Mar 17, 2021 - World

Israel's election: Netanyahu seeks a majority to block his corruption trial

Election posters in Jerusalem showing Netanyahu (R) and (on left, from top) Lapid, Bennett and Sa'ar, with the slogan "Only the Likud will form a full right-wing government." Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty.

Israelis will go to the polls next Tuesday for the fourth time in two years, with Netanyahu running an aggressive campaign against a splintered opposition.

Why it matters: Netanyahu's narrow path to a 61-seat majority would require him to form an ultra-right-wing government, dependent on the votes of Jewish supremacists and anti-LGBT and pro-annexation members of Knesset. With a majority, Netanyahu could pass a law or take other steps to delay or end his corruption trial.

  • He denies that's his aim, but prospective members of his coalition have announced they would support it.

The state of play: Current polls show Netanyahu’s bloc at 58 seats, but things could easily shift in his direction on election day.

  • Israel's 3.25% electoral threshold means several small parties will either win around four seats or be left out entirely.
  • Voter fatigue, particularly on the left, also makes turnout unpredictable.

Three scenarios

  1. If one or more of the three small anti-Netanyahu parties falls short, that could shift the whole balance of power and get Netanyahu to the magic number of 61. That's a very likely scenario.
  2. If turnout dips among Netanyahu supporters, and the radical right-wing Religious Zionist Party fails to pass the threshold, there could be a window for a center-right government comprised of Netanyahu's opponents. That's an unlikely scenario.
  3. If the current polls prove accurate and neither side can form a coalition, Israel will head for a fifth election in the summer. That's very possible.

The splintering of the opposition has actually made life more difficult for Netanyahu in one sense: Unlike in the past three cycles, he doesn't have a clear rival on the left to rally his supporters against.

  • Rather than a head-to-head race where Netanyahu can reprise the argument that “it’s us or them,” he has three opponents all heading medium-sized parties.

The other contenders

1. Yair Lapid and the centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party. A former journalist, Lapid is the current opposition leader in the Knesset.

  • What to watch: Lapid hasn't even declared that he wants to be prime minister, and he says he's willing to let someone else have the job in order to get rid of Netanyahu. Netanyahu has focused his campaign on Lapid, but he's largely failed to position it as a head-to-head contest.
  • By the numbers: Yesh Atid gets around 20 seats in the polls, a distant second to Netanyahu's Likud, which has around 30.

2. Naftali Bennett and the right-wing Yamina (To the Right) party. A former tech entrepreneur, Bennett focused his campaign on COVID-19 and the economy.

  • What to watch: While Bennett has stressed the need to replace Netanyahu, he hasn't ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led government. That could make him a kingmaker if the election results aren't definitive.
  • By the numbers: Yamina only polls at around 12 seats, but it could be impossible to form a coalition that excludes Netanyahu without handing Bennett the prime minister’s job.

3. Gideon Sa'ar and the right-wing New Hope party. Sa'ar, a former education and interior minister, left Likud in an attempt to position himself as a more old school and less populist right-wing alternative to Netanyahu.

  • By the numbers: Sa'ar's party has been sliding in the polls, from around 18 seats to nine in the latest polls.

The bottom line: Only a power-sharing deal between Lapid, Bennett and Sa'ar could produce a new Israeli government without Netanyahu. Such cooperation between the three of them will be very hard to get.

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