As Israelis head to the polls for the fifth time in less than four years, and with little to separate the pro and anti-Netanyahu blocs, Calev Ben-Dor argues that the elections will ultimately be determined by three key issues – turnout in the Arab community, the political home chosen by the ‘soft-right’, and whether any of the major parties fall below the electoral threshold.
It’s difficult to remember now, but the difference between the stalemate in Israel’s first election in this current marathon and a Netanyahu victory was just under 1400 votes, the amount by which Naftali Bennett’s ‘New Right’ party failed to pass the electoral threshold. Those extra votes would have provided Netanyahu with a stable right wing and ultra-Orthodox government that, over three years on, remains tantalisingly out of his grasp.
Sports scientists and coaches often discuss fine margins, those small changes that make the difference between success and failure. So too for Israelis preparing to vote in the country’s fifth elections. Polling numbers have consistently shown little difference between those who support Netanyahu and those who oppose him. The Netanyahu bloc – including Likud, the far-right Religious Zionist party and two Ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism – has been polling at between 59 – 61 seats. Yet the devil is in the details, or in this case in the 3-4 per cent margin of error. It’s like predicting the markets’ response to Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s budget would have been somewhere between broad approval and utter rejection. The difference between 59 and 61 is immense. The former represents abject failure (again), the latter a famous victory.
Once again fine margins will likely determine the result, in the form of the effect of the electoral threshold, turnout within Israel’s Arab community, and voting made by the ‘soft right’.
The Threshold Question
In March 2014, the Knesset raised the electoral threshold from 2 to 3.25 per cent, thus significantly increasing how many votes each party needed to gain seats. In 2013, this number was approximately 75,800 votes. In 2015 it was 123,500 votes. In 2019, when Bennett’s party came agonisingly close, it was 140,000. The larger threshold may play an oversized role in this election. Israeli Arab party Balad, which pushes a Palestinian-nationalist agenda, will almost certainly fall below it – it is thought to have support from an estimated 40,000-80,000 people. Ayelet Shaked’s Jewish Home party is also consistently polling below the threshold. This in turn has created a vicious circle which disincentivises prospective voters from considering her. After all, why potentially ‘waste’ a vote?
A whole raft of other parties are polling above the threshold but slightly too close for comfort. If polls are to be believed, Arab parties Ra’am and Hadash-Taal, left wing Meretz and Labour, and right-wing Yisrael Beitenu should be fine come election day. But it only needs a few tens of thousands of voters to switch allegiance, and one or more may find themselves out of the Knesset. With all these parties firmly in the anti-Netanyahu camp, any such shock would strengthen Likud’s chances of forming the next government.
Voter turnout in the Arab community
A related issue to the threshold question is voter turnout in the Arab community. Correlation generally exists between turnout and the extent to which the four main Arab parties – Hadash, Ta’al, Ra’am and Balad – run on a united slate. For example, in the elections of March 2015, September 2019 and March 2020, when the Joint List comprised all four parties, turnout was 63.5 per cent, 59.2 per cent and 64.8 per cent. In the elections of April 2019 and March 2021, when Arab parties ran in two separate lists, it was 49.2 per cent and approximately 45 per cent. For the first time since 2013, this election sees three separate lists – Hadash-Ta’al, Ra’am and Balad.
Low voter turnout coupled with three separate lists could be disastrous for Arab representation and constitute a boon to Netanyahu getting to 61. Dr Salim Bariq recently warned that a turnout of under 42 per cent would lead to no Arab parties in the next Knesset. (As Ziyad Abu Habla demonstrates in his essay ‘Arab Voting Patterns in the Elections for the 24th Knesset’ 80 per cent of those who voted in the last election chose Arab parties rather than Jewish-Zionist ones).
Turnout isn’t just influenced by Arab parties displaying unity. It will also relate to how the community perceives Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas’ decision to join the Bennett-Lapid government. That historic move helped pave the way for a budget for the Arab community totalling NIS 30 billion (7.5 billion pounds) which aimed to address healthcare, social welfare and education as well as over 2.5 billion (625,000 pounds) to fight violence and organised crime. Yet with the government’s early collapse much of the money is yet to reach its intended audience. The murder rate in the Arab community has remained high. How will Abbas’ move be seen – as a sign that greater political cooperation with the Jewish majority is beneficial, or that even when Arab parties engage with the mainstream it makes little practical difference?
Leading expert on Jewish-Arab relations Mohammed Darawshe told me that around 25 per cent of the Arab public never vote, some due to apathy and others due to ideological opposition to the Jewish state. The remainder sway from election to election between voting and not believing it will make a difference – ‘voting with their feet rather than their hands’ says Darawshe. Yet the ratio between these two latter groups is key – it can range from anything between 65 per cent against 10 per cent during high turnout to 40 per cent vs 35 per cent in lower ones The decision by this group between voting and staying at home in frustration will determine whether Netanyahu returns to power. Key to this decision will be their position on Abbas’ political gamble.
The Right wingers without a natural political home
In the March 2020 elections, over 1.35 million Israelis cast a ballot for Likud, which gave the party 36 seats and almost 30 per cent of the total votes. Yet a year later – following perceived mismanagement of the Corona pandemic, increasingly aggressive discourse within the Likud coupled with Netanyahu’s inability to pass the budget and failure to honour his rotation agreement with Benny Gantz – they received 300,000 fewer votes, losing seven seats.
Where did these Likud voters go? Some likely made their way to former popular Likud MK Gideon Saar, who ran on a right wing but anti-Netanyahu ticket. Some may have gone to Naftali Bennett, another right winger who called to replace Netanyahu (but who refused to rule out joining him in a coalition). Others simply stayed at home.
Eighteen months on, the political party chosen by these former Netanyahu supporters (as well as the 225,000 who voted for Bennett’s Yamina) will be critical. But none of their prospective choices are ideal. Bennett is now taking a timeout from politics. Ayelet Shaked’s right wing Jewish Home is polling below the threshold. The Religious Zionist party has a strong Kahanist component which many former Bennett or Likud supporters might be loath to strengthen. Netanyahu led the charge against Bennett as PM with poisonous rhetoric meaning any right-winger who supported Bennett’s move is unlikely to ‘return home’ to Likud.
Best placed to sweep up the ‘right wing disillusioned with Netanyahu and Likud’ crowd would have been Gideon Saar. But his union with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party – intended to create a mamlachti / statesmanly right-wing party with strong security credentials – has ironically given their list a leftist hue that some right-wingers find off putting.
Indeed, Saar and Gantz’s success in bringing former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkott into their ranks may come to haunt them. Eisenkott was a popular Chief of Staff and was considered an electoral asset. But his comments in favour of separating from the Palestinians – he called for active policies to prevent the dangerous development of a bi-national state, which he called a danger to the Zionist project – may put off those ‘soft right’ voters the party is trying to grab.
These right wingers may no longer feel they have a natural political home. But the decision they make will be critical to the results.
On election night in March 2021, moments before the initial exit polls were published, TV announcers declared a ‘dramatic decisive victory’. It turned out to be the opposite of decisive – the blocs were tied, and political deadlock continued until the diverse and previously unimaginable Bennett-Lapid government was painstakingly fashioned. Eighteen months on, it remains to be seen whether Netanyahu or Lapid (or even Gantz) will gain a decisive victory. Their success will ultimately be determined by the above key issues. In any event, it promises to be dramatic.