If you took too seriously the idiom of countries, rather than individuals, making political decisions, you might wonder that Israel, after four elections in two years, has still not made up its mind on its political direction and the fate of its long-time prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. But only individuals really decide, and the individual voters of Israel remain as deeply divided as ever.
With 89.4% of the vote counted from Tuesday’s election (previewed here), Netanyahu’s Likud remains the largest party, with 24.1% of the vote, but its vote is well down from the 29.6% that it had last year. That would give it 30 of the 120 seats, a loss of six. (Official results are here, in Hebrew; Google Translate will give you plausible versions of the party names.)
The two largest anti-Netanyahu tickets, Yesh Atid and Blue & White, have 13.9% and 6.6% respectively, for a total of 25 seats: down 6.1% and eight seats on their 2020 total, when they were a single ticket. The non-Zionist Joint List is also well down, from 12.7% and 15 seats to just 5.1% and six seats.
So where have all the votes gone? The centre-left has picked up, although its support remains pretty woeful. Labour has 5.9% and seven seats; the slightly more leftish Meretz 4.6% and five seats. Last time, running together, they managed only 5.8% and seven seats in total.
Two breakaway parties have also joined the mix, clearing the 3.25% threshold but without much to spare. New Hope, an anti-Netanyahu group that split from Likud, has 4.7% and six seats; the United Arab List (also called Ra’am), previously part of the Joint List, is on 4.0% and five seats. And an openly fascist party, Religious Zionism, also made it across the line with 5.0% and six seats.
A total of 13 parties will be represented in the new parliament, five more than last time. But the fundamental divide remains that between pro- and anti-Netanyahu forces. The former (Likud, Religious Zionism and the two ultra-Orthodox parties) have a total of 52 seats; the latter (Yesh Atid, Blue & White, Labour, Yisrael Beiteinu, the Joint List and Meretz) are slightly ahead with 56.
Holding the balance of power between them are two parties whose position is equivocal: the Islamists of the United Arab List and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, which picked up a seat to finish with seven. So on current figures, Netanyahu needs both of those in his camp to get to a majority. His opponents need only one.
With some 450,000 postal votes yet to count, however, those numbers could still change. Usually postal votes come largely from the military and therefore tend to favor the right; with Covid-19, however, they will be drawn from a broader base (which is already feeding a Trumpian narrative from the Netanyahu side that they will be the victims of fraud). If Netanyahu can pick up one more seat, that would take him to 60 in conjunction with Bennett – enough to block an opposition coalition.
And when numbers are this close, individuals matter. Since a large part of the opposition started out with Likud, it’s not impossible that a stray MP or two could be enticed back. The extreme ideological diversity of the anti-Netanyahu camp will make any government that they form difficult to sustain.
On the other hand, after four elections the prime minister’s opponents are getting more than a little desperate. Having seen power slip away from them last time, they may be less willing to let their differences get the better of them; it’s possible they will be able to co-operate at least for long enough to put Netanyahu behind bars.
And Netanyahu will have his own version of the diversity problem if he is serious about trying to bring the Islamists within the tent. Coexistence between them and Religious Zionism, whose agenda amounts to genocide against the Arabs, would be particularly fascinating.
At this point no-one really wants another election – but of course they all said that last time and the time before as well. To avoid it, people are going to have to work together in ways that they will probably find uncomfortable. So far Netanyahu’s enemies seem to have the advantage, but they have managed to blow it before, and could easily do so again.