Seven ways Israel's 2021 election redrew the political map

Every election changes Israel’s political map and thus its future.

WORKERS COUNT ballots of quarantined voters, at a tent in the Central Elections Committee warehouse in Shoham in March. (Flash90)  (photo credit: FLASH90)
WORKERS COUNT ballots of quarantined voters, at a tent in the Central Elections Committee warehouse in Shoham in March. (Flash90)
(photo credit: FLASH90)
Israelis might feel like they are in political groundhog day, in which the only choices before them are a right-wing government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or the specter of a fifth election in under two and a half years.
But every election changes Israel’s political map and thus its future. Here are seven from this week’s ballot:
Arab party becomes a kingmaker
The absence of Israeli-Arab parties from the government for over 40 years has ensured that both their parties and their political agendas have been on the periphery of Israeli politics.
The failure of left-wing parties to form a government in past years has rested in part on the failure to cross what had become a Rubicon of Israeli politics: the presumption that Israeli-Arab parties could not be part of a coalition.
Without Israeli-Arab parties it is not possible to form a Left or center-left coalition, a fact that has allowed for the Israeli Right, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to remain in power.
In the previous election campaigns, Netanyahu warned against allowing a left-wing government where Israeli-Arab would control the agenda to lead the country.
This time, he indicated that in order to form a coalition he would consider relying on Ra’am Party head Mansour Abbas as an exterior partner to a narrow coalition of slightly less than the required 61 mandates. One could even argue that this support for the Religious Zionist party with its extreme right-wing politician Itamar Ben-Gvir was designed to allay criticisms should he make such a move.
Netanyahu’s nod of legitimization, however slight, toward Ra’am broke through a four-decade freeze, and suddenly made the idea of an Israeli-Arab party in a coalition seem acceptable.
Neither Netanyahu or Lapid can form a government without him. This means that Abbas’s party, with just four mandates, has placed him in the heart of the country’s political drama, moving Israeli-Arabs and their agenda from the periphery to the center of the stage.
Gantz shows he’s here to stay
It might seem strange to consider that a man who headed an umbrella party, that ran neck-to-neck with Netanyahu for three elections running and who successfully negotiated a rotation prime ministerial rotation with Netanyahu – who hates power-sharing – might then disappear from the political map.
Still, political pundits had predicted that Gantz – whose umbrella party of 33 mandates in the 2020 election broke apart when he entered Netanyahu’s coalition in 2020 – would not muster enough support to enter the Knesset.
At issue in particular was Gantz’s broken pledge in 2019 and 2020 that he would not sit with Netanyahu, only to cave and broker an agreement with him. It was believed he had so lost public trust that no one would vote for him, even though he painted himself as a politician best suited to block Netanyahu’s right-wing agenda.
Gantz’s strong showing cements him as a leading politician combined with his history as a former IDF chief of staff, makes him a power broker in any coalition. Although he has aligned himself with the anti-Netanyahu camp, as in the past, he has also painted himself as someone who stands strong against Netanyahu either from within or from without.
Left-wing parties get new lease on life
In the 2020 election, the combined left-wing parties of Labor, Meretz and an independent politician, Orly Levy-Abekasis of the Gesher Party, won only seven seats. It was the lowest-ever showing for the Israeli Left in any election.
Pollsters initially gave neither Meretz nor Labor a chance of passing the threshold, then predicted that Labor would enter the Knesset and Meretz would be wiped out.
Instead, both parties surged back to life, with Meretz headed by Nitzan Horowitz garnering six votes and Labor led by Merav Michaeli receiving seven, for a total of 13 seats.
Small parties dominate
Those who want electoral reform have often spoken of the need for large parties. At issue is the ability of a small party to dominate the agenda.
Even without that reform, the Likud and Blue and White received over 60 combined votes in the three elections held in 2019 and 2020, leaving room for few other parties. This time around, the voters split into 13 parties, of which nine had only four to seven seats. There has not been this many small parties since 2003.
Religious Zionism resurgence
The Religious Zionists led by the unabashedly right-wing Betzalel Smotrich, who for two elections running had taken a back seat to Yamina party Naftali Bennett’s increasingly centrist agenda, successfully broke free and proved that he had political clout on his own by receiving six seats.
In the April 2019 election, an initial form of the party called the Union of Right Wing Parties received enough seats to sit in the Knesset, but a government was never formed.
Now a movement that had once been linked with the more centrist national religious philosophy has climbed back onto the stage as the most far right-leaning party. It combined with Itamar Ben-Gvir’s ultra-national Otzma Yehudi party, often seen as the legal successor to the outlawed Kahanist Kach party. This is a particular triumph for Otzma Yehudi party, which first tried to run for the Knesset in 2013.
Netanyahu campaigned for the party, and the understanding is that it would enter the coalition. It is expected to help Netanyahu stymie any international pressure to modify a pro-settler agenda.
Bennett stands on his own
Right-wing Yamina Party head Naftali Bennett failed to emerge as Netanyahu’s chief rival, a spot he had campaigned to obtain and which Lapid secured at 17 seats.
Instead, he came in at seven seats, the fifth-largest party in real numbers, after campaigning on national global issues such as COVID-19 and the economy, while treating issues relating to the settlements as almost a secondary concern.
When he first ran without the national religious in April 2019, he was wiped out. For two elections he ran with them, then split apart from them, to emerge with enough support to show that has widened his base in a way that makes him a politician with possible broad base appeal in the future.
A mandate for Netanyahu to lead
The election delivered Netanyahu a resounding victory, not because of the number of mandates – 30 – that were the lowest he has received during the four elections over the last two years. But it did confirm that he still is the most popular politician on the Israeli scene.
He stood out from the field of 13 parties by a margin of 13 seats, when compared with the next largest party, Yesh Atid, which received 17 mandates at latest count.
During the seven prime ministerial campaigns Netanyahu has waged in his career, he has never so thoroughly bested the competition. At times, he came in second, or survived only because he was in a combined party. It’s a particularly astounding victory for a man who is slated to stand trial for corruption charges.
That success gap gives him a clear mandate for leadership both domestically and internationally. It is a unique situation for a country to have a government for only seven months within a two-year period.
Netanyahu’s staying power through each election has allowed him to continue to represent Israel on the international stage as the prime minister with almost the same power as if he were the head of a government. Tuesday’s result will strengthen that role during the ensuing negotiation period to form a government.