When a country holds four elections in the space of two years, it’s easy to run out of things to say about it. So start by going back and reading my preview of the last election (number three), a year ago, and my summary of the results.
Quite a lot has happened since then, but whether any of it really makes a difference is another question. The then opposition leader, Benny Gantz, won over the support of Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, which had held the balance of power between Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the opposition. But Gantz decided that the required coalition was too broad to be viable, and under the pressure of the health crisis agreed to a national unity government with Netanyahu.
As could easily have been predicted, that didn’t last. Gantz’s centrist support fell away, and Netanyahu’s party, Likud, split under the strain of the prime minister’s attempts to stay out of jail on corruption charges. In December, the failure to pass a budget set the clock ticking for another early election.
Voting in Israel is simple: it’s 120 seats chosen by straight d’Hondt proportional representation across the whole country, with a threshold of 3.25%. But the party system is Byzantine in its complexity. (Haggai Matar’s guide is the best I’ve seen.)
Seven parties would in any other country be immediately tagged as “far right”: Likud; Yisrael Beiteinu; two parties representing the ultra-Orthodox community (Shas and United Torah Judaism); Naftali Bennett’s group, now called Yamina; New Hope, the recent breakaway from Likud; and the Religious Zionist Party. Last year, organised in a slightly different configuration, those parties won 65 seats between them.
Minor philosophical differences can be identified – Yisrael Beiteinu and maybe New Hope have some liberal elements, while the Religious Zionists sit at the fascist end of the spectrum – but the main thing differentiating them is their attitude to Netanyahu. Lieberman and Gideon Sa’ar, the leader of New Hope, want him gone, Bennett equivocates, and the rest are solidly behind him.
To the left of this fractious bloc are six parties: Gantz’s Blue & White (centre-right), Yesh Atid (centre), Labour (centre to centre-left), Meretz (centre-left), the Joint List (non-Zionist) and the United Arab List (Islamist). They represent a total of 55 seats as of the last election, but if the polls are right that figure will drop into the mid-40s. Blue & White, Meretz and the United Arab List are all at some risk of dropping below the 3.25% threshold.
In other words, there is no prospect of forming an anti-Netanyahu government except with the support (and possibly the leadership) of parties whose disagreement with him is personal, not ideological. If they want to avoid a fifth election, parties on both sides of the ideological divide (as well as those in the confused middle) will have to make difficult choices.
Two years ago, previewing the first of this unprecedented series of elections, I said this:
How much difference [a Gantz government] would really make depends on where you locate the blame for Israel’s current predicament. If Netanyahu is the primary villain of the piece, then there is hope that a change at the top, even if at first it is more cosmetic than substantive, will in time lead to more realistic policies that will draw the country back towards the mainstream.
But if you think Netanyahu is just a symptom, and that the causes of Israel’s problems – and particularly of its dramatic shift rightwards – run much deeper, then incremental change seems less likely.
Although Gantz’s star has waned, I still think this is the right way to look at the alternatives. Getting rid of Netanyahu almost certainly won’t do much at first, but in the medium term it may pull Israeli politics back towards the centre. Or it may not. But it’s hard to see how it can make things worse.