As Israel’s short war with Hamas winds down and a cease fire takes hold, the spotlight is back on Benjamin Netanyahu, who was poised to lose his grip on the nation’s premiership in the days before the conflict broke out. Bibi, as he is known, has been prime minister of Israel for 15 years in total, 12 years continuously until now. That’s an Israeli record, and a long time in a nation that itself is only 73 years old. And in a country that savors love/hate relationships with its politicians, Bibi is at once much loved and very much hated.
On May 9, the haters were savoring a long and hard-fought victory: After four elections in two years, it looked like Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party were going down. Bibi had been given weeks to cobble together a government, and wasn’t able to make it happen. Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin then handed the mandate to Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, and in short order, Lapid had brought together a disparate assortment of disgruntled right-wingers (Naftali Bennett and his Yamina party), Arab-Israelis (Mansour Abbas and his Ra’am United Arab List) and splintered leftist parties (Labor, Meretz, Yisrael Beytenu and Blue and White) to gain the necessary 61 votes to confirm what Lapid likes to call a “change government.” Four days later the dream ended, with Bennett (whose political capriciousness is legend) deciding in the face of Israeli-Arab unrest that he could not be part of a government with the Ra’am party.
Lapid isn’t giving up—he has until June 3 to form a government—but the necessary pieces may not be in place. The question is why? A number of factors are key:
Israeli electoral law: The system of proportional representation is notoriously unwieldy, and has helped give Italy (and Iraq) a reputation for abysmal political instability. A party list (votes are cast not for individuals, but for parties) requires only 3.25 percent to pass the electoral threshold (less means no seats, more means a shot at a proportion of the vote), a tiny sliver that ended up distributing Knesset (Israeli parliament) seats to 13 different lists in the most recent March 2021 election. Netanyahu’s Likud earned 30 seats, Lapid 17, with the remaining hodge-podge apportioned in nine, eight, seven, six and four seat increments. Small wonder forming a government is a nightmare, with tiny parties afforded immense power because of the need to build a 61-seat coalition for a majority.
Anarchy on Israel’s left: Once the political juggernaut of Israel, the Labor party began to collapse in the 1990s. In the last election, Labor won seven seats, more than doubling the three it earned in the 2020 election. Other leftist parties have come and gone, and come and gone again, with stars rising and falling at a dizzying pace. Part of the problem for the left is that it trends toward older and more secular voters, hence a demographic challenge. Another is the willingness of left-wing standard bearers to defect—erstwhile Blue and White leader Benny Gantz is now defense minister in Netanyahu’s government. Then there is the elitism of Israeli liberals, who look much as they did in 1950—that is, Ashkenazi (Jews of European origin), rather than Sephardi (Jews of Arab origin) and middle/upper class, with the working class and Israeli Arabs little more than an afterthought in party platforms. Finally, there is the staying power of the Likud, which has, with very few exceptions, managed to hold substantial electoral power since it delivered the first loss to Labor in Israel’s history in 1977. Indeed, where the Likud has leeched support, it has largely been to other anti-Netanyahu conservative parties and not to the left.
Security: Modern Israel is a powerhouse; per capita income is $43,500, its military and intelligence are forces to be reckoned with, and the Jewish state is no longer the pariah it once was, with six Arab states deciding peace with Israel is better than war. But that still leaves Iranian-backed Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Islamic Republic itself, not to speak of Lebanon, Syria, and assorted Salafi-jihadi groups still eager to destroy the Zionists for once and for all. The latest war with Hamas (see The Dispatch’s takes here, here, here, and here) and the complex challenge of Israeli Arabs joining the fight all play to Israel’s right, and particularly to Netanyahu, whose reign has delivered long stretches of peace and security for the embattled state. Indeed, such is the “security advantage” to Bibi that his increasingly hysterical detractors—Tom Friedman included—have suggested that Netanyahu engineered the conflict with Hamas to derail Lapid’s efforts to form a government.
The two-state solution: Another issue is the waning interest in a solution to the long festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The last formal peace talks were in 2014, and Palestinian leaders have since pursued a policy seeking unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, bypassing Israel completely. Israel too has shifted gears, embracing the so-called “outside in” approach that envisions growing diplomatic ties with Arab nations and the marginalization of the Palestine question. And while there are plenty of critics of both the Palestinian and Israeli approaches, most of those critics aren’t Israeli voters; polls show waning Israeli (and Palestinian) support for or interest in a two-state solution. Because the question of how to address Palestinian territorial claims has long defined left and right in Israel, lack of support for a peace process ends up advantaging the right.
The other side: Because this is the Middle East, Israeli politics is not the only factor destabilizing the Holy Land and upending the political scene. Another complicating factor—and part of the casus belli for Hamas in this recent iteration of conflict—is Palestinian electoral politics. Mahmoud Abbas, in the 16th year of his four-year term as Palestinian president, recently called off elections slated for June. The odds favored a Hamas victory, which would have been a blow to his own Fatah party. Absent elections, Hamas (and its backers in Iran) saw an opportunity to demonstrate its political and military might in attacking Israel. And while Hamas’ decision may well have thrown the advantage to Netanyahu, the terror group’s motivations had far more to do with its own political fortunes and Iran’s desire to press its advantage while the Biden administration is focused on the nuclear talks.
Where does it all end? The simplest answer for Israel is in yet another election, the fifth in two years. But like the others, another trip to the polls promises much the same result. Rather, the answer should be a period of soul-searching for Israel and its body politic. Answers to hard questions—what about Arab-Israeli rights? Who represents Israel’s working class? How to bridge the religious-secular divide? How about a better electoral system?—would go a long way toward resolving Israel’s political quagmire. Israel knows how to defeat terrorists; it is still figuring out how to manage itself.