Benjamin Netanyahu
Political deadlock as Benjamin Netanyahu falls short of majority in Israeli Knesset Image Credit: Jose L. Barros/Gulf News

Deadlock, stalemate and no path to majority are once more the expressions that best describe Israel’s fourth elections — held on 23 March — in two years.

With most of the votes counted, pundits are scrambling to put together possible formulas that incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 71, may use to reach the magical 61 seats needed to form a government. After all, the last four elections were all about him and his political survival as Israel’s longest serving premier.

That’s why pundits have divided the parties contesting the Knesset’s 120 seat into two camps; pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu. Both camps, which are hardly united internally, appear to be lacking a path to victory. That’s why the media and the analysts are already talking about a possible fifth election later this summer.

Complex Israeli politics

Israeli politics has always been hard to read and understand by outsiders. This is why polls keep missing their projections. Demographics, religion and extremist ideology have played havoc with Israeli politics for years.

Regardless of the final tally, which is not expected to change the outcome dramatically, horse trading and dealing and wheeling will begin almost immediately. Campaign promises will be broken and rivals may end up joining a coalition at the last minute.

But what differentiates these elections from the previous ones is the fact that the right and far right have been divided with former Netanyahu allies parting ways with him and forming their own lists.

The same is said about the Arab parties, which too saw the influential Islamist United Arab List (UAL) breaking from the Joint Arab List (JAL) which had made important gains in the last elections. The UAL, led by Mansour Abbas, has been labelled as kingmaker; whose 4 seats may give Netanyahu the much coveted 61 majority.

Another possible kingmaker is Neftali Bennett and his Yamina Party with seven seats. The far right politician has been shunned by Netanyahu in last year’s March elections but he now sees himself able to negotiate from a position of strength.

Just as UAL’s performance was an important feature in this latest election the fact that the fascist Religious Zionist Party (RZP), associated with the late rabbi Meir Kahana, has won an impressive six seats; beating all predictions. In the final hours of the campaign Netanyahu endorsed the party that is openly anti-Arab.

Equally unexpected was the better performance of Benny Gantz’ Blue and White, a former ally of Netanyahu, which grabbed 8 seats and Labor, whose demise was predicted but managed to win 7 seats. Likud lost some ground but emerged as the largest party with 30 seats under its belt.

A mix of ideologies

For Netanyahu the challenge would be to reconcile the far right religious parties with the possibility of a historic alliance with the Islamist UAL. Religious Zionist leader Bezalel Smotrich said he would not allow the formation of a right-wing government with the support of the Islamist party.

Overall, what the election results show is that right, far right and right-leaning religious parties have cemented their gains in the next Knesset with over 60 per cent of the seats. The anti-Netanyahu bloc can loosely be described as centrist and left-of-centre have between 30 to 40 per cent leaving the Arabs with less than 10 per cent.

While Abbas had not yet made his position clear on joining or working with Netanyahu, there is still a possibility that the UAL may lend its support to a Likud-led government from the outside in return for commitments to improve services for the Arab community.

What was absent from all the electioneering is the prospect of reviving the peace process with the Palestinians. A docile Palestinian Authority (PA) made the fate of the occupied territories a marginal issue.

Netanyahu’s efforts to use the successful covid-19 vaccination scheme as his major achievement was eclipsed by what a majority of Israeli believe was a slow response to the pandemic and failure to protect the economy.

Netanyahu, who is under trial for corruption and accepting bribes, needs to cobble together a government in order to protect his political career and avoid going to prison.

He may end up putting the pieces together but any coalition will be fragile and may end up breaking apart soon after. If by a miracle the anti-Netanyahu bloc manages to form a coalition government then we will see a fast demise of the one person who has shaped and dominated Israeli politics since the 1990s.

Another caveat will be the US and the West’s response if members of the Religious Zionist Party do join the next government.

Even by Israeli standards the coalition of far right religious parties represents a form of movement with dangerous and divisive ideas. Even if there is a fifth election the movement is here to stay and will only become stronger!

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.