Israel is heading to the polls once again as new issues shape its politics. Will the major political contestants succeed to adjust their messages and mobilise voters to secure a winning coalition?
Come 1 November 2022, Israelis will cast their votes for the fifth time in less than four years. The first two elections – held in April and September 2019 – did not yield a ruling coalition, the third election, in March 2020, concluded with an unstable short-lived rotation government that led to a fourth election. That election, held in March 2021, resulted in an unprecedented coalition that brought together eight diverse parties – right and left, religious and secular, Jewish and Arab – which had very little in common in terms of policy positions. These parties joined forces to achieve one aim: to oust Israel’s longest serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, from office. And indeed, that is what they did. However, the fissures of this coalition soon started showing as it gradually lost its narrow majority in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, dissolving barely a year after it had been formed.
The upcoming election shuffles Israel’s political cards once more. Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing party Yemina and Israel’s prime minister for the last year, has announced he is stepping down and will not run in November. Two centre-right coalition parties – Benny Gantz’s Blue and White and Gideon Saar’s New Hope – announced they will join forces and run together. On the left side of the political map, the Labor party and Meretz are also considering a political merging. With these new alliances, the smaller parties in the coalition aim to ensure they would pass the 3.25 percent threshold required to enter the Knesset.
While the smaller parties fight to survive politically, the two main parties and their leaders – Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud – aim to lead Israel’s next government. This is expected to be an uphill battle. Lapid, heading the centre-left bloc and the main architect of the outgoing coalition, is the caretaker prime minister until a new government will be formed. Given Israel’s experience over the past few years, this may take more than one election to achieve – all the while Lapid will serve as the prime minister. After serving in a couple of ministerial posts since he began his political career in 2013, including finance minister and secretary of state, Lapid now has a chance to prove himself in the prime minister’s office. For example, since taking office, Lapid has made considerable efforts to normalise the relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia. It is his hope that such achievements will rally centre, left, and even moderate right voters around him, and pay off on election day.
But Lapid may be barking up the wrong tree. Indeed, Israeli politics revolved around Israel’s relations with the Palestinians and Arab countries at least since 1967, but the last four elections suggest that this is no longer the main issue in Israeli politics. According to data from the Israel National Election Studies (INES), in the April 2019 election, 22 percent of Israelis said the election was about “the conflict with the Palestinians” or “security threats and how to handle them.” Two years and four elections later, in March 2021, only four percent of Israelis said the election was about these topics. Instead, for two thirds of Israelis, the election was about Benjamin Netanyahu, and in terms of substantive issues, about the future of Israeli democracy (14 percent). Thus, it is the nature and identity of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state that stands at the heart of Israelis’ agenda and Lapid will need to provide clear answers on this issue if he wishes to win the election and form the next government.
As for Benjamin Netanyahu, he hopes to return to power as prime minister after the election. Netanyahu had been Israel’s prime minister since 2009 until the current government ousted him, and he is undoubtedly the key political figure in Israel. His long term in office, populist leadership style, and the trial he is facing on corruption charges have put him at the centre of the election agenda. In a recent study, my colleagues and I show that for most Israelis, the last four elections were mainly about Netanyahu, not only as a politician and a leader, but as a symbol of Israel’s Jewish and (non-)democratic identity. Indeed, Netanyahu’s party – the Likud – is expected to be once more the largest party in the Knesset. Yet, in Israel’s political system, this in and of itself will not suffice to return him to the prime ministership. He would need to form a coalition with other right-wing parties. Over the past four elections, this task has proven virtually impossible. Netanyahu is thus faced with the challenge of ensuring a majority of the right bloc, and specifically a majority within the parties that are willing to sit in his coalition (for there are some right-wing parties that have declared they will not be party of a Netanyahu government). To do so, Netanyahu plays the identity politics game. He claims that he and the parties that support him are the true representatives of Israel’s Jewish identity while the other parties threaten it.
Israel’s fifth election in under four years thus continues the change we have seen in the contours of the political system during the previous four elections. From a political system that revolves around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a political system that revolves around the country’s Jewish and democratic identity. Parties and politicians are faced with the challenge of changing their agenda and messages in order to adjust to this change. Netanyahu seems to understand this change and has put his weight on the Jewish end of the newly formed political spectrum. Lapid, emphasizing his commitment to democracy and working with Arab countries, aims to bring the two issues together. With only little chance of moving voters between the two major blocs, the key to success for both Lapid and Netanyahu will be to mobilise voters within their own camps come election day.
Liron Lavi is a Research Fellow at the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science in 2017 from Tel-Aviv University, where she studied the role of time in elections and democracy in Israel. Her research focuses on Israeli politics; elections and democracy, representation, and national identity. Her studies have been published in Journal of Communication, Political Studies, and Nations and Nationalism.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.