On November 1, for the fifth time in less than four years, Israeli voters will head to the polls. This election has received relatively scant coverage, which is understandable given the fatigue that now accompanies what is seemingly a biannual affair. But the oversight is a mistake. That’s because this latest contest is potentially more consequential than any of the previous ones, as it finds Israel poised on the precipice of two very different futures. The outcome of Tuesday’s showdown could affect everything from the stability of Israel’s democratic institutions to the future of Jewish-Arab collaboration in its politics. I want to explain why, but first, some basics.
Why does Israel keep having elections?
The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, has 120 seats. This means that to control the chamber, an aspiring prime minister must cobble together a coalition of at least 61 members. This seemingly simple formula, however, has proven exceedingly elusive in recent years, which is why Israel keeps holding new elections.
Simply put, the country is split between two roughly equal blocs of 60 seats. On one side is former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies. On the other, a motley crew of leftists, conservatives, Jews, and Arabs who have united to deny Netanyahu—currently on trial for corruption—another term. In June 2021, this unlikely alliance—formed by current Prime Minister Yair Lapid—managed to oust Netanyahu with a slim 61-seat coalition. But the resulting rickety government collapsed after one year in office, leading to next week’s contest and a potential Netanyahu comeback.
So why should I care? How is this election any different from the previous ones?
On the surface, it’s not. The public polls show a similar 60–60 divide, projecting continued gridlock. But underneath the hood, something more momentous is happening. Past elections were a referendum on Netanyahu himself and whether he’d be able to wriggle out of his corruption case. But this election has also become a referendum on both Arab inclusion in Israeli politics and the potential mainstreaming of the far right in parliament.
These two phenomena are intrinsically linked. To create the current anti-Netanyahu coalition, opposition leader Lapid did something that had never been done before: He brought an independent Arab party into the government. Israel’s Arab citizens comprise some 20 percent of its population, but their political parties have traditionally refused to join Israeli coalitions, preferring to stand apart in a sort of permanent protest—an arrangement that suited many Jewish parties just fine.
That all changed with the ascension of Mansour Abbas, leader of the Islamist United Arab List party. In 2021, Abbas ran on the explicit promise that he would replace protest with politics and join any Israeli government willing to invest in its Arab citizens. Lapid took him up on the offer. Their alliance was not just a marriage of convenience. It led to record investment in the country’s Arab sector, and even a new script for talking about terrorism that no longer pitted Israeli Jews and Arabs against each other. Last month at the United Nations, Lapid became the first Israeli prime minister there to publicly cast the country’s Arabs as partners in its ongoing creation. Should Lapid form another government, it is assumed that an Arab party will be in it—something that was utterly unthinkable just a couple years ago.
But change this dramatic rarely goes unchallenged, and these developments have fomented a brutal backlash. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ascension of a hard-right political alliance led by openly anti-Palestinian politicians like Bezalel Smotrich—who has called for segregating Jews and Arabs in maternity wards and labeled Arab lawmakers “enemies” who are “here by mistake”—and Itamar Ben-Gvir, a disciple of a notorious Jewish extremist who has a penchant for waving his gun at nearby Arabs. In the current Knesset, this group, which is staunchly opposed to Arab integration and casts the community as a fifth column, holds six seats. According to the current polls, however, it could hold as many as 14 in the next parliament. Netanyahu has happily embraced these individuals as future members of his government, after midwifing their party into existence in the first place.
The upshot is this: Previous elections have hinged on whether or not parties were willing to pass legislation that would grant Netanyahu immunity from his corruption prosecution. This time, not only does Netanyahu’s trial hang in the balance, but so does the entire nascent project of Jewish-Arab partnership in Israeli politics. If the contest yields a conclusive result, the consequences for Israel’s democratic institutions, its internal cohesion, and its image abroad will be profound.
Who’s going to win?
Pundits predict the future in the Middle East at their peril, and I have no special insight into next week’s outcome. But I can point to the factors that will likely determine it—and most of them advantage Benjamin Netanyahu.
The electoral threshold: Despite the surface polling showing another 60–60 tie, a quirk of the Israeli electoral system means that Bibi’s support is more assured than his opponent’s. That’s because Israel requires that a party receive 3.25% of the vote to make it into the Knesset. Netanyahu’s allies are all safely above this threshold. But several of the parties in the anti-Bibi bloc are hovering just above it: the center-left Labor, leftist Meretz, and both major Arab parties. (Another, smaller Arab party is projected to miss the threshold entirely.) If just one of these parties fails to make it over the line, their votes will be functionally redistributed to all the other parties, which in practice could give Netanyahu his 61st seat. This situation has hobbled Lapid’s ability to fully campaign for his own leadership, forcing him to do a delicate dance to avoid stealing seats from his allies and inadvertently pushing them under the threshold.
The coalition wrangling: Even if Netanyahu doesn’t win 61 seats outright, he’ll only need to pry a single seat loose from the opposition to govern. He’s failed to do this in the past, but it will be easier for him to accomplish than Lapid, as Bibi’s allies are far more homogenous and wedded to his leadership. Netanyahu might even leverage the specter of including the far right in his coalition to persuade members of the opposition bloc to cross over, join him as the lesser evil, and keep the extremists out. Though he’s not in power now, Netanyahu did not become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister by accident, and it is always hard to bet against him.
For his part, Lapid is not so much playing to win as to not lose. He is currently serving as prime minister during the election period, and if Tuesday’s contest is inconclusive and no new coalition is formed, then he will remain in power until a new election is held. This is precisely how Netanyahu retained the premiership for almost a year, from 2019 to 2020, despite being unable to win an election. Lapid has outperformed expectations throughout his entire political career, and may yet prove to be the Eli Manning to Bibi’s Tom Brady. But if he’s going to pull off his holding action, or somehow win outright, it will depend overwhelmingly on a single factor …