By Ömer Erkut Bulut
Israel is holding a general election for the fourth time in two years. The elections will be a referendum for the current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership. Although Benjamin Netanyahu could find a way of both retaining his post and avoiding a trial of corruption amidst the last two turbulent years in his career, he is arguably facing his most difficult election yet. In order to retain the premiership, Netanyahu and his opponents are considering every possibility to form a government, and nothing is off the table, including “the first Arab-Israeli minister” in the cabinet.
Israel’s election system
Israel is governed by the parliamentary system of government. Under Israel’s parliamentary elections system, the whole country is a single constituency (Bradley, Keith and Ewing 2018, 171). In order to be represented in Israeli parliament (The Knesset), a political party needs to pass the 3.25% national vote threshold. With the low threshold combined with the single nationwide party-list system, no single party has ever won a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Therefore, Israel has only ever been led by coalition governments.
A political survivor
The most significant candidate for the head of government is the current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The elections are seen as yet another referendum for his leadership.
Netanyahu first served as the prime minister during 1996-1999 between two Labour prime ministers. Since 2009, he has again served as prime minister and the chairman of the Likud Party without interruption, earning him also the nickname of “King Bibi” by some of his supporters as the longest-serving prime minister of Israel, slightly surpassing the country’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion. On the other hand, Netanyahu is facing trial for the criminal charges of fraud and corruption since December 2019. Therefore, staying in power has become not only a matter of political survival for Bibi, but also the key aspect which might determine his freedom. So far, Bibi could stall the proceedings at the court thanks to the pretext of coronavirus and the agreement with his current partner Benny Gantz, the defence minister and the alternate prime minister. Therefore, it is not difficult to predict that Bibi’s biggest goal is to retain premiership in order to maintain his procedural immunity for the proceedings and destroy the case against him in the long period.
Likud and the issue of Israeli settlements
Netanyahu’s Likud Party was established in early 1970s by Menachem Begin in reaction to Israel’s then-dominant Labour Party that all leading political figures of the country belonged to. Being an alienated figure himself from the political arena by Israel’s founding fathers, Begin and his Likud Party appealed to the Mizrahi, Sephardi and ultra-religious Haredi Jews who also felt alienated and as second-class citizens under the Ashkenazi elite. The first Likud-led government, which effectively ended the 30-year-long Labour Party domination, was established in 1977. The West Bank and Gaza had recently come under Israeli control during the 6 Days War in 1967. After the Yom Kippur War in 1973, it was evident that Israel would not be removed by the West Bank and Gaza by military means. Likud came to power under these political settings. The Likud government adopted a tougher stance regarding then-newly Occupied Palestinian Territories and started to encourage and facilitate settlements in the area in order to create “facts on the ground” (Greene 2015, 1015). Today, the encouragement of settlements in the West Bank continues to be a key stance of Likud and Bibi.
Bibi continues to guarantee the current status of settlements in the West Bank. Apart from the strategic and ideological reasons for the Israeli government and especially Netanyahu’s settlements policy, it is important to note that the political support of the estimated 700.000 Israeli residents living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories cannot be disregarded by any Israeli politician. Bibi’s open pledge to annex 1/3 of the West Bank including the prosperous Jordan Valley can also be read together with this fact. Yet, despite not opposing the idea, Bibi’s latest coalition partners were not vocal supporters of the move and he mostly relied on the Trump Administration support for this move which was presented as “Deal of the Century.” The Trump Administration recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Golan Heights as Israel’s sovereign territory. But now with Biden in power, it seems the US will take a more cautious stance in supporting Israel unlike Trump’s almost unconditional support for Israel. Not forgetting that Israel paused plans of annexation with the latest rapprochement with the Gulf states.
Covid-19 and the Abraham Accords
Netanyahu has two more important “success” in his latest term to offer to the Israeli electorate: Israel’s successful vaccination efforts against Covid-19 and the establishment of diplomatic relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, namely the “Abraham Accords”. Israel has by far the highest vaccination rate in the world. At the time of writing, most of Israeli citizens have received the first shots of the Pfizer vaccine and 55% of the population have received their second shot. Although international travel in and out of Israel is still largely restricted, domestic life has returned back to normal in Israel thanks to the high vaccination rate. Bibi underlines this success in his election campaign and advertisements. Likud’s election advertisements show Israelis freely socialising in pubs and clubs without the fear of infection. Many Israelis give credit for the successful vaccination efforts, but his coalition partners and opponents try to remind the Israeli public that the vaccination success is not the result of the personal effort of Netanyahu (Jerusalem Post 2021).
Also, while getting some credit for the vaccination efforts and vigilant lockdown enforcements against the outbreak, Netanyahu also risked harming the support he receives from the ultraorthodox bloc when the government did not tolerate their rejection of restrictions and vaccinations. At one point, ultraorthodox neighbourhoods were completely locked down (Financial Times 2020). Having to respond to one of his main political bases’ open disregard of public health policies, Netanyahu also faced “a big trouble” at the ballot box according to Moshe Klughaft, one of his former campaign strategists (Times of Israel 2021). Therefore, what the vaccination efforts might bring from the secular votes might be neutralised with the reaction of ultraorthodox votes in the elections.
