23 March 2021 Israel Elections Report

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Israel is a country that draws attention with its unique political structure. In this respect, it is important to know Israel’s political structure in general. Israeli elections are important both for Israel’s domestic and foreign policy. Due to Israel’s important position in international relations as well as its role in the region, the general situation needs to be analyzed before the March 23 elections. Israel is going to elections for the fourth time in the last two years, and it is the scene of one of the rare situations that may arise in politics. Israel will hold elections on March 23, 2021, after the Knesset is automatically dissolved as a result of the current government’s failure to pass the budget through the Knesset in December 2020.

Some of the important features of Israel’s political structure, what happened in the 2019 and 2020 elections, and what came to the fore while going to the elections on March 23, 2021, will be evaluated in this study. In addition, a situation assessment will be made in this study by conducting a meeting with Dr. Ferit Belder from Marmara University, Department of International Relations on the Israeli political system and the Israeli elections on March 23, 2021.

 

ISRAEL’S POLITICAL STRUCTURE

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  1. Israel Political System

The political system in Israel stands out as a unique system. In line with the votes of the people, 120 deputies are elected to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, for four years, and in this system, all of Israel is considered a single constituency (Ulutaş et al., 2012: 32). However, the most unique feature of the Israeli political system is the envisaged election threshold. As a matter of fact, no single party has come to power alone in Israel until today and therefore all governments are formed by coalitions formed by the coming together of different parties (Ben-Haim, 2008: 79). In this sense, it can be said that coalition governments in Israel are an integral part of the political system (Belder, 2021: 1). A party that wants to be in power must have 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and since generally no single party can reach this number of seats, the importance of small parties in the system increases because the number of deputies they obtain becomes critical for the party that wants to establish a coalition. Therefore, when forming a government in Israel, parties have to cooperate with smaller parties as coalition partners because the electoral threshold is 3.25 and small parties have a significant number of seats due to this low electoral threshold (Belder, 2021). However, although it is claimed that this structure of the Israeli political system reflects the diversity of opinions and beliefs in the country due to the large number of parties in the system parties (Ben-Haim, 2008: 82), it makes it difficult to form stable governments and makes coalition governments inevitable for Israel. Looking at the list of governments since the establishment of the State of Israel in Figure 1 below, it is seen that all of the governments that have been established are coalition governments and that governments have not been established for a very long time. Another point is, as can be seen from Figure 1, the coalition government established by Netanyahu and Benny Gantz under the prime ministry of Netanyahu after the March 2020 elections in Israel has been the government that has the most ministers in the history of Israel. This situation stands out as one of the reasons explaining why the last established government was so short-lived. In other words, while the fourth elections are being held in two years, Figure 1 provides important information in this sense.

Figure 1: List of Governments Since the Founding of the State of Israel

Source 1: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/israel-government-cabinet-and-ministers

 

  1. Elections in 2019 and 2020

On the way to the March 23, 2021 elections, Israel went through three important electoral process: April 2019, September 2019 and March 2020. Each election took place in a different atmosphere, and there were several factors that could answer the question of why Israel went to the fourth election in two years. According to Belder (Belder, 2021:1), the main debate in Israel ahead of the April 2019 elections was the ideological rivalry of the parties in the election race. Results in the April 2019 elections indicated that the right-wing bloc had won the elections, and after the elections, Netanyahu took the necessary authority to form a coalition from the President Reuven Rivlin (Lis, 2019). Netanyahu, however, has failed to reconcile the diametrically opposed demands of the Yisrael Beitenu Party leader Liberman and Haredi parties (Belder, 2021: 6). Liberman argued that ultra-Orthodox Jews should also serve in the military, while the Haredi parties did not want to make any concessions on the religious status quo. Netanyahu, on the other hand, was in no position to make concessions to any side because he needed the support of both sides to reach 61 seats. If he had fulfilled Liberman’s request, he would have lost the support of the Haredi parties, which have 16 seats, and if he had done the opposite, he would have lost the five seats held by Liberman’s party (Mitchell, 2019). Liberman’s main motto after the results was not to cooperate with the Arabs or the Haredis, and instead he was in favor of the formation of a secular government of national unity (Gill, 2019). At this point, one of the most challenging points of the Israeli political system is seen.  When forming coalition governments in Israel, there are various difficulties because each party represents a social identity, which causes a crisis during each election period (Belder, 2021: 6). The results of the April 2019 elections are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: The Results of the April 2019 Elections

