Could an Islamist be Israel's "kingmaker" now?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara cast their ballots in Israel's general election, at a polling station in Jerusalem March 23, 2021

It's an all-too familiar dance in Israel by now: politicians campaign, activists canvass, and the public laments another draining and inconclusive election. Rinse repeat.

Now for the fourth time in just two years, Israelis have voted in general elections. The polls are closed and the votes are being tallied. With 88 percent of votes now counted, what do we know so far and what are the possible outcomes?


It's a nail-biter. Polls from all major television networks predict incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu's Likud party will win the most parliamentary seats (about 30 out of 120). That was expected. But in order to retain the top job Bibi needs to hammer together a coalition that would hold a 61 seat majority, a tricky task for the divisive political giant. While Netanyahu has secured the backing of an alliance of ultra-Orthodox and Jewish ultra-nationalist parties — which includes extremist anti-LGBTQ candidates and a far-right anti-Arab faction — Bibi's pathway to 61 seats is extremely tenuous. While he needs the backing of his former protégé Naftali Bennett, whose right-wing Yamina (Rightwards) party reaped around six seats, it wont be enough to get him across the finish line. In order to form a majority coalition, the incumbent now needs to broaden his alliances beyond the far-right camp.

A massive development at the eleventh hour. The Ra'am party, an Islamist faction, passed the Knesset threshold, winning around five seats. That puts the party's leader, Mansour Abbas, in the unlikely position of "kingmaker" — a rarity in Israel's right-leaning political milieu. Abbas has not declared support for either Netanyahu or the anti-Bibi bloc. Either way, this development significantly diminishes Netanyahu's path to 61 seats.

How did other hopefuls do? The Yesh Atid (We have a future) party's Yair Lapid — the centrist candidate leading the anti-Bibi bloc — is slated to win roughly 17 seats, an underperformance according to pre-election polls. More concerning for Lapid, however, is that smaller parties whose support he would need to form a viable anti-Netanyahu coalition got obliterated at the ballot box. It was a particularly embarrassing night for Gideon Sa'ar, a one-time Netanyahu ally who defected from Likud last year and formed the New Hope party. New Hope is likely to finish up with a measly six parliamentary seats. (Sa'ar also hired consultants from the now disgraced Lincoln Project in the US to aid his campaign. Clearly, their services did not pay off.)

Low voter turnout. After three previous elections failed to break the current stalemate, it is not surprising that Israelis have lost confidence in the electoral system. While voter turnout was down across the board — 67.2 percent, the lowest since 2009 — the dip was particularly stark among eligible Arab Israelis, 37 percent of whom voted, down from 43.3 percent in March 2020. As a result, the Joint List, a coalition of Arab parties, is slated to win just six seats in the next Knesset, down from 15. This is a big blow for the anti-Netanyahu camp, which is counting on the moderate Arab coalition to boot Netanyahu from office.

Half a million "double envelope ballots" to count: Absentee ballots trickling in from soldiers and diplomats always take longer to count. But this time because of the COVID pandemic, there are roughly 600,000 "double envelope ballots" — representing 8 percent of all eligible voters — to be counted from ad hoc polling sites. It will take several days for these votes to be counted, and could certainly sway the final outcome. At the time of this writing, at least 450,000 of these ballots remain to be counted.

Will there be a fifth election? This is looking more likely. Even if Netanyahu manages to pull together a razor-thin edge, he may decide that a one-seat majority government would give too much power to extremists within his ranks and would be unstable. He could then choose to undermine the negotiations in the hopes of doing better next time. After all, Netanyahu wants most of all to form a stable government that can help him avoid an ongoing corruption trial.

Additionally, even if the anti-Bibi parties prevail, reaching a combined 61 seats, the loose alliance of Jewish secular, Jewish far-right, Islamist, and Jewish left-wing factions may be too unwieldy to sit in government together.

Patience is a virtue. Seasoned political analysts urged caution on Tuesday night, saying that during the last election in March 2020, exit polls overstated the Netanyahu camp's advantage and path to victory. That has already proven to be true. At this stage, it doesn't seem like the divided Knesset, which hasn't passed a national budget in three years, is likely to stabilize anytime soon. And given the ideological diversity within the two camps, a dreaded fifth election is appearing more likely.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

More Show less

Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

More Show less

In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

More Show less

When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

More Show less

YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

More Show less

Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

More Show less

28: The UK and the EU have again failed to agree on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. In a 28-page document, the British government had suggested further changes to trade rules that were already negotiated as part of the Brexit settlement, but Brussels was not having any of it.

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Watch episodes now

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Watch episodes now

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal