By Tuesday night, exit polls from the elections for the 24th Knesset will show whether or not predictions of the kind of deadlock that has sent Israelis back to the ballot box for the fourth time in two years have been accurate. But even if the numbers initially appear to jibe with assessments, the smallest fluctuation revealed in the final tally, which the Central Elections Committee says won’t be complete until the weekend, could have a profound effect.
This is because the fate of each of the four parties teetering on the edge of the electoral threshold could make the difference between Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s ability to form a coalition or call a fifth election. Those are the realistic options at this point, despite misleading pie charts, the last of which was broadcast on Sunday night.
These graphics illustrate a virtual neck-and-neck situation, with a question as to the affiliation of Naftali Bennett’s Yamina Party. All the others are placed in the “pro-Bibi” or “anti-Bibi” half of the circle.
Though Bennett’s politics are mostly aligned with Netanyahu’s, he has declared repeatedly that he wants to “replace Bibi” instead of becoming a minister in his government. With Bennett’s popularity having dropped to a single-digit number of seats, it’s peculiar for him to imagine that he’s got a prayer of becoming premier. The same goes for New Hope head Gideon Saar, who also aims to beat and not join Netanyahu—and with poll numbers similar to Bennett’s.
No wonder pundits across the spectrum have been referring to the dreaded imminent task of coalition-building as a game of Sudoku. What they fail to mention is that it’s solely one side that won’t be able to solve the puzzle since hostility towards Netanyahu is the only thing that the otherwise motley crew shares.
Indeed, it’s ridiculous to lump together the anti-Zionist Joint Arab List, post-Zionist Meretz and Labor, center-left Zionist Yesh Atid and Blue and White, anti-haredi/anti-Arab right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu and center-right New Hope. In other words, it’ll be a cold day in hell before the characters involved agree on any issue, particularly while hurling epithets at one another.
The other factor pointing to a greater likelihood of Likud’s achieving victory than its rivals is the size of the parties. Whichever way you slice the data, Netanyahu’s is way ahead of the others, even Yesh Atid, headed by Yair Lapid, the second-largest in the running. Furthermore, those liable to stick by Netanyahu—United Torah Judaism, Shas and Religious Zionism—have certain fundamentals in common.
This is not to say that it’s all smooth sailing for Netanyahu. On the contrary, unless he can garner the necessary 61 of 120 mandates, he won’t be able to form a government. In such an event, he will still remain at the helm of the country in the meantime.
Here is where the parties that might not make it across the threshold—Meretz, Blue and White, Religious Zionism and the United Arab List (Ra’am)—come into play. If Meretz and Blue and White don’t glean the required four seats to pass, this will be a blow to the left and the “anybody but Bibi” camp. Ditto for Netanyahu if Religious Zionism’s votes end up in the garbage. But Ra’am—an Islamist party that split from the Joint List to run on a ticket based on tackling violence and other problems in the Arab sector—presents an odd opportunity. Its leader, Mansour Abbas, has said that he doesn’t rule out recommending Netanyahu or any other Zionist party leader who gives in to certain demands for his constituency.
To complicate matters further, Bennett signed an “affidavit” on live TV on Sunday night that he would not join a government with Lapid as prime minister and challenged Netanyahu to sign the same document, pledging not to form a coalition based on outside support from Ra’am.
The stunt was clearly a response to Netanyahu’s claim that Lapid, Saar and Bennett are cooking up a triple-rotation coalition, with each taking a turn at the wheel. That’s how crazy the arena is right now.
Naturally, then, the key issues—such as COVID-19, the Abraham Accords, the Iranian threat, Jerusalem’s relations with the new administration in Washington and the International Criminal Court’s decision to investigate Israel for so-called “war crimes” in Gaza—are drowned out by campaign jingles, “Crime Minister” protests and breast-beating about the “demise of democracy.”
One noteworthy eulogy was delivered in the pages of Haaretz on March 18 by historian Yigal Ben Nun. “If the rule of [former U.S. President Donald Trump] is the result of the democratic process [and] if that of Netanyahu is a democratic achievement, it’s not necessary to provide examples of dark regimes that rose to power through democratic elections,” he wrote. “Voting in elections no longer belongs in the realm of the rational.”
Not so fast.
The Israeli electoral system, which has been the source of much ugly political wheeling and dealing—and is at fault for this insane loop of impasses—definitely could use reforming. But to demonize democracy when it doesn’t yield one’s desired outcome is even worse than expecting the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history to quit while he’s ahead.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”