icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
Explaining Israel’s Wave of Violence
Explaining Israel’s Wave of Violence
Two Years, Four Elections: The Twists and Turns of Israel’s Political Deadlock
Two Years, Four Elections: The Twists and Turns of Israel’s Political Deadlock

Explaining Israel’s Wave of Violence

Originally published in Moment Magazine

A wave of violence has gripped Israel, stirring questions of a Third Intifada. In this interview with Moment Magazine, Crisis Group's Senior Analyst for Israel/Palestine Ofer Zalzberg explains how the violence began and what can be done to quell it.

Moment Magazine: What spurred this latest round of violence?

Ofer Zalzberg: The violence was triggered during the Jewish High Holidays by developments at the Holy Esplanade in Jerusalem – known to Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as Al-Haram Al-Sharif. For years there have been clashes at the site during these holidays because the increasingly large numbers of religious Jews who ascend to the esplanade (thousands annually today, up from hundreds two decades ago) raise fear among Palestinian Muslims that the site would no longer be an exclusive site of Muslim worship as it has been for centuries. They fear the esplanade would be effectively divided, with separate prayer times for Jews and Muslims. This is far from being the first time that the site is the epicenter of violence. Being of paramount religious and national importance to both Jews and Palestinians, developments at the site over the last century have repeatedly led to large-scale violence at the site and beyond it.

The immediate trigger this year was Israel shifting its access and policing policy at the Esplanade just before this year’s High Holidays began in mid-September. On September 14th, Israel resumed the highly detrimental practice of limiting access to Muslims below a certain age (40 during Rosh Hashanah and 50 during Sukkot). This while religious Jews — including Israeli agriculture minister Uri Ariel and a group of young Likud activists — visited the site and declared in front of cameras that the ban on non-Muslim worship on the Esplanade should end. This reinforced among Palestinians the sense that the government is intent on dividing up the Esplanade’s visiting hours between Jews and Muslims.

The role of Israeli political leaders is particularly significant. It suggests to Palestinians that Jewish ascenders who seek to allow Jewish prayer at the site are not a fringe group but supported by the Israeli government. This impression has become much stronger over the last few years — particularly during the previous Knesset, in which the political activism from Likud and Jewish Home members regarding the Temple Mount was unprecedented. Senior politicians — ministers, deputy ministers and heads of Knesset committees — made repeated, explicit statements to the effect that the status quo should be changed in order to allow Jewish prayer at the Esplanade. The chairperson of the Knesset Interior Committee convened the committee an unprecedented 15 times to discuss the situation, notably prodding the Israel Police to punitively limit access to all Muslims when young Palestinians throw stones at the Israel Police. She also promoted draft legislation to divide prayer times between Jews and Muslims.

There was more. Then-Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Moshe Feiglin convened the Knesset’s first plenary session about Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount. And several ministers and deputy ministers repeatedly ascended, declaring in front of cameras that Israel should assert its full sovereignty over the site. The Ministry of Religious Services prepared prayer regulations for the Temple Mount, which proposed dividing prayer times between Jews and Muslims. And officials at the Israel Ministry of Tourism promoted allocating two of the nine Muslim-only entrances to non-Muslim entry. In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Israel is committed to the status quo, but virtually never publicly expressed opposition to these moves or explained Israel’s interest in preserving the status quo.

In short, escalation regarding the Holy Esplanade — primarily a result of political activism in Israel — has been building since 2012.

It is important to note that all these developments fell on attentive ears. Since the 1930s, Palestinians like the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini have alleged — without any evidence as far as I know — that Israel intends to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and build a temple in its stead. Sheikh Raed Salah, a prominent Israeli Islamist leader, has similarly been stoking the fire between Israel and Muslims worldwide by arguing since the mid-1990s without any clear evidence that Al-Aqsa is in danger because Israel is digging under the mosque and intends to ultimately destroy it and replace it with a Temple. The slogan “Al-Aqsa in danger” was endorsed by many Muslim and Arab leaders, but more as a talking point against Israel than as a call for urgent mobilization in the face of an imminent threat.

