Upcoming Israeli Elections And Its Impact On Palestinians
National elections will be held in Israel in March 2021 and these elections will again be dominated by the right wing, making solution of Palestinian issue unlikely or impossible. This article unpacks why Israel is having fourth national election in two years. Later, it analyzes politics of various rightwing leaders and parties regarding the Palestinian issue to see whether this election can lead to a solution to Israel-Palestine conundrum.
Even veteran observers of Israeli scene were not able to predict what the April 2019 elections ensued. Likud, the party of longterm Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was expected to form a rightwing coalition as it had done after the last elections. However, Likud and Blue and White, a coalition led by former Israeli military chief Barry Gantz, each got 35 seats and both parties were unable to construct a governing coalition (at least 61 members in the 120-member Knesset). The key obstacles were secular-religious divide, corruption charges against PM Netanyahu and the refusal of major political parties to form a coalition with the Arab Israeli parties.
Another election in September 2019 had the same result. In that election, the Blue and White coalition won 33 seats while Likud won 32. However, again both parties could not form a government due to the three issues mentioned above. This triggered an unprecedented third national election in twelve months. In March 2020. PM Netanyahu’s Likud surged ahead and secured 36 seats. The Blue and White coalition was not far behind with 33 seats. Both Netanyahu and Gantz again tried to form a governing coalition without each other but failed. With Covid-19 infections increasing and spectre of another election looming, Gantz reneged on his election pledge of not supporting Netanyahu as PM and agreed to coalition talks to form an ‘emergency’ government with Netanyahu. After several rounds of talks, spanning weeks, a new coalition government was sworn in May 2020, with Netanyahu as Prime Minister. This was the start of Netanyahu’s historic fifth term as PM and he was already the longest serving PM in Israeli history. This agreement also resulted in the breakup of Blue and White coalition as Gantz’s coalition partners refused to renege on their campaign promise of not supporting Netanyahu as PM.
The coalition agreement affirmed that both sides will have equal number of ministers and veto on major decisions. Most importantly, it was agreed that Gantz would serve as defense minister and after 18 months, he will take over as PM from Netanyahu. However, the agreement also revealed deep mistrust between the two coalition partners. Very few political analysts thought that this coalition agreement would last, and Netanyahu would hand over power to Gantz to be prosecuted for corruption charges. Netanyahu proved them right. With both sides blaming each other for lying and deceit, the coalition came to an end in December 2020, making new elections in March 2021 inevitable.
Let’s take a look at the major parties in Israel and analyze see whether they support two-state solution to solve the Palestinian issue. Israel was once a left-of-center country. A socialist party ruled it for a long time. During the first three decades of Israel, Labor Party, or its earlier version Mapai, was the dominant party in the country. All the Israeli PMs, until 1977, belonged to the Mapai/Labor party, which had a socialist orientation. The Labor party was opposed by the rightwing parties from the start but the rightwing (the Likud party) only came to power in 1977. For the next 25 years, these two parties alternated as governing parties in coalition with smaller parties. With the start of 21st century, however, the Israeli electorate exhibited a rightward shift and Labor and other leftwing parties, which were once dominant, saw a gradual decline. The last Labor PM Ehud Barak resigned in 2001.
Today, Israel’s political space is dominated by rightwing parties, which Eran Globus’s an Isreali analyst termed, “fifty shades of right.” The major rightwing party is the Likud party. It has been in government since 2009, with Netanyahu as PM. This party is expected to win the most seats (28 or 29) in the coming elections. Most of the rightwing parties, except religious parties, have come out of Likud as their leaders have been part of Likud and served in a Netanyahu’s administration. The most recent and the most important break away party is called “New Hope” and is led by Gideon Sa’ar, who until last month was Likud member for 17 years and was Netanyahu’s Minister of Education (2009- 13) and Minister of Interior (2013-14). New Hope is expected to win second largest number of seats (17 or 18) in the Knesset.
Yamina, the party/coalition that is expected to win third largest number of seats (between 12 and 14) is again led by someone who was tutored by Netanyahu for a number of years. Nafteli Bennet entered politics in 2006 as Chief of Staff to then Leader of Opposition Netanyahu and served him until 2008. He then served as leader of an Israeli settler organization before forming his own political party and remained minister with different portfolios in Netanyahu-led governments.
Two key religious parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, expected to win seven or eight seats each, are also loyal allies of Netanyahu and are likely to support him in forming the next coalition government. Shas represents the Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish people (from Middle Eastern and North African countries) while the United Torah Judaism represents Ashkenazi Jewish people (from European countries). While most of the supporters of these parties are Ultra-orthodox religious Jewish, some modern orthodox and secular Jewish people also support them.
Next, we have Yisrael Beytenu, a party led by Avigdor Lieberman, another Netanyahu protégé. From 1993 to 1996, when Netanyahu was the party leader, Lieberman served as Director-General of the Likud. After Likud party won election and Netanyahu was the Prime Minister, Lieberman became the Director-General of the PM’s Office for a year (1996-97). In 1999, he formed his own party, Yisrael Beytenu, and has been part of numerous rightwing governments under Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Netanyahu. Yisrael Beytenu is expected to win five or six seats in March. As the table below shows, the rightwing is going to dominate the March 2021 elections winning between 76 and 82 of the total 120 Knesset seats.
Public Opinion Polls for March 2021 elections: Expected number of seats
|United Torah Judaism||7||7|
|Total Rightwing seats||76||82|
Many people think that Netanyahu is the biggest obstacle to peace in the Middle East. It might be true in the past but now there are numerous obstacles to peace. The leadership of all the parties discussed above has at various times opposed giving any concessions to the Palestinians. Lieberman resigned numerous times whenever even a small concession was given to the Palestinians. He was dismissed by PM Sharon for his harsh opposition to Gaza disengagement in 2004 and resigned in 2008 for resuming peace talks with Palestinians and again in 2018 for ending the brutal Gaza War. He has also given many statements against Palestinians and Israeli Arabs which were considered racist by many analysts. Bennet, the leader of Yamina party, as mentioned above, served as leader of an Israeli settler organization and has been opposed to a Palestinian state and to the freezing or uprooting of illegal Jewish settlements. Similarly, Gideon Sa’ar of the New Hope party has always been to the right of Netanyahu. He has been a recalcitrant opponent of the two-state solution (calling it once two-state illusion) and has shown inability to show genuine concern for Palestinian rights. Religious parties, Shas and United Judaism, do not have a clear policy on two-state solution but are against division of Jerusalem and freezing of Israeli settlements, making them unlikely partners in a peace deal.
The discussion above clearly shows that the new Israeli government will not be supportive of two-state solution, so the ordeal of the Palestinians is unfortunately going to continue. The election campaign will force these parties to move more to the right to outflank each other, resulting in extreme and intransigent positions regarding a Palestinian state.