Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (File) Image Credit: Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs 61 out of 120 votes in the Knesset to form a new government and keep the post that he has held, against all odds, for twelve solid years. His chances don’t look good, however, due to accusations of graft and mismanagement of Covid-19.

In addition to the Premier’s own Likud Party, other campaigners in next week’s election include Labor, Meretz, Yamina of ex-Defence Minister Naftali Bennet, New Hope Party of ex-education minister Gideon Sa’ar, Yisrael Beiteinu of ex-Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the Joint List of Arab-Israelis, and the centralist Yesh Atid (There is Hope) of journalist-turned politician Yair Lapid, earmarked for big gains on 23 March 2021.

Despite being a young party, only nine years old, Yesh Atid is expected to bag as many as 17 seats in the next Knesset. They surprised everybody back in 2013, one year after their formation, when they came in second after Likud. The party appeals to secular Israelis and young people demanding change, campaigning on economic opportunity, entrepreneurship, better jobs, and less wars for Israel.

Lapid’s campaign

Lapid’s campaign has focused mainly on restoring normality to Israel, echoing the rhetoric of the Democratic Party that campaigned on saving America from Donald Trump. Lapid is saying that he is willing to form a government with any coalition, with the one condition that it does not include Netanyahu.

If he wins, his coalition will likely include New Hope, the Joint List, Labor, Meretz, Yamina, and Yisrael Beiteinu. That gives them an impressive bloc of 62 seats in the Knesset, enough to name a new premier and form a government.

Early polling

According to a recent joint poll by Jerusalem Post and Maariv newspapers, the gap between Netanyahu and Gideon Sa’ar stands at only 2% and is just 3% between Netanyahu and Naftali Bennet. Whereas the gap between Netanyahu and Lapid is a high and challenging 17%.

Neither Likud nor Labor, the traditional heavyweights in Israeli politics, are expected to score big victories. Israeli society is fed up with those parties which have dominated the political scene for decades, seeking change and new leadership.

For example, in 1992, Labor and Meretz won 56 seats but in the 2020 elections, they ran together and won only six. This time if things go their way on Election Day, they are expected to win not more than nine. According to early polling, Likud and its allies in the far-left are expected to win 49 seats — at best.

If Netanyahu manages to win, he has promised to work with different sides of the political spectrum, starting with Israeli-Arabis onto the small right wing party called Otzma Yehudit (Religious Zionism), better known as the Kahanists, in reference to their spiritual godfather, the late Rabi Meir Kahane.

It is not clear exactly how he will manage to do that since Palestinians in 1948 areas are for improved conditions of their constituency while the Kahanists are accused of harbouring racist anti-Arabism.

Arab Vote inside Israel

Arab voters make up 17% of the Israeli electorate and they can be a valuable asset for both to Netanyahu and Lapid. Both have expressed a willingness to work with them, although Lapid’s consent was lukewarm, coming after much hesitation. Historically Netanyahu has always used Arab-Israeli voters to scare radicals and the Israeli right-wing into casting their vote, warning that if they don’t vote then Palestinians in 1948 areas will determine the future of the Knesset.

This time, however, he is courting those Arab-Israelis, making a landmark visit to Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel, and promising to upgrade schools and hospitals, and improve police to reduce crime rate within the Arab community. From Nazareth he announced the birth of a “new era” for Arab Israelis, prompting Nazareth mayor Ali Salem, an influential Palestinian Israeli, to rally behind Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has even authorised contact with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to encourage Arab Israelis to vote in his favour, or at least, not vote for his opponents. Those talks were initiated at his request via Knesset member Fateen Mulla (an Israeli Druze) who is coordinating with Mohammad al-Madani, a confident of President Mahmud Abbas.

The PLO has agreed to what they called “quiet support” for Netanyahu, fearing that he would be replaced by Lapid, Sa’ar, or Bennet, who Mahmud Abbas views as hardliners. The premier has also abandoned plans to annex 30% of the West Bank, which was part of Donald Trump’s Deal of the Century. Those plans were shelved, after signing the Abraham Accords with the UAE last year.

It must be noted that apart from the Joint List of Arab parties, none of the major parties campaigning for office have any serious agenda for peace with the Palestinians. The only party that has actually reached out to the Palestinians is Meretz, which has included two Palestinians in 1948 areas on its list and mentioned peace with the Palestinians as part of its campaign.

The issue of peace with Palestine has dropped out of election rhetoric, with nobody taking it seriously so long as Mahmud Abbas is in power, arguing that there is no Arab interlocutor with whom they can talk peace. That rejection is likely to increase after the upcoming Palestinian elections, especially if Hamas gets a large share in parliament and forms a cabinet with Fateh, destroying all prospects for peace.

Defections within the Arab List

But even the Joint List is not as powerful as it used to be during the last election, when it came in third after Likud and Kahol Lavan in April 2020, scoring an impressive 15 seats. That weakness is the result of one important bloc, known as the United Arab List (Ra’am) departing from the Joint List ahead of the upcoming vote.

Ra’am is the political arm of the Islamic Movement in Israel and its leader, Mansour Abbas has expressed a willingness to help Netanyahu form a government, taking everybody by surprise. According to Israel’s Channel 13, Ra’am is poised to win 4 seats in the next Knesset.

Mansour Abbas justifies his decision to work with Netanyahu saying that it is to improve the lives of Arab Israelis, seeking to exert more power from within the system. And this comes as Netanyahu feels in need of allies, regardless of who they are.

We must be under no illusion, however, that these Arab partners can push for peace in any coalition government, be it with Netenyahu or Lapid. They can push for better representation within Israel and better services but will have very little say on foreign policy.

— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.