According to Israeli law a new government has 100 days to pass a budget. In August 2020, a compromise law was passed that extended the deadline for another three months. That deadline finally expired and the Knesset dissolved on December 22, 2020. A new election, the fourth in less than two years, will be held on March 23, 2021.
The runup to the election saw a great deal of upheaval as new parties emerged, existing ones disintegrated, and mergers were contemplated and abandoned. Several parties, including Labor and Bayit Yehudi, elected new party leaders. The political situation was further clouded by the coronavirus pandemic and Netanyahu’s legal predicament.
The biggest story was the collapse of Kahol Lavan. After winning 33 seats in the last election, Benny Gantz lost support when he reneged on a campaign promise not to serve in a government with Netanyahu. The party began hemorrhaging as members defected to other parties and the number two on the part list, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, announced he would not run for re-election. Gantz, who was supposed to become prime minister in the coalition rotation agreement, appeared on the verge of losing his party and Knesset seat.
Moshe Ya’alon also decided to drop out of the race after running with Blue and White in three elections. He left the party after Gantz joined the coalition with Netanyahu. Polls showed his Telem Party also was unlikely to reach the electoral threshold.
In the first of several shifts in the constellation of parties, one of Netanyahu’s chief rivals, Gideon Sa’ar, left Likud to form his own party called
Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa announced in December 2020 he was forming the Hayisralim (“The Israelis”) Party, which was described as left-wing and center-left. The new party was initially bolstered by the decision of Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn to leave Kahol Lavan to join Huldai. Polls indicated, however, the new party might not reach the electoral threshold to win seats in the Knesset and Nissenkorn announced he decided to take “a break from political life.”
As the deadline for registering party lists approached, several parties discussed alliances and officials continued to change parties. Former Kulanu MK Merav Ben-Ari, for example, jumped to Yesh Atid, as did Kahol Lavan’s Social Equality Minister Merav Cohen. Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi entered the national fray as a member of Yamina.
Looking at the polls and the prospects for joining a coalition led to a flurry of last-minute decisions. Trailing in the polls, Huldai withdrew his party. The Jewish Home Party chose to drop out and support Yamina on condition that party leader Hagit Moshe be appointed a minister if Naftali Bennett joined the government. This is the first time in Israeli history the Jewish Home, or its predecessor, the National Religious Party, will not run in an election.
Netanyahu gave MK Ofir Sofer from the Religious Zionism Party the number 28 slot on the Likud list, but he planned to return to his party after the election. Netanyahu also, for the first time, added a Muslim candidate, Nael Zoubi, to the number 39 position on the list.
A total of 39 parties submitted lists, but with the threshold of 3.25%, the equivalent of four seats, it was likely that no more than eight or ten would be represented in the next Knesset.
On February 21, the Central Elections Committee is scheduled to approve the party lists.
The election will be held on March 23.
The official results be delivered to the president on March 31.
The 24th Knesset is scheduled to hold its opening session on April 6, 2021.
April 7 is the final date by which the president must give one of the party leaders the opportunity to try to form a government.
1 Gideon Sa’ar
1 Yair Lapid
2. Yaakov Margi
3. Yoav Ben Tzur
4. Michael Malkieli
5. Chaim Bitton
6. Moshe Arbel
7. Yinon Azoulay
8. Moshe Abutbul
9. Uriel Busso
10. Yosef Taieb
11. Avraham Bezalel
12. Netanel Haik
1 Nitzan Horowitz
1 Bezalel Smotrich
1. Merav Michaeli
United Torah Judaism
1. Mansour Abbas
|Party||Seats||Total Vote||% of Total|
|Blue and White||8||292,257||6.63%|
|United Torah Judaism||7||248,391||5.63%|
|TOTAL VALID VOTES||4,410,052|
While Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party won the most votes, his potential coalition partners did not do well enough to ensure he can form a government. The pro-Netanyahu bloc, which includes Shas, United Torah Judaism, and Religious Zionism won a total of 52 seats while the anti-Netanyahu bloc of Yesh Atid, Kahol Lavan, Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor, New Hope, Meretz, and the Joint List won 57 of the 61 needed to form a government.
