Two Years, Four Elections

A clear winner failed to emerge in Israel’s March 23 national parliamentary election. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister since 2009, and his faction of right-wing allies secured 52 of the 120 seats, nine seats short of a majority. The anti-Netanyahu coalition, a conglomerate of right, centrist, and left-wing parties, also was unsuccessful at winning the number of seats that would legitimize their control of the Knesset, the Hebrew name of Israel’s national legislature. The overall result of the inconclusive election was the prolonging of political deadlock. In response, President Reuven Rivlin will meet with party leaders on April 5 to decide which party he will mandate to form a government. 

“The main consideration that will guide me as I choose a candidate [to task with forming a government] is the chances of a Knesset member to form a government that would win the Knesset’s trust. A government that would heal the divides between us and heal Israeli society, which has been dealt a major blow in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic,” said Rivlin on Wednesday after receiving the results of the election, according to Haaretz.

Under Israeli law, the lawmaker chosen by the president will have 28 days to reach an agreement with other parties and form a coalition. According to The New York Times, if the lawmaker fails in the time period, the president may nominate a new candidate, who will likewise have four weeks to unite a coalition. A similar process follows for a third candidate Parliament selects, if necessary. Another round of elections will commence if the third candidate is also unsuccessful.

These most recent elections are the fourth in a string of referendums over the past two years. It is difficult to gain a stable majority in Israel as the election system requires coalitions, not single parties, to form governments. Since 2019, voters have repeatedly cast their ballots with the hopes of pushing their coalition into power. Throughout that time, Netanyahu has been in office, either as prime minister or leader of a fragile majority coalition. In April 2020, he ran as leader of the right-wing Likud party against Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White coalition. 

After three divisive national elections ended with inconclusive results, a political impasse was reached. Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to join forces and form a government from their two political blocs to break the deadlock. As part of the agreement, Netanyahu served as prime minister for eighteen months until November 2021, whereupon Gantz would take his place for the next eighteen months. However, a series of disagreements between the two leaders over the state budget led to the dissolution of the Knesset and forced a fourth round of elections. 

Now, as the fourth election has failed to produce a clear winner, Israel remains in a deadlock. The absence of decisive leadership has proved detrimental over the past year as an economic and health crisis rocks the country. The political instability has delayed long-term economic planning and the appointment of important state officials, including senior officers in the country’s finance ministry. Although Netanyahu’s vaccine rollout during his tenure as prime minister has been widely viewed as a success, many have accused him of politicizing his decision-making while in office to seek an advantage in future elections. 

President Rivlin’s decision on April 6 will have significant ramifications, regardless of which coalition comes out ahead. Relations with the Palestinians and Arab countries are considered essential for the new government, as Netanyahu opposes creating an independent Palestinian state in West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza—lands Israel currently occupies. He instead supports Jewish settlements in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem, which is currently considered illegal under international law. A more left-wing or centrist government, if elected, is expected to enter into peace talks with Palestine and is more likely to consider relinquishing Israel’s claim on the land.