But the “Al-Aqsa in danger” campaign also raised concerns that Israel would do at the Esplanade what it did in Hebron in 1994, when it divided the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs — until then exclusively a mosque — into part mosque and part synagogue. With Israeli political activism regarding such temporal division growing, changes to Israeli policing at the Esplanade transformed in the minds of many Palestinians a distant potential threat into a dramatic and imminent one.

Israelis largely see limitations on Muslim access through the lens of security. But Palestinians see collective punishment and a step toward division of the site.

Can you explain the significance of the status quo agreement regarding Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa?

The status quo is more of an arrangement than an agreement. There is no written document establishing how Israel and Jordan are to administer the site, primarily because Jordan sees Israel as an occupier at the site and fears an explicit agreement would grant it some legitimacy at the site.

For Muslims, the main written reference is Ottoman custom and decrees that established the Esplanade as a mosque that all can visit but where only Muslims can pray. This is an understanding of the site in which Israel’s entire involvement is basically illegitimate.

For Israeli Jews the tendency is to focus on the de facto arrangement reached between Israel and the Waqf, an Islamic body affiliated with Jordan charged with administering the site shortly after the 1967 Six-Day War ended. Israel agreed to have Judaism’s holiest site maintained by Muslims, and to ban non-Muslim prayer there, but took control over one of the ten gates of the Esplanade in order to independently ensure the free access of Jews to the site.

Jordan has acquiesced to administering the site with Israel in this way and calls for sticking to it in the interim – basically, until full resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is achieved. Palestinians are largely unhappy with Jordan and Israel administering the site “above their heads” — an exemplar of Palestinian exclusion — but the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) came to see it as the least-bad scenario and in international forums calls for its preservation.

With an eye to these very different understandings of the status quo, it is clear that for Israel, Jordan and the PLO, the status quo in the sense of a commitment to at least the basic contours of the arrangement — the ban on non-Muslim prayer, the site’s administration by a Muslim power — is the most they can agree upon. It is a suboptimal equilibrium but a relatively violence-free equilibrium.

In short, the status quo’s significance is that respecting the existing reality is the only semi-principled argument the leaders can present to their constituents to justify their complicity in an arrangement that is viscerally perceived as illegitimate.

Israeli officials are calling these “inspiration attacks” rather than “guidance terror attacks.” What’s the difference? Why are “inspiration attacks” more challenging to foil?

Guided terror attacks are the ones perpetrated by organizations that have structure and hierarchy, which allow their leaders to order the members whether and how to carry out an attack and to provide them with the necessary financial and logistical support. Inspiration attacks are those in which the perpetrator is motivated by what he or she sees on virtual social networks like Facebook, on TV or elsewhere, without any orders from above or organizational support.

Inspiration attacks are more difficult to foil because they are spontaneous, with virtually no intelligence-gathering possible simply because no communication with partners or purchase of arms precedes them. Such perpetrators may themselves not know on the day before that they’ll carry out an attack tomorrow

Some are warning that this is the beginning of the Third Intifada. Is it?

It is too soon to tell. Perhaps. It depends on what we mean when we employ the term “intifada.” Taken to literally mean a popular uprising, the current patterns of lone attackers and scattered protests of several hundred people fall far short of full popular mobilization. A year ago, during the Gaza War, we saw at the center of each East Jerusalem neighborhood protests throughout the night, which were reminiscent of those of the First Intifada. We don’t see this now, though that may change. And whether popular mobilization emerges or not, if the majority of Palestinians would come to call the current violence the Third Intifada, then for all practical purposes that would settle the debate.

For now, a major factor inhibiting more comprehensive popular mobilization is that the governments in both Gaza and the West Bank do not themselves mobilize people to participate in attacks against Israelis. They allow protestors to get in direct contact with Israeli soldiers and they rhetorically support some attacks, but they do not themselves recruit and participate in the way that, for example, the Palestinian Authority did during the Second Intifada.

This weekend saw the first attempted suicide bombing of the violence. Is the violence escalating?

Yes, we are seeing an escalation. I would not be surprised if we saw more suicide bombings soon. Some Palestinian factions are trying to ride the popular wave by equipping the young attackers who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that their impact would be greater and so that the organization could claim to have inflicted more damage to Israel.

The success of this tactic depends largely on the security coordination between Israel and the PA. So far, they have successfully foiled such attempts, but this may not last forever.

Beyond this, we have already seen some missiles fired by Salafi jihadi groups at Israel. Israel reacted by destroying Hamas-related targets and, according to Palestinian sources, killing a mother and her baby who happened to be nearby. So far Hamas has avoided itself firing at Israel. It seems to clearly not be currently interested in yet another Gaza War. But Hamas has faced increased public pressure for Gaza to confront Israel and has therefore allowed the militant group Islamic Jihad to organize protests near the fence — demonstrations in which several Palestinians have been killed and at the very least have created the impression that Gaza is shouldering some of the burden of the current escalation. But it is impossible to rule out that the killing of many civilians in Gaza, even inadvertent, would lead to yet another Gaza War.

Netanyahu said that “civilians are at the forefront of the war on terrorism”; there have been reports of sold-out pepper spray stocks and increased interest in Krav Maga classes. Is this a typical civilian reaction in Israel?

Not as far as I recall. The late Rabbi Meir Kahane organized so-called self defense groups, but this was a fringe phenomenon. This popular reaction reflects a high sense of vulnerability, in light of the difficulty of preventing inspiration attacks. This sense is fed, among other things, by calls of Israeli mayors encouraging their residents to carry arms in order to defend themselves, suggesting that Israel’s security forces could be insufficient.

Netanyahu has blamed the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and the Islamic Movement in Israel for incitement; on Sunday, he singled out MK Haneen Zoabi. Is there a particular group or person responsible for inciting violence?

Netanyahu labels as “incitement” both calls for direct violence and purposeful mischaracterization of what the Israeli government is doing, which increases anger and support for violence against it even if it falls short of calling for direct violence.

Fatah and Hamas leaders have in recent weeks practiced both kinds of incitement. Netanyahu argues that so has MK Zoabi. PA President Mahmoud Abbas himself, according to senior officials from Israel’s own Shin Bet, has not been calling for violence against Israelis. He has, however, used unprecedentedly strong terms regarding Israel’s moves at the Holy Esplanade and has allowed official Palestinian Authority media to employ a combative line not seen since the Second Intifada.

That said, the discussion about incitement has to be done carefully so as not to lose sight of questions about the degree to which Palestinian violence is a reaction to Israeli policies. There are also questions regarding the degree to which some leaders within Israel — be they politicians, religious leaders or others — take part in inciting violence against the Palestinian population.

What can be done to ease tensions and stem the violence?

Four fronts should be addressed: the Holy Esplanade, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israel’s Arab citizens.

While the escalation is no longer exclusively about the Holy Esplanade, it still is a central motivating factor and must be robustly addressed. It should be made clear that Israel is not working to destroy the mosque and that it does not intend to temporally divide the Esplanade. It would be helpful if Jordan, Israel and Palestinians coordinated regular monitoring of the site, performed perhaps by internationally recognized Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists. If the Jordanian royal court and the PA presidency publicly supported their findings, it would become much more difficult for the “Al-Aqsa in danger” campaign to succeed. And the government should distance itself from the fringe group of Temple activists by cutting governmental financial support to non-profits they lead, like the Temple Institute, and curtailing their access to Israel’s education system: between 50,000 and 60,000 Jewish religious pupils annually attend as part of their school curricula educational activities of the Temple Institute in which it is taught, in contradiction to the view of the vast majority of rabbis in Israel, that according to Jewish religious law the Temple can and should be built already now at the current site of the Dome of the Rock.