Source 2: https://www.bicom.org.uk/analysis/israeli-elections-everything-you-want-and-need-to-know/

After Netanyahu failed to form a government after the April 2019 elections, the Knesset dissolved itself and a re-election was called (bicom.org.uk, 2019a). The results of the September 2019 elections are shown in Figure 3. The most prominent name in these elections was Benny Gantz, who participated in the elections with his Blue and White Party. In the first elections he entered with his party, which he founded by including the left and center parties, he reached a very serious number of seats and attracted attention with Netanyahu as the most serious candidate for power. However, since no leader could form a government, it was decided to hold an election in Israel in September 2019. In the process leading to the September 2019 elections, the most ambitious names were Gantz and Netanyahu, and the fact that the Arab parties entered the elections together with the name of the Joint List for the first time was a factor that differentiated the September 2019 elections. At the same time, Naftali Bennett left the party leadership to Ayelet Shaked after the failure in the April 2019 elections.

Figure 3: The Results of the September 2019 Elections

Source 3: https://www.bicom.org.uk/analysis/september-17-israeli-elections-everything-you-need-to-know/

The two highlights of this election were the increase in Liberman’s number of seats to 8, and the Joint List of Arab parties reaching 13 seats. The rise of Arab parties has been driven by Netanyahu’s accusations against Arabs ahead of the elections and his proposal to use cameras in Arab regions when voting (bicom.org.uk, 2019). Following these results, Netanyahu was once again given the power to form a government, but after failing once again to form a coalition, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz was given the task of forming a government (Mitchell, 2019). In the failure to form a coalition after the September 2019 elections, the disagreement between Liberman and Netanyahu over the government to be formed with external support from Arab parties and Kahol Lavan leader Gantz’s declaration that he would never form a government with Netanyahu are the most important factors (bicom.org.uk, 2019b). However, after Gantz also failed to form a government, elections were decided for the third time in a row and the election date was set for March 2, 2020. The results of the March 2020 elections are shown in Figure 4:

Figure 4: The Results of the March 2020 Elections

Source 4: https://www.bicom.org.uk/analysis/march-2-israeli-elections-everything-you-need-to-know/

Compared to the September 2019 elections, the change in the election results are shown in Figure 5. Looking at Figure 5, which shows the change in the number of seats in the March 2020 elections according to the September elections, it is seen that the Arab parties broke a record and had 15 seats in this election, which they entered under the name of the Joint List. It is seen that Likud is the first party again, and the number of seats for Blue and White has not changed. The number of seats in Yamina, where Naftali Bennett was the party leader again, decreased by 1 chair to 6. Avigdor Liberman’s party also lost 1 seat. The most striking point of the March 2020 elections is that Benny Gantz formed a coalition with Netanyahu after these elections and therefore lost the support of Arabs and left parties who supported him. On the way to the March 23, 2021 elections, the breaking point here came to the fore as an important factor for the Arab parties to experience a split again.

Figure 5: The Change in the 2020 Elections Results Compared to the September 2019 Elections

Source 5: https://www.bicom.org.uk/analysis/march-2-israeli-elections-everything-you-need-to-know/

As seen in Figures 4 and 5, Gantz and Netanyahu had the highest number of seats in the March 2020 elections.Two months later after the elections, Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Gantz formed a coalition government, reconciling with the rotating prime minister’s formula. Under their agreement, Netanyahu would be prime minister for the first 18 months and Gantz would be prime minister for the next 18 months. As mentioned above, Gantz announced before the elections that he would never form a government with Netanyahu, but later announced that this coalition government was formed under abnormal circumstances to overcome the difficulties caused by Covid-19 (Yolande, 2020). However, left-wing parties that were previously in the same bloc as Gantz accused Gantz of deceiving them after the move. Gantz claimed that they were under abnormal conditions due to Covid-19 and that Israel needed a national unity government to overcome the crises experienced during the pandemic. The results of Gantz’s move will be discussed in more detail in the next section of the analysis of the 2021 elections.

