Israel’s election result gives rise to string of speculation about pacts —including with Islamists

United Arab List ready for talks on government formation · Anti-Netanyahu bloc seeks to form heterogeneous coalition to oust him

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu during the election campaign.
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu during the election campaign. Author: Benjamin Netanyahu's Twitter account
The fourth election in two years in Israel has again left a fragmented parliamentary arc with no solid majority for either bloc. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud has again secured the Knesset’s main parliamentary group (30 seats out of 120 with almost all votes counted) but, combining with its usual partners, the party does not reach the 61 seats needed to form a government.

The bloc that Netanyahu could a priori gather around him includes both ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, parties (Shas, with 9 seats, and Torah United Judaism, with 7), far-right Zionist Religious Party (6) and right-wing Yamina (7), the party of former Defence Minister Naftali Bennett. The results —almost definitive— show these parties will be left with 59 seats.

Even more: it is not even clear that Yamina will join the coalition. Bennett left Netanyahu’s government in May 2020 —when Likud reached a government deal with Benny Gantz’s Liberal Blue and White party— and is now reluctant to commit himself to support the prime minister.

But even if Netanyahu and Bennett finally got along, the bloc would still be missing 2 seats. A first possibility would be to try to get the support of a couple of defectors from the two right-wing parties opposed to Netanyahu: Yisrael Beytenu (7 seats) and New Hope (6). Number 2 on the New Hope list, Yifat Shasha-Biton, has said she has already had to turn down a Likud offer to leave her group and join instead a new Netanyahu cabinet.

The seemingly unlikely option: an agreement with the Islamists

The other option for Netanyahu is to seek support from the United Arab List (UAL), an Arab Islamist party in the tradition of the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAL has won 4 seats that can give Netanyahu a majority. UAL’s leader Mansour Abbas has said he is “not ruling out anyone” for a pact, as long as —he warned— socio-economic problems faced by Israel’s Arabs are addressed. The Israel Hayom newspaper, known for its pro-Netanyahu leanings, says the UAL has already begun talks with the Netanyahu bloc.

Within the Likud, a deal with the Islamists —which a priori would not get them into government— is divisive. Some Likud lawmakers believe it would be a lesser evil that helps avoid a fifth election, although Netanyahu initially ruled out the pact. Outside of the Likud, Naftali Bennett also opposes such a deal.

The United Arab List has also warned that it would be very difficult for it to take part in an agreement involving the Zionist Religious Party, which is openly anti-Arab and whose leader, Bezalel Smotrich, talks about implementing Jewish religious law in Israel. Smotrich, for his part, has ruled out negotiating any kind of support, internal or external, with Abbas’s party. That veto would once again prevent Netanyahu from reaching the 61 seats he needs.

Despite Abbas’ rapprochement to Netanyahu, the UAL has also acknowledged that a centre-left coalition could be more receptive to its demands than a right-wing one.

The division of the Arab parties

The United Arab List had been a member of the Joint List — the alliance of Israel’s Arab parties— until it decided to leave it in February. The other Arab parties consider Mansour Abbas to be an unreliable partner, as he has cultivated political relations with Netanyahu in recent months. Added to this is the ideological divide between the UAL’s conservative Islamism as opposed to the secular progressivism of other Arab parties.

Abbas believes that sooner or later he can come to terms with the Israeli right on two problems hitting Israel’s Arab communities —crime and urban overcrowding— from a socially conservative perspective.

It is a path opposed to that advocated by the Joint List parties, who reject collaboration with the Israeli right. The Joint List alternatively prefers a broad agreement that encompasses the entire Israeli political spectrum from the centre to the left. In that bloc, liberal Yesh Atid, which has won 17 seats, is the largest party. Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid has said during the campaign that he would be willing to seek support from the Joint List (6 seats).

But this bloc, which also includes liberal Blue and White (8 seats), social democratic Labor Party (7) and Meretz (6), does not have a majority either. Not even if the two right-wing parties opposed to Netanyahu (Yisrael Beytenu and New Hope) join it: with them, the bloc stands at 57 seats.

Thus, Lapid —or any other leader who tries, like Gantz— should also add the support of the UAL’s 4 MPs, or count on Bennett finally turning his back on Netanyahu. In this case, Yamina’s involvement would render the Islamist party’s support unnecessary.

With one or the other, it would be a predictably unstable agreement, with eight right-, centre- and left-wing parties united by a single interest: removing Netanyahu from office, for which some sources point to a manoeuvre agreed by several parties to pass a law in Parliament to prevent the Prime Minister from taking office again. Regardless of this, this Ynet’s analysis details other combinations for government formation, but for each and every one, the newspaper concludes that their odds are slim.

Fifth election in sight?

On 7 April, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is due to task a leader to form a government. Since Likud has been by far the most voted party, in theory this person should be Netayahu. If before that date someone else —Lapid, Gantz...— can assure for himself or herself the support of 61 lawmakers, that person could directly be tasked. If the first candidate fails, the president may task another leader.

According to Israeli media, weeks of talks and negotiations are expected. If no one is finally able to reach the figure of 61, or if a coalition is formed but does not last long, Israel would be heading for its fifth election since April 2019.