In East Jerusalem, where violence is motivated by a deep sense of relative deprivation due to the dramatic differences between the Arab and Jewish parts of the city, it would be politically helpful if, in addition to putting in place new generously funded policies to address the social and economic gaps, Israel and the PA found a way for local Jerusalemite Palestinian leadership to emerge. This leadership would voice the interests of the Palestinian population of the city in front of international donors, the Jordanian Waqf and perhaps indirectly also the Jerusalem municipality. This is tricky for the PA, which would like to have a more direct foothold in East Jerusalem – a notion Israel’s current coalition cannot stomach – and for Israel, which since the Second Intifada has consistently foiled any attempt at an East Jerusalemite leadership, fearing it would threaten Israel’s rule. But the parties who want a Palestinian body that would be able to calm young East Jerusalemites need to realize they have to give it some power, albeit limited and conditional on constructive use.

In the West Bank, Netanyahu’s declaration last week to freeze settlement construction should be bolstered by a public commitment not to build in places that could violate the contiguity of the future Palestinian state. But that is highly unlikely to happen in this government. What may be possible is for the government to distance itself from the practice of virtual impunity for settler violence — as far as I know, there isn’t a single case in which Israeli courts have sent perpetrators of such violence to prison for such attacks. Palestinian attackers and protestors are currently very motivated by calls for revenge against these attacks, particularly the brutal torching of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir last summer and the Dawabsheh family in July. Indicting the culprits would be helpful. So would the outlawing of nonprofit organizations associated with such violence. The Israeli government seems to be advancing toward outlawing of a nonprofit called Lehava, whose activists have for years called to violently attack Palestinians.

Finally, within Israel, it seems that the main motivating and mobilizing factor is the sense of many of Israel’s Arab citizens that the Israel Police is often arbitrarily violent toward them and does not treat them as equal citizens. If the government can demonstrate that policemen who behave this way will be sanctioned and that different policies will be instated, that could help to calm the situation.

All four fronts face a common obstacle: Leaders on all sides would have to leave their political comfort zone. Netanyahu is already losing public support to more hawkish leaders. Abbas would have to cooperate with a set of actions that would at best deliver much less than what he would like: actual, rapid, serious movement toward ending the occupation. Hamas leaders would need to de-escalate in the West Bank and Gaza in spite of the gains they have made in Palestinian public support since the violence began. It is very doubtful that all these leaders will muster such courage, even if calm is arguably in their best interest: it would restore Netanyahu’s image among Israelis as the leader who can provide them with security, it would reduce the growing calls to remove Abbas from power after his failed strategy of diplomacy, and it would help Hamas avoid another war between Israel and Gaza.

It is more likely that the leaders would pursue more limited moves that won’t totally eliminate the violence. Whatever new reality emerges from this escalation will likely be one in which the daily level of violence is higher than it was before.

Labourers walk past a Blue and White party election campaign banner depicting its leader, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the March 23 ballot, in Tel Aviv, Israel March 14, 2021. REUTERS/Corinna Kern

Two Years, Four Elections: The Twists and Turns of Israel’s Political Deadlock

Israelis go to the polls – yet again – on 23 March. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Mairav Zonszein lays out the stakes for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the direction of Israel’s domestic politics and foreign policy.

This publication is part of a joint initiative between the International Crisis Group and the United States/Middle East Project (USMEP) to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What is this election about?

This election seems to be about one thing only: should Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be in or out? More substantively, it is about whether the hybrid opposition to Netanyahu (spanning right to left) can muster enough votes to break a two-year stalemate and end his hegemony in Israeli politics. Since 2019, Netanyahu, the longest-serving premier in the country’s history, has been unable to form a stable working majority. Then again, neither have his opponents – hence, Israel has held four elections in the intervening time (and nobody is ruling out a fifth).