 

FOURTH ELECTION IN TWO YEARS

  1. The Process Leading to the March 23, 2021 Elections

The last time a budget was made in Israel was in 2018, and since no government has been formed as a result of the elections since then, it is up to the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition formed after the March 2020 elections (Yohanan, 2021). According to the law, the 2020 budget had to be made 95 days after the government was formed in May, and the deadline for this was August 25. Otherwise the Knesset would be resolved automatically. According to the coalition agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz, the 2020 and 2021 budgets would be made at the same time. The main purpose here was to overcome the problems arising from the inability to make a budget for a long time and to achieve stability by making a two-year budget at the same time. However, when Netanyahu insisted that only the 2020 budget be made, Gantz refused and asked for a two-year budget as stipulated in the coalition agreement (middleeastmonitor, 2020). When the two coalition partners could not reach an agreement on this issue, the Knesset was automatically dissolved, as the law stipulated, and it was decided to hold elections on March 23, 2021.

While going to the elections on March 23, 2021 in Israel, perhaps the most important difference that separates this election from other elections was Covid-19, which affected the whole world. According to the information provided by the Israel Democracy Institute, while only 37 percent of Israelis trust Netanyahu’s way of managing Covid-19, this ratio remains low even among Orthodox Jews, Netanyahu’s foremost loyal supporters (Yohanan, 2021). Apart from Covid-19, another important reason that distinguishes the process leading to the March 23 elections from other elections is that there are more ambitious candidates against Netanyahu. Unlike the previous elections, there are people who have worked with Netanyahu before. The first of these names is Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Yamina Party, who was a minister in the previous Netanyahu governments and was also Netanyahu’s former chief of staff. The other name is Gideon Sa’ar, who previously served as a minister in Netanyahu’s governments and appeared on the political scene with the popular New Hope Party. One of the most important features of the two names mentioned above is that they both previously served as ministers in Netanyahu governments and are on the right side of the political spectrum. In this respect, Netanyahu’s struggle in these elections will be much more difficult because Netanyahu was able to consolidate the masses by adopting a discourse that accused his opponents of not being patriotic and of leftism and thus creating a security language (Belder, 2021: 8).

However, Netanyahu will not be able to apply his old tactic in these elections because his opponents are in the same position as him in the political spectrum and they have worked with him before.

 

  1. Political Parties and Leaders’ Positions Before the March 23, 2021 Elections

In Israel, there are 13 parties that came to the fore in the 23 March 2021 elections. These parties consist of Likud, Yamina, Religious Zionists, Shas, United Torah Judaism (UTJ), New Hope, Yisrael Beitenu, Blue and White, Yesh Atid, Labor, Meretz, Joint List, and Raam. Considering the positions of the parties in the political spectrum, Labor, Meretz, Joint List and Raam are on the left. Likud, Yamina, Religious Zionists, Shas, UTJ, New Hope, Yisrael Beitenu are located on the right. Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid and Blue and White led by Benny Gantz are located in the centre.

The positions of the parties regarding Netanyahu, parties’ stance on the Palestinian issue, the West Bank and Annexation before the election are shown in Figure 6 below. The most important information given in Figure 6 is a simple explanation of the parties’ opposition to Netanyahu and their positions on critical issues. It is possible to use Figure 6 to estimate the possible coalition government to be formed after the March 23 elections. Judging from Figure 6, Netanyahu is likely to form a coalition government with Shas, UTJ and Yamina after the results of the March 23 elections become clear. As will be evaluated later in the study, it can be predicted that the anti-Netanyahu bloc is unlikely to come together to form a coalition government due to their ideological stance and their wide variety, and even if they succeed, it would not be a long-lasting government.

