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Four Elections in Two Years: Understanding Israel’s Political Gridlock

Stop me if this sounds familiar. On March 23rd, Israel held an election for the country’s Parliament, the Knesset. The election came on the heels of the collapse of the coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The election was seen in many ways as a referendum on whether or not the Israeli people still approve Netanyahu, after 12 years in power. While Netanyahu’s Likud party received the most votes, it will require some unexpected moves to form a coalition government.

This story is one that has become too familiar for the citizens of Israel, who found themselves voting in their 4th election, within just two years, and for the same reasons. In Israel, rather than voting for specific individual candidates, citizens are asked to vote for a political party to obtain a certain number of seats in the Knesset. Not even once in the country’s history, a single party managed to win the majority of the seats. As a result, the Knesset is governed by a coalition of multiple parties, who make up a majority. This majority chooses the leader. “No one wins elections in Israel. As a collective the Israeli voters do not trust anyone in particular;” said Chatham House Associate Fellow Yossi Mekelberg. In theory, this system of governance forces political cooperation between multiple ideologies, however, recent elections have shown that this is not reflected in real life practice.

Nine months ago, a fairly surprising coalition government emerged, bringing together Netanyahu and his political rival Benjamin Gantz, after a series of inconclusive voting processes. Gantz ran in each of the three elections that took place in 2019-2020. His electoral campaigns focused specifically on offering an anti-Netanyahu agenda. By doing so, Gantz’s Blue and White Party garnered more votes than any other party that has ever challenged Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Unsurprisingly, the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition was extremely fragile from the start. The Likud Party and the Blue and White Party could not reach a common vision on most of the critical issues, including the issue of the budget allocation. After the Knesset failed to approve a state budget by December 23rd, 2020, Israeli law deemed that the 23rd Knesset must be officially dissolved, and hence elections were automatically set for March 23rd, 2021.

It is tempting to view this most recent election as a referendum on the Israeli citizens’ approval of Netanyahu as a Prime Minister. For months, activists went to streets to protest Netanyahu’s alleged involvement in corruption practices, including allegations of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, and claims that Netanyahu accepted $300,000 worth of gifts from businessmen in exchange for favors. Also, there are allegations that Netanyahu eased regulations for some media in exchange for the promise of positive coverage. Above all that, unemployment rate in Israel is at 15%, and the government poorly handled the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, a group of about 20,000 people rallied near Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, only 3 days before the election.

Then, why the Likud Party is still able to turn out the most votes? Despite many criticisms of his most recent tenure, Netanyahu has accomplished some important achievements that make him popularly accepted by a large portion of Israelis. He has been applauded for the historical normalization of relations with several Arab countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Bahrain. He, also, launched one of the most robust vaccine programs in the world, which may have distracted the people from the government’s previous missteps on managing the pandemic. Another important factor to consider in understanding Netanyahu’s popularity is Netanyahu’s conservative stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which for many Israelis remains a matter of social and political concern. However, Mitchell Barak, CEO of Keevoon Global Research suggests another reason why Netanyahu continues to maintain so much support, failed coalition after failed coalition. He likens Netanyahu’s reign to a struggling marriage. “It is better to be in a marriage that is not so happy rather than go out and find someone new and get the unexpected;” Barak explained.

Now, what is next for the Israeli government? At the moment, neither the right-wing bloc, led by Netanyahu’s Likud, nor the left-wing opposition, led by Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid Party have enough votes by other parties to form a coalition government. The key to forming a coalition seems to fall at the Arab Islamist party called, the United Arab List (commonly known by the Hebrew abbreviation: Raam). Previously, Raam, which is led by Mansour Abbas, unexpectedly won four seats in the Knesset. While Arab-led parties have traditionally been allied with the far-left, Abbas’ willingness to work with both sides of the political spectrum gave his small party a huge boast. Abbas met with several Likud members, in the past. But other conservative parties, such as the Religious Zionist Party, have expressed an unwillingness to work with Arab parties, in general, and declined to have an Arab party as part of its proposed coalition government.

It is difficult to assess what Raam’s rise means for the future of Arab representation in the Knesset. The split between Raam and the leftist Joint List discouraged many Arabs from voting, with participation dropping to about 15%. On the other hand, Raam’s current advanced position makes it the closest Arab-led party to be an actual part of Israeli’s coalition government. As Israeli reporter Eran Singer reflects, Netanyahu “has given the green light to talk to Arab parties.”

Perhaps, history will be made and an Arab party will join the coalition and the country’s representative democracy will finally include representatives from the Arab population that makes up one-fifth of the Israeli population. However, the most likely outcome, based on what is happening right now, is that Israel is heading towards a fifth election in a period of six months. That is a concerning prospect. There are only so many times a governmental system can continue to fail before the people governed completely lose faith in it.

With the Knesset unable to make it through even one year, the aim of the system seems to be defeating itself and increasingly depressed election participation seems to bear this out. The 2021 election had the lowest voter turnout since 2009. Is it too much of a stretch to say that the people may end up accepting a more authoritarian regime, to guarantee some stability in governance? It is clear that some drastic changes are needed to break the constant gridlock. But the question remains on what that change should be like, and what that change means for the future of Israeli democracy.


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