The two uncommitted parties are Yamina, which leans right, and the United Arab List, which leans far left. No Israeli government has ever included an Arab party, and it is unlikely Netanyahu or his rivals would do so now. If you take away the Joint List then from the anti-Netanyahu bloc, it drops to 51. Unless there are enough defections from one or more parties or, as in the last election, one of the anti-Netanyahu parties agrees to join him in a coalition, neither side can form a government without at least one of the Arab parties. This leads to the likely conclusion that Israel will have to go to a fifth election with Netanyahu remaining prime minister.
Party leaders meet with President Reuven Rivlin on April 5 to recommend their preferred candidate for prime minister. Rivlin will then announce who will be given the mandate to form the next government, and the chance to become premier, based on whom he assesses has the best chance of doing so. Initially, it looked as though that would be Netanyahu since Likud won the most votes; however, as the date approached Lapid seemed closer to building a coalition and leaders of several of the anti-Netanyahu parties indicated they would ask Rivlin to give him the first shot at obtaining 61 votes. Whoever Rivlin chooses will have 28 days to secure a majority.
Despite jockeying by the major players, no one could put together the 61 mandates needed to form a government before President Rivlin had to decide on who should get the first crack at officially building a coalition. Rivlin said he did not believe any candidate had a realistic chance of doing so, but felt obligated to give Netanyahu the first shot because he received the endorsements of 52 lawmakers compared to 45 for Lapid. He has until May 4 to form a government, but he can request a two-week extension. Rivlin then can give someone else, most likely Lapid, a chance to form a government or leave it to the Knesset, which would then have 21 days to organize a coalition before a fifth election would automatically be scheduled.
May 4 came and went as Netanyahu was unable to build a coalition despite negotiations with multiple parties and offering a variety of permutations for the structure of a government. His efforts were complicated after he received some blame for a tragedy that occured on Lag b'Omer in which 45 people died in a stampede.
Rivlin did choose Lapid to take his turn at trying to form a government. He too will have 28 days to try to spare the nation a fifth election in just over two years. If he fails, there will be another 21-day period in which any member of the Knesset who can get signatures from 61 members will receive the mandate. Failing that, Israel will have its fifth consecutive election.
In the meantime, Netanyahu remains prime minister and will do everything he can to prevent Lapid from forming a government. Barak Ravid reports he will also likely to try and convince some of his right-wing allies to soften their position on forming a government supported by the Islamist Ra’am Party, which they objected to up until now and prevented him from forming a coalition. It is an especially odd position given Netanyahu’s consistent hostility toward including any Arab party, let alone one led by an Islamist, in any coalition – and his criticism of his opponents for considering it – which analysts see as indicative of his desperation to cling to power.
The escalation of violence across Israel in the middle of the sensitive negotiations between Lapid and other party leaders appeared to sink the chances for an anti-Netanyahu coalition forming a government when Bennett announced he would not join a government that depended on the support of the Islamist Ra’am party. Instead, Yamina and Likud resumed talks; however, it is still unlikely a right-wing government can be cobbled together without Ra’am. Lapid, meanwhile, still had 20 days to form a government.
Opponents of Netanyahu were united in a desire to avoid another election. Nevertheless, negotiations went down to the wire before Lapid reached a coalition agreement with Bennett and six other parties, including, for the first time, the Islamist Ra’am Party headed by Mansour Abbas.
In a televised address before the deal was completed, Bennett said, “Two thousand years ago, there was a Jewish state which fell here because of internal quarrels,” he said. “This will not happen again. Not on my watch.”
