Israel is about to go to the polls … again.
Elections have always been popularity contests with the personalities of the main candidates playing a huge role in the outcome. This is amplified when there is a polarizing incumbent on the ballot. However, it is hard to recall an election that has been nearly 100 percent about a single individual. Even referendums on the incumbent are almost always connected to their views and perceived performance on national security, the economy, health care, etc.
The 2020 election in the United States was all about Donald Trump, but even then, you heard repeated arguments related to his policies on immigration, COVID-19 and others. It was not at all difficult to see a clear ideological contrast between former President Trump and current President Joe Biden.
Compare this to the 2021 campaign here in Israel. Newspapers once reported polls with ideological blocs of left and right. The stories today are about the “Bibi-bloc” and the “anti-Bibi” bloc.
Gideon Sa’ar is firmly in the anti-Bibi bloc, but you would be hard-pressed to find a single substantive issue that separates the two. Meretz is also in the anti-Bibi camp, but there is little else on which they and Sa’ar agree.
This dynamic is damaging for the country. There are essentially three plausible outcomes with the caveat that implausible things certainly can happen in Israeli politics.
- Prime Minister Netanyahu forms a coalition: In this scenario, Naftali Bennett’s Yamina Party would likely be the senior coalition partner, joined by the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the new National Religious Party. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would continue to serve as an indicted prime minister while on trial. Whether you believe that he is guilty on all counts or that the charges are little more than a political witch hunt, it should be clear that a sitting prime minister under criminal indictment is less than ideal.
For this reason, the Knesset should move as quickly as possible to adopt some form of the so-called French Law (to apply beginning with the next prime minister), whereby prime ministers would be immune from prosecution while in office but would also be term-limited so as not to be above the law.
- The anti-Bibi bloc forms a coalition: In this scenario, Gideon Sa’ar, Naftali Bennett or Yair Lapid (or a rotation) is able to cobble together a coalition of their own New Hope, Yamina and Yesh Atid parties plus some combination of Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor, Blue and White, Meretz and the Joint Arab List.
Most polls show that any such coalition will be just a few seats above 60, so each coalition partner would have effective veto power over every action of the government. Given the highly disparate views of these parties, it’s difficult to imagine this coalition lasting more than a few months, meaning Israel would be heading back to elections very quickly.
It appears the purpose of such a coalition would not be to actually govern, but to form a government that removes Netanyahu and then quickly dissolve in the hopes that he would not contest the next round of elections.
- Nobody can form a coalition: As a result, Israel goes to election number five late this summer. It should be obvious that this is a bad outcome. Putting aside the expense of each election and the budgetary gridlock caused by having perpetual interim governments, there will come a point where election after election will cause the Israeli people and foreign observers to begin to question the stability and value of our electoral process.
None of these outcomes arouses much excitement or confidence. And that is precisely the problem with an election that is heavy on personality and light on substance. While unchecked ideology is often problematic, and sometimes dangerous, a government run by those with some shared vision for the country—or at least similar enough views to reach plausible compromises—offers the potential for stability and positive action on behalf of the governed.
People want to believe in something, whether it is settlement of the land of Israel, Peace Now or lower housing prices and higher wages. A government based purely on self-interest or spite will never inspire anyone.
It is also striking how much of a lost opportunity this moment may be for the right. Parties that are generally considered to the right—Likud, Yamina, New Hope, Yisrael Beiteinu, the National Religious Party, Shas and UTJ—are polling at around 75 to 80 seats over the last month.
The same polls show the centrist parties (Yesh Atid and Blue and White) at around 20 to 25; the left (Labor and Meretz) around 10; and the Joint List also at around 10. So, at the moment, polling indicates that more than 80 percent of the electorate ranges from the center to the far right, with the Zionist left and predominantly Arab parties each at around 10 percent or less.
It is astonishing that after an election in which two-thirds of the country will likely vote for a party to the right, a very possible outcome is something other than a right-wing government—whether it is a short-lived government of parties with no shared vision or the inability of anyone to form a coalition at all.
The result is a campaign stripped of ideology and meaning. In a place where ideological fervor and debate have always been part of the fabric of society, the current level of apathy and cynicism two weeks ahead of a national vote is alarming. We can only hope some portion of our leadership will take notice.
Justin Pozmanter is a publishing adjunct at The MirYam Institute. Justin is a former foreign-policy adviser to Israeli politician and national-security expert Tzachi Hanegbi. Before making aliyah, he worked at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and practiced law.