Israel’s fourth general election in two years has resulted in a deadlock. A fifth election seemingly the most likely outcome. Freakishly, though, an Islamist party could be "kingmaker".
The right-wing bloc of parties supportive of incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu won 52 seats, nine short of the 61 required to form a government. Parties opposing Netanyahu won 57 seats.
On the left, the left-Zionist party Meretz won six seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, an increase of two from the last elections in March 2020. Israel’s Labor party, moderately social-democratic but with a slightly more leftish leader than for some time in Merav Michaeli, won seven seats, up five. The Joint List, a politically diverse bloc of predominantly Arab parties, headed by the Palestinian socialist Ayman Odeh and including Hadash, the Israeli Communist Party’s electoral front, won seven seats, a decrease of five. The Joint List was damaged by a split in January 2021, which saw a section of its alliance – mainly conservative Islamists - break away.
On the far right, the Religious Zionist bloc, an ultra-reactionary, Jewish-supremacist grouping, which includes figures from the violent Kahanist tradition, won six seats, up four. Avigdor Lieberman’s secular far-right party Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) retained its seven seats, as did United Torah Judaism, an alliance of two religious fundamentalist parties.
By 7 April, Israeli president Reuven Rivlin will task a party leader with attempting to form a government. The product of the Joint List split, the United Arab List headed by the Islamist Mansour Abbas, whose party is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and won four seats, could be decisive in coalition talks. Abbas has not yet indicated who he will recommend for prime minister.
Possible alternative prime ministers who might hope to form a coalition are the right-wing Naftali Bennett, and the centre-right Yair Lapid. Bennett has previously described himself as “more right-wing” than Netanyahu, but claims that, unlike Netanyahu, he does not “use the tools of hate.” A Times of Israel poll showed 62% of anti-Netanyahu voters back Bennett for PM, with 32% supporting Lapid. MKs from Labor, Meretz, and Yisrael Beteinu have said they will recommend Lapid as PM, with Joint List MKs likely to do likewise.
Netanyahu’s overarching immediate aim is to cling to power. His trial on corruption charges is due to resume shortly, and his hope is that a right-wing coalition government will block it. That he is courting Abbas as a potential coalition partner, in direct contravention of his own previous opposition to any Arab involvement in government, is an indication of how desperate he is. The move will alienate his existing allies on the far right, including Religious Zionism, whose leader has categorically opposed any coalition involving Abbas.
Abbas’s influential position is one of the most remarkable outcomes of the election. As Edo Konrad put it in the left-wing Israel/Palestinian magazine +972: “The fact that an Islamist leader could become a potential kingmaker in Israeli politics is a paradigm shift that could have radical and long-lasting effects.”
During the election, Konrad says, “Abbas became a media darling in Israel’s top news studios, including the pro-Netanyahu Channel 20. Abbas further invited Netanyahu to be a special guest at a meeting of the Knesset Committee to Eliminate Crime in the Arab Sector, where the Islamist leader allotted the prime minister time to address the members. Abbas also has not ruled out supporting laws that would cancel Netanyahu’s current trial. In short, Abbas has opened the door for making Palestinian citizens a key piece of Netanyahu’s ongoing rule.”
Konrad concludes that: “It is also far too early to know which direction Abbas will take — whether he will support Netanyahu, try to form an ‘alternative’ coalition with Yair Lapid, or take Israel to a fifth election. What is clear, however, is that the fall of the Joint List and the rise of Abbas to the status of potential kingmaker are a reminder that Israeli politics can no longer ignore Palestinian citizens — even if it may end up boosting the right.”
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a prominent ultra-Orthodox cleric described by Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz as “spiritual leader of most of United Torah Judaism’s constituents” said on 2 April that he preferred collaboration with Arab parties to collaboration with “anti-religious” ones. UTJ may decide (rightly) that it has more in common with the Muslim Brotherhood than with secularists and leftists. Kanievsky’s statement said: “Cooperation with those who respect religion and Jewish tradition is better than those who oppress religion.”
During the election, Netanyahu’s Likud explicitly pitched for Arab votes, including by appealing to conservative sentiment within Arab communities on social questions. According to Konrad, Netanyahu “toured Arab communities across Israel, boasting about his fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and claiming that his years of racist incitement against Palestinian citizens were simply a misunderstanding.
“Less than a week before the elections, Netanyahu went as far as to laughably claim that the Jewish Nation-State Law, which constitutionally enshrines the second-class status of Palestinian citizens, was never actually targeted at Arabs, but rather at African asylum seekers.”
Polling also shows increasing support amongst Jewish voters for joint Jewish-Arab government, now up to 33% from less than 20% in 2019, with most of the increase coming from voters who identify as “centre” or “right-wing”. A separate poll showed 45% of Netanyahu supporters backing a coalition with Abbas if it kept Netanyahu in power, with 39% opposing.
There is no likely path to a coalition either for Netanyahu, or his opponents. Religious Zionism will not govern with Abbas, and amongst anti-Netanyahu parties, Lieberman - a foul anti-Arab racist - may find that sponsoring a government which includes Arab parties, or which relies on the votes of Arab MKs proves too much for him to stomach.
The prospect of a government including Religious Zionism, from the furthest extremity of Israel’s far right, has alarmed much liberal political opinion. The Noam party, part of the Religious Zionist bloc, campaigns for the repeal of laws guaranteeing women’s and LGBT+ rights, which it sees as in conflict with “Jewish values”. Yair Lapid tweeted that a government with the religious far right would be a “disturbed, racist, chauvinistic government that will take Israel back to the Middle Ages.”
The left’s efforts in any future election must be supplemented by a stepping-up of class-struggle and social-movement agitation that stresses the need for, and seeks to build, Jewish-Arab unity. Currently only 24% of the 6.4 million Palestinians living under varying degrees of Israeli rule or control have the right to vote in Israeli elections, while 650,000 Jewish settlers living in Palestinian territory do have that right. This injustice fatally compromises Israel’s claim to be “the only democracy in the Middle East.” The achievement of genuine democracy requires equal rights, including national rights, for both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Both nations have the right to self-determination.
The British left and labour movement can help by amplifying and supporting the struggles of groups like Omdim be’Yachad (Standing Together), a left-wing Arab-Jewish social movement, and radical unions such as the Workers’ Advice Centre (Ma’an), which organises both Jewish and Palestinian workers, including Palestinian workers in Israeli settlements, and Koah L’Ovdim (Power to Workers).
• More: Edo Konrad, “How an Islamist become Israel’s unlikely political kingmaker”, 24 March 2021, +972 Magazine.