Figure 6: Party Size and Where They Stand on Political Issues

Source 6: https://www.bicom.org.uk/analysis/23-march-israeli-elections-everything-you-need-to-know/

On the way to elections, leaders take different approaches while carrying out their campaigns. Netanyahu points out that what he has done for the Israeli and Israeli economy in the past as the guarantee of tomorrow, he emphasizes that the economy, which has been hit by Covid-19, will recover if he becomes prime minister (bicom.org, 2021c). In this sense, Netanyahu’s campaign is focused on the economy and the vaccination process. At the same time, Netanyahu makes various accusations against Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who appears to be the biggest competitor in the campaign process according to the polls. Netanyahu says that he has recovered the Israeli economy from the crisis twice before and has experience in management, while emphasizing that Yair Lapid is the worst finance minister in Israeli history.  

Yair Lapid draws attention by running a digital campaign process. Lapid, who met with many people through Zoom and held a digital meeting, does not hesitate to state that his goal is not to be the prime minister but to end the Netanyahu era (David, 2021). In this sense, it can be said that Lapid is conducting a campaign that focuses on ending the Netanyahu era rather than personal wishes and ambitions. Lapid emphasizes the most that if Netanyahu is elected as prime minister in Israel again, Israel will face the danger of becoming an illiberal democracy. At this point, Lapid says he sees the March 23 elections as a national urgency and that a change of government is essential in Israel.

Another name that seems to be in a key position in the polls so far is Naftali Bennett (Mati, 2021). Bennett stands out as a key party in a coalition on the right in polls conducted to date. Because Bennett stated that they would not enter a coalition under a prime minister from the left, but did not say anything clearly about whether he would enter a coalition with Netanyahu (bicom.org, 2021c). In this regard, it is possible to predict that Bennett and his party Yamina’s position are still neutral, but they can take part in a government to be formed on the right (Işık & Yavuz, 2021).

Another prominent name in the election is New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar. While Sa’ar clearly demonstrated his opposition to Netanyahu throughout his election campaign, Sa’ar also stated that Yair Lapid could not become prime minister due to the position of the left in the social base and the Knesset, but could become a coalition partner with him (Toi, 2021a). Sa’ar also emphasizes that the real competition is between him and Netanyahu, and the main debate in the elections is whether to establish a Netanyahu government in Israel once again, or to establish a government under his prime ministry. In this sense, it is possible to say that Netanyahu’s rivals, Bennett and Sa’ar, will not participate in a government to be established under Lapid’s prime ministry, but they can take part in the government with Lapid as a coalition partner.

Another critical point in the March 23 elections is the situation of Arab parties in Israel. As can be seen from the figures shown above for the election results in 2019 and 2020, the Arab parties have been steadily rising, breaking a record by winning 15 seats as The Joint List in the March 2020 elections. After these elections, the Arabs, which became an important party with the number of seats they won, supported the Blue and White leader Gantz (Belder, 2021:10). However, Gantz’s formation of a coalition government with Netanyahu due to the conditions of Covid-19 was met with reaction from the left parties and Arabs (Younes, 2021). Following the failure of this coalition government and re-elections in Israel, there was also a split between Arab parties. With the decision of Raam leader Mansour Abbas to leave The Joint List in the March 23 elections, the Arabs in Israel will go in a split way. While it is argued that the main purpose of Mansour Abbas’s move in this election is for Palestinian communities in Israel to gain greater economic benefits, other leaders in The Joint List argue that Abbas’s move will not change the marginalized status of Arabs in Israeli politics, and that in the long run, entering into such political bargains could damage their status.

Other left-wing parties in Israeli politics, Labour and Meretz, are in a position to support Yair Lapid’s prime ministry (Toi, 2021b). Meanwhile, Yair Lapid says voters of smaller parties in the centre-left bloc such as Blue and White, Labour and Meretz should back him because they cannot cause any change of government with the current number of seats (bicom.org.uk, 2021d).

 

  1. What Do the Polls Say?

In this section, the data revealed by the polls for the elections will be analyzed. The data shown by Bicom and Haaretz’s election polls make it possible to make some analysis. Figure 7 below shows Bicom’s last pre-election poll.