No matter what happens, the next Israeli government will lean right.

The election is not about the fundamental direction of Israeli politics. No matter what happens, the next Israeli government will lean right. The Knesset’s 120 seats will likely be divided roughly 80 to 40 along ideological lines, with right-leaning secular and religious parties in the majority, and centrist, leftist and Palestinian political forces in the minority. This basic breakdown represents the continued rightward shift in the make-up of Israel’s parliament, and indeed of its voting public, as well as the continued absence of a weighty liberal-left camp in the country.

But because anti-Netanyahu sentiment crosses the ideological lines, several outcomes are possible.

Beyond the basics, what sort of outcome should we expect?

Recent polls suggest that this fourth round of elections in two years will probably not produce a clear outcome and governing coalition. The pro-Netanyahu camp has a narrow path to victory, while the anti-Netanyahu camp has a slight numerical edge but comprises a range of parties from hard right to left that have little in common except their desire to oust Netanyahu.

The pro-Netanyahu right-wing bloc consists of his own Likud, two ultra-Orthodox parties – United Torah Judaism and Shas – and the far-right Religious Zionism alliance. The anti-Netanyahu bloc includes his primary centrist competitor, Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party that is projected to become the Knesset’s second largest, followed by his two rivals on the right, Naftali Bennett of Yamina and Likud defector Gideon Sa’ar of the freshly formed New Hope. These parties are followed in projected size by the Joint List of three parties that primarily represent the Palestinian citizens of Israel; Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu; the Labour party, now headed by Merav Michaeli; and at the bottom, centrist Blue and White, left-leaning Meretz and the United Arab List, which are all hovering close to the electoral threshold, according to polls. In Israel, a party must garner 3.25 per cent of the total vote to win seats in the Knesset.

In Israel, a party must garner 3.25 per cent of the total vote to win seats in the Knesset.

There is no main contender in this election with whom Netanyahu is going head to head, as there was in the last contest, when it seemed that there were two competing blocs and a choice of prime minister between him and Benny Gantz, then of Blue and White. Blue and White went from being the largest party in the September 2019 election to struggling to survive in the lead-up to this one, having split and had its leader Gantz join a coalition government with Netanyahu (reneging on his core pre-election commitment). That coalition dissolved after just seven months, due to predictable differences between Netanyahu and Gantz, which became irreconcilable after the failure to pass a budget.

Though practically decimated, Blue and White nevertheless remains a wild card in the 23 March polls, as do Meretz, Religious Zionism and the United Arab List, the other parties in danger of not reaching the electoral threshold. Any party receiving less than 3.25 per cent of the vote will forfeit its votes, potentially tipping the election results one way or another. But only one threatened party – Religious Zionism – is overtly in the Netanyahu camp, so threshold failure is likely to favour the sitting prime minister. The fact that so many parties, both old and new, will barely make it into the next Knesset, or marginally fail to get in but still affect the result, reflects the ongoing (and perhaps intensifying) fragmentation of Israeli politics, not just between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps, but among left and right, Arab and Jewish, religious and secular forces.

This election is primarily a battle within the right, an indication of both the continued rightward drift of the Israeli body politic and the increasing disaffection with the prime minister inside his own camp. Netanyahu’s main challengers are white male Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders: Lapid, Sa’ar, Bennett and Lieberman. Netanyahu was pivotal in bringing together, and in order to win will almost certainly rely on the support of, Religious Zionism, a far-right alliance which includes the openly racist Jewish Power party and the ultra-conservative religious and homophobic Noam party.

What will determine the outcome?