The second development that Bibi underlines is the recent Abraham Accords. Although Israel maintained unofficial relations with many Gulf countries to primarily counter regional rivals like Iran, the Gulf states had always been reluctant to formalise their relations with Israel. Yet, the UAE and Bahrain (followed by Sudan and Morocco outside the Arabian Peninsula) agreed to formalise the relationship under Bibi’s premiership. The establishment of formal relationships will deepen the economic and political cooperation between those states and enhance the movement of goods, services and people now that there is no restriction. However, it is worth noting that the Abraham Accords occurred under the sponsorship of the Trump Administration, while other members of the government outside Likud including the foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi also received credit for the accords. So, it is debatable how much Bibi will be able turn the diplomatic success into a political one in the elections.
The anti-Netanyahu bloc
Netanyahu’s main coalition partner Benny Gantz launched his Blue and White Party as the anti-Netanyahu umbrella platform a few years ago. Back then, he was seen as the strongest alternative for the premiership. But the former army chief showed that he was not effective at the game of politics. Despite emerging as the anti-Netanyahu character mainly appealing to the centre, Gantz and Blue and White could not form a government and found itself in a coalition with Bibi and Likud. Gantz proved to be a no match for Bibi and one-year long coalition with Bibi left Gantz as almost irrelevant and his Blue and White Party fragmented. Although the coalition agreement provisioned Gantz as the alternate prime minister in a rotation arrangement, Netanyahu did not give the post to Gantz, while he also tied the hands of Blue and White to refer him to the Supreme Court for criminal charges due to their coalition agreement.
Considering that Gantz has destroyed his political reputation in just under a year during his partnership with Bibi, new contenders would be more sceptical to enter into a coalition government with Bibi in order to not go through Benny Gantz’s fate. This time, Netanyahu’s main challengers emerge from his former partners and also protégés breaking away from the Likud: most significantly Yair Lapid and Gideon Saar. Yair Lapid served as a finance minister in one of Netanyahu’s previous governments. His faction was also the first one breaking away from the Blue and White when it aligned with Likud after the last elections and became the leader of the opposition in the Knesset. The other significant contender comes from the former ranks of Likud: Bibi’s former protégé Gideon Saar. Ideologically having a right-wing stance, Saar emerged as a staunch opponent of Bibi with his New Hope Party. He has wowed to not to sit with Bibi in any government (Washington Institute 2021). The polls show the anti-Netanyahu bloc as having a slight majority. But the plans of “dethroning Bibi” might be hindered due to the slight chance that Meretz and Blue and White Parties will not pass the 3.25% election threshold (Jerusalem Post 2021). Additionally, Israeli politics shows that alliances can always change. Yet, Bibi faces one of the hardest elections for him to retain his post and avoid conviction. Hence, he has taken a major turn in policy and rhetoric: appealing to the Arab Israeli or Palestinian voters and promising “the first Arab minister” in the cabinet.
“Abu Yair” wants your vote
Arab Israelis or Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship constitute approximately 20% of Israel’s population. The Joint List of Arab-Israeli parties are currently the fourth biggest group of the Knesset with 11 parliamentarians. Still seen as a “fifth-column” by certain parts of the society, Arab Israeli parties have never taken part in any coalitions so far. During the last elections of March 2020, Netanyahu blamed his biggest opponent Benny Gantz and his centrist Blue and White Party for “endangering the national security” of Israel by considering a coalition including “dangerous Arab parties” (Times of Israel 2019). In 2019, he wrote on his Instagram page: “Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people – and only it” (Guardian 2019). Earlier in 2015, he said Arab Israelis were “voting in droves” in order to galvanise his base to the polling stations in response. In the same address, Netanyahu accused “the left-wing NGOs” of “bussing Arab voters” to the polling stations (The Guardian 2015).
Now exhausting all other options, Bibi seems to take a striking turn towards the Arab voters and asks for their support. He recently apologised in public for his 2015 remarks during an election campaign in Palestinian-majority city of Nazareth (Washington Institute 2021). He pledged an investment campaign for the long-neglected Palestinian-majority towns worth of billons of shekels, containing infrastructure projects and boost of police presence to curb violence amongst and against Palestinians. Netanyahu also promised to include an “Arab member” in his cabinet for the first time in Israel’s history (Jerusalem Post 2021).
In addition to his pledges, Bibi tries to increase his image in the Arab streets of Israel. A few weeks ago, he was recorded enjoying his coffee inside a Bedouin tent during a public relations event. If this was not enough, now tens of Likud billboards in Arab-majority towns reads in Arabic alphabet as “We are with you, Abu Yair” (Ynet 2021). Abu Yair refers to Netanyahu, whose eldest son is named Yair Netanyahu, in conjunction with the Arabic tradition of calling a man with the name of his eldest son.
Naturally, Palestinians holding Israeli citizenship approach Abu Yair’s latest charm offensive with caution. Still, it seems to be working to a degree. The polls show that Likud can win two seats from the Palestinian Israeli section. Netanyahu’s tactic also seems to open cracks within the Joint List. At least one faction with the Arab coalition (Ra’am) is expected to support a Netanyahu government (Jerusalem Post 2021). In an election too close to call, every seat matters.
In the last ten years, Bibi has always found a way to keep his seat as the head of government. Described as a political survivor, he presented himself as the guarantor of Israel’s security, a peacemaker and saviour from coronavirus. The upcoming elections will show if Abu Yair can do the job.
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