If the Knesset approves the coalition, Netanyahu’s unprecedented 12-year hold on the premiership would end. However, the speaker of the Knesset, Yair Levin, is a member of the Likud and could delay a vote to approve the new government until June 14 to give Netanyahu time to pressure members of the coalition, particularly from Bennett’s party, to defect from what he calls a “dangerous left-wing government.”
The coalition does include the leftist Labor and Meretz parties, but the other Zionist parties are center-right. Besides Bennett’s Yamina and Lapid’s Yesh Atid, the government includes Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Sa’ar’s right-wing parties Yisrael Beiteinu and New Hope, and Benny Gantz’s centrist Kahol Lavan.
To secure the deal, Lapid had to agree to allow Bennett to serve a prime minister for the first two years before Lapid takes over. The arrangement is especially unusual since Lapid’s party won the second most seats – 17 – and Bennett’s only 7. Apportioning positions in the government to other members of the coalition were critical to reaching an agreement.
“The government will do everything it can to unite every part of Israeli society,” Lapid said.
The so-called “change government” was built among groups that have little in common beyond the desire to oust Netanyahu. Given their disparate positions on nearly every issue, it will be a fragile government that can fall at anytime if one party objects to a particular policy. This makes it unlikely the government will make any dramatic changes in the status quo and almost ensures no peace initiative will be launched with the Palestinians given that Bennett supports annexation and opposes the creation of a Palestinian state while the left-of-center parties have the exact opposite position. Instead, the parties have agreed to focus on issues where they are more likely to agree such as education and infrastructure.
It will be particularly interesting to see how the coalition partners address the concerns of Ra’am, whose four votes are needed to sustain the government. Abbas has said he wants to focus on several issues that will benefit Arab society, including the housing crisis and municipal status for unrecognized localities in the Negev. He also wants to reverse, or at least temporarily suspend, a law that facilitates the demolition of primarily Arab homes built in violation of code. To join the government Ra’am secured promises of $16.3 billion for economic development, fighting violence and organized crime in Arab society, and fixing infrastructure in Arab cities and towns. Three unrecognized Bedouin villages will also be legalized.
One irony cited by many commentators is that Bennett’s views on the Palestinian issue are to the right of Netanyahu’s. Another is that Bennett will be the first religious prime minister in a coalition headed by a secularist who is an anathema to the ultra-Orthodox in part because of his support for drafting yeshiva students.
Bennett, 49, has not had a close relationship with U.S. officials, in part because he’s been a relatively minor figure in Israeli politics until now and, even when he was the prime minister’s chief of staff, Netanyahu dominated interactions with the United States. Bennett is the first prime minister born of American parents and, having spent time living in New York, speaks fluent English, which should allow him to be an effective communicator in the United States. He also comes from the tech world where he made a lot of money and is conversant with modern technology.
On June 13, 2021, the 36th Government of Israel, headed by Bennett, was approved by a vote of 60 to 59 with one abstention. The government will have 27 ministers, including nine women, the largest number ever. There are two Arab cabinet ministers: Esawi Frej (Regional Cooperation) and Hamed Amar (Finance).Incoming Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz was the first openly gay Knesset member to head a major party (Meretz). Shirley Pinto is Israel’s first deaf Knesset member.
Sources: Jonathan Lis and Chaim Levinson, “The Knesset Dissolves; Israelis Will Return to the Polls on March 23,” Haaretz, (December 23, 2020).
Gideon Sa’ar, Wikipedia.
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Jonathan Lis, “Tel Aviv Mayor Announces New Party Running in Upcoming Israeli Election,” Haaretz, (December 30, 2020).
Yossi Verter, “The Slow Fraying of Gantz’s Party Has Turned Into a Panicked Flight,” Haaretz, (December 30, 2020).
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Barak Ravid, “1 big thing: Netanyahu failed. Now the fight begins,” Axios, May 5, 2021).
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Aaron Boxerman, “History made as Arab Israeli Ra’am party joins Bennett-Lapid coalition,” Times of Israel, (June 3, 2021).
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