51% of Israelis do not want Netanyahu to remain as Prime Minister, while only 21% of Israelis want a government with Haredi parties (Channel 12 poll): looking at the dynamics at play, it seems difficult that this statement will be reinforced by the still uncertain results of March 23rd. The hope is, however, that this election can put an end to the political stalemate of the last two years.
In the background of this election there were three previous failed rounds and the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also a hugely successful vaccination campaign that allowed Israel to slowly return to normal. We want to understand what the dynamics are and the crucial points around which the vote will be played.
At first glance, the scenario does not seem to differ substantially from the last of the three previous rounds; the political system appears fatigued and crystallized in two opposing blocs —for and against Netanyahu— characterized by a very high level of polarization and a very low level of permeability, which derives from voters’ loyalty for their own front. Although no clear shifts in balance are expected between the two blocs, interesting buffer parties, or gateways, have appeared between the two sides, such as Gideon Sa’ar's New Hope (Tikva Hadasha), which would allow for the relocation of some voters.
In order to understand the current balance, it is necessary to observe the polls while taking into account that the margin of error is 4.2 %, which is equivalent to five seats in the Knesset. The numbers taken into consideration are an average of last week’s public polls (from the 12th to the 19th of March), meaning they are the last ones that can be shown before the election. Likud is consistently polling at 29 MKs, confirming its leading position as well as the prospect of, once again, being unable to form an independent right-wing government with its allies.
The second party is Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid with 19 MKs; according to these projections, it would emerge as the leading party of the opposition even if, from the perspective of government formation, the most likely candidate to become Prime Minister would be Gideon Sa'ar with his New Hope party (10 MKs). Two other members of the anti-Netanyahu front are Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (7 MKs) and Yamina with 11 MKs. Sa'ar, Bennett and Lieberman decided to challenge Netanyahu from within the right-wing block and, looking at these numbers, Israel’s political pivot has manifestly shifted rightwards. With this being said, it is difficult to imagine an alternative government to Netanyahu's leadership that does not include Yesh Atid, too, though it remains to be seen whether they will be able to overcome their ideological differences.
On the other hand, if Sa'ar, Lieberman and Lapid have explicitly confirmed their rejection to joining a government led by the current Prime Minister, in recent days Bennett has shown signs of hesitation in this regard. However, even if this shift occurs, Netanyahu would only have 60 MKs: 29 Likud seats, 11 for Yamina, 8 ofor Shas, 7 for United Torah Judaism, and 5 for Religious Zionism, coming up one seat short of the 61 MKs needed to reach majority government.
Therefore, it seems this election will be played on the edge of the threshold with four parties at stake: Religious Zionism, Kahol Lavan, Meretz, and United Arab List (Ra'am). If Religious Zionism (a far-right party) does not get 3.25% of the vote, Netanyahu will face serious challenges in forming a right-wing governing coalition.
The case of the Arab party Ra'am is particularly interesting, as it is changing the dynamics of Israeli politics by moving closer to right-wing parties: in an attempt to obtain results on issues of particular concern to the Arab community, party leader Mansour Abbas decided to keep himself open to the possibility of entering into a coalition with Netanyahu after the election, thus leaving the Arab Joint List’s front, whose presence in the Knesset would therefore be significantly reduced, going from 15 to 9 MKs. In general, the importance of the Arab sector of Israeli society has emerged in this election round; Likud in particular conducted a very aggressive campaign among Arab-Israeli citizens (in contradiction with its narrative) with the aim of obtaining between 2 to 3 seats, taking advantage of the dispersion of votes deriving from the division of the Joint List.
By observing these four parties, we can discover the main trajectories along which Netanyahu's electoral tactic has focused on: trying to minimize the loss of votes in his bloc on the one hand, while splitting the opposition on the other. Indeed, after having managed to bring Benny Gantz into the last national unity government along with two Labour Party ministers, Netanyahu broke the alliances between Yesh Atid and Kahol Lavan, between Meretz and Labour. The same procedure was applied with UAL. If, in April 2020, there were four opposition parties, today we can count ten of them.
Although there is no clear majority, the current Prime Minister would once again emerge as the candidate with more viable paths to form a government; equally true, however, is that Netanyahu did not at all expect to reach March 23rd with stable polls around 29 MKs. He had hoped instead to reap the benefits of the vaccination campaign and to reach the previous result of 36 MKs. For better or for worse, it seems that the management of the pandemic has not affected electoral trends, as it happened with the announcement of Netanyahu’s indictment in April 2019. This is because of strong, pre-existing sentiments for and against Netanyahu, which are welded together with underlying voting patterns.
Furthermore, with the Covid-19 emergency, the opposition lost the opportunity to advance a unanimous message that could go beyond the slogan "anyone but Bibi". So, though the opposition movement against Netanyahu has certainly won in the streets, managing to bring 50,000 people in front of the Prime Minister's house last Saturday evening (after 39 consecutive weeks of demonstrations), it remains to be seen whether this momentum will be translated in the Knesset with an actual government coalition.