Figure 7: Aggregate Polling, March 4-19

Source 7: https://www.bicom.org.uk/news/israelis-vote-tomorrow/

In the light of the data shown above, although it seems that the anti-Netanyahu bloc is the majority in terms of the number of seats before the elections, this does not mean that the anti-Netanyahu bloc can form a government. Because the anti-Netanyahu bloc is not made up of parties that share the same ideology and values, and this shows that even if the anti-Netanyahu bloc constitutes the majority in terms of the number of seats in the elections, it may have difficulties in forming a government. On the other hand, Naftali Bennett’s announcement that he would not form a government with Yair Lapid by breaking his neutral position seems to have made the work of the anti-Netanyahu bloc even more difficult (arutz20, 2021).

On the other hand, the data obtained by Haaretz by combining the data obtained in the polls conducted by Channel 13 News, Channel 12 News, Kan News, 103FM, Channel 20, Israel Hayom & i24News, Ma’ariv and Walla News are as shown in Figure 8.

Figure 8: Poll of Polls (average)

Source 8: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/elections/EXT-INTERACTIVE-latest-polls-israel-election-2021-1.7695785

When comparing Bicom’s latest poll and Haaretz’s above compilation poll, it is observed that there are minor differences. The biggest difference between Figure 7 and Figure 8 is whether the Raam Party, who left the Joint List and entered the elections alone, will pass the election threshold or not. In Bicom’s poll, Raam is predicted to pass the election threshold and win 4 seats, while in the poll compiled by Haaretz, Raam does not pass the threshold. Whether Raam will pass the election threshold remains to be seen only after the election results are announced.

In the light of the above polls, it is possible to make an evaluation on the coalition formulas that may emerge from the possible results. First of all, if Netanyahu’s prime ministry and an analysis of how a right-wing coalition government can be established, an appearance like in Figure 9 emerges.

Figure 9: Possible Right-wing Coalition Government

The most vulnerable point of this scenario is the disagreements between Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties in a possible right-wing coalition government. Indeed, Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties developed an opposing discourse throughout the election campaign (bicom.org.uk, 2021e). However, after the election results are announced, Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties may compromise in exchange for their desired positions in the government to be guaranteed by Netanyahu’s prime ministry. On the other hand, if Avigdor Liberman does not come close to compromise, there may be another government formation crisis. As it is known that Gideon Sa’ar will not form a government with Netanyahu, as mentioned above, it may be necessary to reconcile Liberman with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties to form a right-wing coalition government. Considering that Naftali Bennett will not take part in a left and anti-Netanyahu government, a stable right-wing coalition government can be formed if Netanyahu succeeds in reconciling Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. The possible coalition government that the anti-Netanyahu bloc can form could be as shown in Figure 10.

Figure 10: Possible Coalition Government That Can Be Formed by anti-Netanyahu Block

As can be seen from Figure 10, a coalition government that the anti-Netanyahu bloc can establish can be composed of a more complex structure than the possible right-wing coalition, which shares same different ideologies and values. Besides, for the anti-Netanyahu bloc to form a government, Blue and White and Meretz must also pass the electoral threshold (Susan, 2021). Avigdor Liberman’s problems with ultra-Orthodox Jews and his willingness to become finance minister, Sa’ar’s clear anti-Netanyahu opposition, and the role of Arab parties require a great effort to reconcile and establish a government (bicom.org.uk, 2021e). Even if such a government is formed, it can be predicted that there will not be a long-term government. In addition, issues such as the presence of Gideon Sa’ar and Liberman, who are at least as right-wing as Netanyahu in the anti-Netanyahu bloc, and how to determine the prime minister, draw attention as difficult issues to predict.

As a result, looking at the possible scenarios and polls, it seems more likely that the right coalition government will be formed in the March 23 elections, but it is not possible to say anything clear. However, it can be more or less predicted that Netanyahu will be the prime minister in the right-wing coalition government to be formed. On the other hand, looking at the above data, it is understood that the anti-Netanyahu bloc is in a more difficult situation. There may be major problems both in reaching enough seats to form a coalition government and in reconciling the interests of the parties in the coalition, even if this sufficient number of seats is reached. However, after all these polls and the election process, it should not be surprised if the 5th election will be held in Israel.

