab party? Some say yes. Others say never. It’s equally unclear whether the anti-Netanyahu bloc would enter a coalition with an Islamist party that, for example, opposes LGBTQ rights. (Some members of Bibi’s bloc, however, would vibrate in sympathy with this sentiment.)
In short, there remains a strong possibility that ego, ideology, and political norms force an unprecedented fifth election in October 2021.
With everything in play and plenty of horse-trading to go, keep an eye on two things:
- President Reuven Rivlin has begun consultations with all of the political parties. Each party is presenting its position to the president and recommending a party to lead coalition negotiations. On Wednesday, April 7, we expect Rivlin to assign a candidate the task of forming a government. Recently, Likud MKs made a fuss about Rivlin’s role, claiming he was putting his finger on the scales. But this is what the president is supposed to do—assign the task based on the total number of recommendations, not hand it automatically to the party that won the most seats. In 2009, as everyone in Israel knows, Netanyahu’s Likud trailed Kadima by one seat, but Netanyahu was given the first chance to form a government. The consultations had shown that Netanyahu had the easier path.
- Even before the formation of a government, the Knesset may vote for a new speaker and try to bar Netanyahu from running in a still-theoretical fifth election. This could happen if the anti-Netanyahu bloc—presumably 61 seats, though this is yet to be determined—passes legislation preventing any person suspected of criminal wrongdoing from serving as prime minister.
For more background about Israel’s political scene, we recommend:
- Professor Ofer Kenig at the Israeli Democracy Institute produced a series of graphs that suggest different ways of understanding this election.
- Who is Mansour Abbas? What’s his party’s strategy? Jack Khoury profiles the man of the hour. Gabi recommends Edo Konrad’s analysis of the Islamist dentist who has become a household name.
- Ben-Dror Yemini argues the 2021 election wasn’t about ideology. Despite the strong showing by the Israeli right, Netanyahu faces an uphill battle to form a government. No one should bet against Netanyahu. He’s a remarkably successful politician.
- Moran Azoulay outlines the strategic considerations Netanyahu must take into account to stay prime minister.
- Judith recommends Mansour Abbas and the Lebanonization of Israel, by Mordechai Kedar, who argues that giving the Islamic Movement “a kosher stamp of approval” would set Israel “on the same destructive path trod by Lebanon ever since Hezbollah became part of that country.”
Gabriel Mitchell is a policy fellow at the Mitvim Institute and a PhD candidate in Government & International Affairs at Virginia Tech University. Judith Levy is English publications editor at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. This essay appeared in part on Invisible Boundaries, a newsletter on developments in Israel and the Middle East by Gabi Mitchell.