Will Israel's Next Government Unite Arabs and Racist Kahanists? | Opinion

Final results of Israel's fourth consecutive election are now in and once again, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his bloc failed to reach 61 seats, the magic number needed to form a governing coalition. The chairs of our political system have been slightly rearranged, but alas, nothing has happened to change our course, or even indicate which way—if any—the state will go.

For the next two months, there will be Herculean attempts to form a government by both Netanyahu and an agreed-upon leader of the opposition. But with the results in, Netanyahu has just 52 confirmed supporters, far short of the 61 he needs to form a coalition. In order to succeed and remain prime minister, Netanyahu must simultaneously gain support from the Islamic Ra'am party while maintaining the backing of the National Religious Party—which contains racist, ultra-nationalists anti-Arabs, who have already declared that such a marriage, in any form, is a non-starter.

On the other hand, Netanyahu's opponents need the support of at least one of the Arab Israeli parties, something that would have once been a non-starter, even for the centrist opposition, but has become a possibility ironically due to Likud supporters proposing a coalition with Ra'am.

It's doubly ironic because weakening the Arab Israeli parties was one of Netanyahu's chief goals during the campaign, which also focused on dividing his primary opponents, ensuring the parties on the far-right-wing united, so as not to lose any right-wing votes, and convincing Israelis that he had done an excellent job of ending the Covid crisis.

They were not, it would seem, convinced. The opposition's message—that Netanyahu may have done an exceptional job bringing COVID-19 vaccines to Israelis, the Prime Minister did a terrible job managing this crisis—seems to have won the day; Netanyahu fared worse this election cycle than in the previous three, despite having vaccinated 60 percent of the electorate. Netanyahu's dependency on the ultra-Orthodox led to his failure to enforce COVID regulations in that sector, which meant he struggled to control the virus effectively.

Of course, the opposition did not let Israelis lose sight of the fact that Netanyahu was about to stand trial for corruption, hammering home the point that someone amidst a corruption trial should not be entrusted to run the country.

Unfortunately for whoever ends up ruling, Netanyahu did a superb job ensuring no votes on the far right-wing were wasted. He engineered the joint run of three of the most outlying right-wing parties, engineering their victory and providing a seal of approval to homophobic parties, to a leader who was a follower of the racist demagogue Meir Kahane and who kept a portrait of the Jewish terrorist who murdered Arabs in the Hebron mosque in his living room. For his short-term political gain, Netanyahu placed a permanent stain on the Israeli government, and perhaps ironically, blocked his one path to remain Prime Minister—as the National Religious party (with six seats) have unequivocally ruled out a coalition supported by the Arab Ra'am party, even indirectly.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ALEX KOLOMIENSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Netanyahu also succeeded in his campaign to weaken Arab voter turnout. He romanced the Islamic Ra'am party leader into breaking from the Arab Joint List. Ra'am instead ran on a clear agenda of becoming a player in the next Israeli government by offering their support to whoever would most help Arab citizens. Netanyahu also campaigned in Arab Israeli towns, pretending he had support there. As a result, turnout in the Arab Israeli sector was down, and the two Arab lists received a combined ten votes, down from the 15 seats earned by the full Joint List in the last election.

So what happens next? There are three possible scenarios:

The least likely is that Netanyahu manages to form a government with the support of the Arab Raam Party, despite the statement of his National Religious partners that they would never agree to it. Politics do indeed make strange bedfellows, though this is probably a bridge too far.

The second possible outcome is that despite their wide ideological gaps, the opponents manage to unite and form a government with the support of one or both Arab parties. It is not clear who would be the leader in such a government, but it could potentially be Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennet, Benny Gantz, or Gideon Saar.

If that happens, one positive outcome will have emerged from Israel's two years of continuous elections: the final integration of Arab Israeli parties into the mainstream of Israeli politics.

There is, of course, another genuine option, that of a dreaded fifth election. It is undoubtedly a real possibility that no one will be able to form a government. If that were to happen, the next election would in all likelihood take place in November, and by election day, Benny Gantz will be Prime Minister, based on the signed agreement that formed the current government.

It should be noted that Prime Minister Netanyahu's trial begins in 10 days. Three days a week, the prosecution will present their evidence against Netanyahu, and according to the law, Netanyahu will have to be in the courtroom for those days.

Historians of this chapter in Israel's history will wonder how a Prime Minister who failed in four election campaigns and was under indictment for a myriad of corruption charges maintained his party's support.

The answer might be found in the response of one senior Likud Minister a few days before the elections to the quest of how Netanyahu could keep on going, despite all the challenges. The minister replied, "When God wants you to lead the Jewish people, you have no choice."

To many, Netanyahu has become a god-like figure. To most, however, based on the election result, he is a politician who may have done notable good, but whose expiration point has passed. The next three months will determine whose view is correct.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.