 

Highlights From the Meeting with Dr. Ferit Belder on the Israeli Political System and the 23 March Elections[1]

The results of the Israeli political system were mentioned at the beginning of this study. From what is mentioned here, it seems that the Israeli political system is the main factor that led to the formation of short-lived coalition governments. However, it is controversial whether this situation is an element of stability or a source of instability. In this study, a personal meeting was held with Ferit Belder in order to better understand the Israeli political system and to make predictions about the elections. Dr. Ferit Belder is a lecturer at Marmara University, Department of International Relations. Ferit Belder completed his doctorate on the analysis of Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) political parties in Israel. According to Ferit Belder, the Israeli political system is an element of stability. Because, looking at the social structure of Israel, it shows that the political system reflects the diversity in this social structure, causing the establishment of short-lived coalition governments and thus attaining a stability within itself.

Ferit Belder also thinks that the Israeli political system is built entirely on mathematics and that the system should be analyzed in terms of this mathematical logic. In this sense, although Israel held 3 elections in 2019 and 2020 in total, the results did not reveal dramatic differences. As a matter of fact, if Netanyahu had won another seat in the last elections, neither the fourth elections held in Israel in two years nor the political system would have been discussed. If Netanyahu had succeeded in this in the last elections, perhaps the most harmonious and stable government in Israeli history could have been established, since there would not be Liberman in this government, there would be no problems between the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and the secular right.

According to Ferit Belder, there are some aspects of the 23 March 2021 elections that differ from the other 3 elections. The main agenda of the election is the economic problems brought by Covid-19 and the divisions within the religious Zionism, Arab list and the Blue and White. The economic and social problems caused by Covid-19 and the vaccination process stand out as important determining factors in this election.

The Joint List’s entry into this election split in two after the record-breaking elections in March 2020 and the result of Mansour Abbas’s move are among the important differences between the other elections and the March 23 elections. According to Belder, Mansour Abbas’s move is a reaction to the Israeli left, and Arabs who have been trying to gain a place in Israeli politics under the shadow of the left for years now want to show that this strategy should be abandoned. Ferit Belder states that the question of whether Mansour Abbas’ move will be successful or not is a tricky matter and that he thinks it will not make a positive contribution to the role of Arabs in Israeli politics in the long run. Belder also states that he thinks Arabs cannot be in coalition governments for a long time and that even if they are in a coalition, minor ministries will be given to Arabs. In this sense, Belder thinks that Netanyahu’s approach to Arabs in the March 23 elections was a result of the mathematical logic in Israeli politics and that he would not take sincere steps in the issue of settlements or the social and political status of Arabs.

As a result, the unique aspects of the Israeli political system and whether it can be considered as an element of stability or instability is a controversial issue. However, it is possible to see the effects of the results of the Israeli political system in every field since the establishment of the State of Israel. The failure to form a government after the results of the 2019 and 2020 elections can be explained by the mathematical logic of the Israeli political system. At the same time, although the participation of some people who worked with Netanyahu in the past by establishing different parties prevented the right-wing, which was the dominant element of Israeli politics, from forming a government by uniting in previous elections, this situation did not end the dominance of the right in Israeli politics. The anti-Netanyahu bloc’s failure to gain a majority in the elections and its fragmented and dispersed structure prevented the establishment of an alternative government. In addition to these, the fact that Arabs could not be included in coalitions in the anti-Netanyahu bloc caused the Arabs to enter the elections in the elections in the March 23 elections. Based on the data given throughout the study, it can be said that the March 23 elections in Israel are open to all kinds of surprises, but it is more likely to establish a right-wing coalition government under Netanyahu’s prime ministry.

 

Gökalp BADAK*

Akademi Birimi

 

 

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[1] Belder, F. (2021, March 12). Personal Interview

[2] Hacettepe University, Department of International Relations Undergraduate Student, [email protected]

CEVAP VER

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