Only a few weeks ago, it felt as if the Israeli elections—the fifth round in three years—wasn’t about anything. Then, on September 22, caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid briefly made this election matter.
In the past four elections, Israelis went to the polls knowing very well that the results would have very little impact on their lives. Elections haven’t been about the skyrocketing cost of living, deteriorating environment, fraught educational system, increasing social violence, conflict with Iran, or deteriorating personal security—and they certainly have not been about resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
These previous elections have focused almost solely on one question: whether Benjamin Netanyahu, commonly known as Bibi, is fit to be prime minister. “To Bibi or not to Bibi,” you might say is the question. Up until last year, when he was replaced for one year by Naftali Bennett and then Lapid, Netanyahu served as prime minister for twelve consecutive years and held the position for a total of 15 years. Should he continue, even though he is currently on trial in Israel for bribery, fraud and breach of trust?
But last week, in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Lapid changed the narrative by calling for Palestinian statehood. “An agreement with the Palestinians, based on two states for two peoples, is the right thing for Israel’s security, for Israel’s economy and for the future of our children,” he declared.
With that, he renewed one of the deepest divisions in Israeli society since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Now publicists, politicians and just about everyone else are debating the merits and faults of the two-state solution. With just 29 words, Lapid took charge of the electoral agenda and steered it away from “to Bibi or not to Bibi.” As political commentator Yossi Verter, writing in the liberal daily Haaretz, cynically put it, “A few generic sentences about the need for a two-state solution ‘on condition that the Palestinian state will seek peace and not become another base for terror’ has incited a godawful riot in our little shtetl straight out of Fiddler on the Roof.”
In Israel’s parliamentary system, members of Knesset are not elected directly, but rather as members of party slates. To gain a seat in the Knesset, a slate must pass the qualifying electoral threshold, which is currently 3.25 percent of the votes cast, equivalent to a minimum of four seats. Forty parties, most of them micro-groups based on sectarian, particular or other interests, are running in the current campaign. Only 11 or 12 of them are actually expected to cross the threshold.
To become prime minister, the head of a party, such as Netanyahu, must gain enough votes to form a coalition with at least 61 seats. To prevent that, the opposition needs a minimum of 60. In all of Israel’s history, no party has ever garnered enough votes to be free of a coalition. In this election, no single party is likely to receive more than about 33 seats, according to most polls.
Israeli elections have become exercises in basic arithmetic. Voters consider which party to vote for, and politicians consider which issue or individual to support according to a simple equation: Will their support help or hinder Bibi from reaching the magic 61? Most parties haven’t even published platforms. For example, Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party led by Aryeh Deri, has recently plastered huge signs all over religious communities throughout Israel with the simple slogan, “Bibi needs a strong Aryeh.” The message is clear: Vote for Shas, and we’ll be strong supporters of Bibi. By voting for Deri, you get Netanyahu, too. Two wins with one vote.
The permutations for the creation of a coalition government are almost infinite. Small parties, like Shas, can become kingmakers and enjoy disproportionate power. Criticism within the right is silenced in the name of “not giving support to Bibi’s opponents,” while criticism within the left is silenced in the name of “don’t break the ranks against Bibi.”
Support for or opposition to Netanyahu have become litmus tests of identity in Israel, proxies for the conflicting views for the future of Israeli society. Netanyahu’s supporters—popularly known as Bibi-ists—believe that he is a once-in-a-century leader who is unjustly vilified by the anti-Jewish left because he emphasizes the Jewish character of Israel over its secular attachment to the West. His opponents view him as manipulative, divisive, anti-democratic in the style of Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump and willing to do anything—including destroying Israel’s justice system and allying himself with the far right—in order to save himself from going to prison.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if Lapid was serious about the two-state solution and showed his “true colors” as a closet leftist, as his opponents on the far-right accuse, or if he was merely trying to get attention, as his opponents on the far-left accuse. His declaration has no practical implications, as Palestinian President Mahmoud’s Abbas speech at the UN and rejection of Lapid’s ostensibly outstretched arm made clear.
Lapid’s declaration was aimed at Israeli society, not at Palestinians, in any case. It was meant to show that Lapid can set an agenda. That he has depth and gravitas. That Lapid, who has little experience as a political leader compared to Netanyahu’s more than a decade and a half in power, should be taken seriously.
Will the change in the tone of the elections last? In Israeli politics, issues noisily and briefly bubble up, then sink back to “anybody but Netanyahu/only Netanyahu” like quicksand. Nor is the timing particularly good for serious debate, with most Israelis now observing the holidays, which go through Sukkot. Schools are closed, most people try to go on vacation, and the public is notoriously uninterested in much of anything.
The holiday season ends on October 17th. Elections are scheduled for November 1st. But at least for a few weeks, we could delude ourselves that these elections are about something substantive and not just about whether to Bibi or not to Bibi.