In an election anyone claiming to predict who the next prime minister of Israel will be is a brave person.
The frontrunner is Benjamin Netanyahu, which counts for quite a bit of course. But will it be enough? Hard to say.
At the time of writing the next election had not yet been formally called, but when/if it happens as expected, there are some factors to consider that make predictions complicated.
1 – If a day is a long time in politics, then the period of about four months until an actual election, is an eternity.
Needless to say, a lot can happen.
The most electorally effective weapon that Netanyahu has been able to wield against Lapid since he arrived on the political scene, has been to claim – rightly or wrongly – that Lapid is just a telegenic, shallow person good at making flowery speeches. Someone, who even during his military service worked mainly as an IDF journalist. A privileged person, untested and who is not really up to the task of leading the country.
In this regard, the past year has shown two things in particular. Lapid performed very well as foreign minister on the world stage. He also demonstrated unusual political qualities and a large dose of self-sacrifice. Despite leading the largest party in the coalition, he allowed Bennett to serve as prime minister, in order to get a coalition agreement over the line.
Four months of now actually being the prime minister, may prove or disprove his fitness for office. His leadership can now be properly tested.
The potential benefits of incumbency should never be underestimated.
For one, President Biden’s trip to the Middle East, originally planned before the collapse of the government, should also give Lapid a boost.
2 – The Threshold.
According to the various opinion polls, barring party mergers, we do not even know at this point in time who and which parties will be in the next Knesset.
A number of parties are polling near to, or just below, the threshold of 3.25%.
Although it is obvious that neither Lapid nor Netanyahu can form coalitions with parties that do not get elected – the calculus about coalition numbers can change dramatically, depending on which parties do or do not pass the threshold.
This is more critical for the Lapid camp as there are two or three parties in the current coalition that are teetering on the brink of oblivion.
3 – Statements prior to the election period, about who will or will not sit with someone else, either party or personality, will not count for much in the post-election period if it will mean the difference between being able to form a government or not.
In a close election, the two segments to focus on in this regard will be those from the current Lapid coalition who say they will never sit in a Netanyahu-led government and those from the Netanyahu-led opposition, who say they will never sit with an Arab party.
Ironically, in the recent past and at least near future, Netanyahu remains far and away the most popular person for prime minister, but without carrying a majority. At the same time, he is the sole obstacle to a significant number of parties joining any coalition he leads – even when their policies are almost identical.
4 – What will happen to Ra’am? Will Mansour Abbas cross the threshold?
In the present Israeli Knesset, there are two largely Arab blocks.
One is led by Ahmad Tibi, who will not formally join any Zionist block.
However, the smaller, currently four-seat Ra’am, is willing to go with either block – Lapid’s or Netanyahu’s.
But who is willing to receive them?
Lapid obviously, as they are already part of the Bennett/Lapid coalition.
Netanyahu, who opened the door to Ra’am in the first place, would also be willing to take Ra’am into the government himself – if it was up to him. His problem is Bezalel Smotrich.
It was primarily Smotrich who stopped Netanyahu from taking Ra’am into coalition a year ago, resulting in Netanyahu having to move into opposition.
In fairness to Smotrich, his stance on Ra’am is ideological and steadfastly consistent. Smotrich has had the courage of his convictions to not compromise, even for the sake of getting into government.
It is very hard to see Netanyahu once again agreeing to miss out on government if this was to be the sole determinant.
Netanyahu is likely to convince Smotrich that being in government is preferable to returning to opposition.
Of course, as Ra’am is one of the parties polling near the threshold, this point may be moot, should they fail to re-enter the Knesset in the first place.
5 – The great experiment of having an Islamist party within the government, the ground-breaking proclamations by Abbas recognising Israel as a Jewish State and his focus on practicalities rather than ideology, made him a worthwhile partner for many, from the Jewish perspective.
From the Israeli Arab perspective, the reason he polls on or about the threshold is that Israeli Arabs do not see, or with wishful thinking, possibly did not have enough time to see, the benefits of Abbas’ tactics of trying to make day-to-day practical gains from within, rather than following the rejectionist path of Tibi.
For example, despite all the promises to reduce Arab on Arab crime, the same number of Israeli Arabs have been killed by other Israeli Arabs to date, as last year.
Aaron Boxerman in the Times of Israel reports that the one pollster, Yousef Makladeh, who consistently predicted that Ra’am would successfully enter the Knesset at the last election, now predicts that they will not get sufficient votes for another term saying that “many Arab Israelis who were previously willing to give the party’s bold experiment in coalition cooperation a shot, are now asking whether the gambit succeeded in bringing tangible change to Arab communities.”
6 – Left vs right. Right vs left. The Palestinians
With no prospect of real movement on the horizon, this will still play a role in the election.
No matter the public positions of Lapid and Netanyahu, managing the conflict is about as good as it can get for now.
In policy terms, there is little on paper between Lapid and Netanyahu themselves on issues such as the Palestinians and Judaea/Samaria/West Bank, but tone and discussions about the future, will expose some differences.
However, it is likely that most heat will be generated by each trying to show that the other is either too left or too right by and because of association with their respective partners.
Expect these smaller coalition partners on both sides to enthusiastically join this debate, very much magnifying the noise on this topic.
For some, it is their raison d’etre.
7 – Iran. Who is tougher? Who is more likely to succeed?
A lot can happen whilst Lapid is interim Prime Minister in regards to Iran.
Those expecting Lapid to be soft on Iran should take note of commentators like Jonathan Schanzer for example, who told JNS that he doesn’t believe Lapid will flip on Iran. “Lapid is often maligned as a lefty by the Israeli right, but his position isn’t soft on Iran” he said.
If there is movement on a new JCPOA agreement with Iran, Lapid may find this to be his most difficult test.
8 – Of course, if either block manages to garner 61 seats, then points 2 through to 7 will be irrelevant to the formation of the next government.
Many of them remain relevant, however, to life in Israel, to the fabric of Israeli society and to her future.
And now, Qantas permitting, it’s off to Israel for the first time since Covid struck, to once again witness and be part of first-hand, the amazing life and pulse of Israel!
Ron Weiser is the Honorary Life Member ZFA Executive and Honorary Life President, State Zionist Council of NSW