Voter turnout will be the most important factor. Between the pandemic and inevitable fatigue with the fourth election in two years, many Israelis are likely disenchanted. A majority of Israelis have already received their first vaccine shot, but some may still stay away from the polls due to coronavirus concerns, while others have found themselves stranded outside the country due to entry restrictions (there is no provision for absentee voting). If the ultra-Orthodox community, which has tied its fate to Netanyahu, shows up in significantly larger numbers than the rest of the electorate, it could tip the result in Netanyahu’s favour, as could the expected decrease in Palestinian participation, since their Joint List, which made major gains to become the third-largest party in the last election, has split.

Between the pandemic and inevitable fatigue with the fourth election in two years, many Israelis are likely disenchanted.

Many Israelis are dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s handling of the coronavirus. Israel has been through three lockdowns in the past year, and health and education officials have criticised his management of the pandemic as motivated by political interests. Netanyahu, however, has his own COVID-19 card to play in the campaign – his success in getting the population vaccinated, as Israel leads the world in that respect. The fact that he is on trial for corruption and is expected to appear in court on a weekly basis starting in April does not seem to have had a significant impact on his electoral fortunes. The case against him is not new and his voter base has largely discounted it.

Will the votes of Palestinian citizens or the broader Palestinian question be a factor in this election?

The situation for Israel’s Palestinian citizens is different this time, because Mansour Abbas, the leader of the United Arab List, an Islamist grouping, decided to split from the Joint List that proved so successful in the last election. Abbas cooperated occasionally with Netanyahu during the outgoing Knesset, fuelling speculation that he could side with the prime minister in future coalition negotiations.

Netanyahu has campaigned among Palestinian citizens, who make up about one fifth of the population, controversially and in contrast to his previous wholesale disregard for their democratic rights. In 2016, he suggested that their mass participation in elections (“voting in droves” was his phrase) was something sinister, and two years later, he oversaw passage of the Jewish Nation-State Law, in effect enshrining their second-class citizen status. The more active courting of this constituency by Likud and other Zionist parties speaks to the ruling right’s changing tactics for holding onto power, while the positioning of the United Arab List reflects Palestinian voters’ obvious desire to have a stake in decision-making and a shift in strategy for how to achieve their shared political goals, for example around policing and crime. It also reflects the glass ceiling to what the Joint List could achieve in parliament and government, having been shut out of power and influence by the exclusionary consensus among Jewish-Zionist parties. Yet Lapid has, for the first time, expressed a willingness to rely on Joint List support in a future coalition. Should he do so, it could be a game changer, as no Palestinian party has ever been part of a governing coalition.

Netanyahu has tried to leverage Israel’s normalisation agreements with Arab states in his campaign, portraying himself as the only leader with the real-world experience and high-level contacts necessary to deliver such ground-breaking and lucrative deals. But he has been unable to recruit U.S. President Joe Biden to his re-election bid and thus is ill positioned to solicit the pre-election gifts that Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump enthusiastically bestowed upon him on previous occasions.

There is broad consensus that Israel can manage the occupation at a low cost and with little accountability.

The 53-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and creeping de facto annexation of the former, are practically non-existent issues in this election, even with the controversy, mainly abroad, over Israel’s failure to streamline vaccination of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. There is broad consensus that Israel can manage the occupation at a low cost and with little accountability. None of the leaders of the largest parties is advancing a workable alternative political vision that could challenge this perception. Netanyahu still tries to smear politicians who promote a negotiated two-state solution as “leftists”, but the tag has less traction, given that he has weaponised the term against practically all his opponents, irrespective of their politics.

What are possible scenarios for government formation?

Likud is projected to receive the largest number of seats (28 to 30) of the Knesset’s 120, a significant drop from its current 36. The pro-Netanyahu right-wing bloc (plus Bennett, who has not ruled out allying with Likud) is stable but polling just below the 61-seat majority needed to form a governing coalition. Bennett, leader of the religious nationalist Yamina party, is ambiguous about his plans, seeking to gain maximum “kingmaker” leverage in coalition negotiations, but if his votes are enough to give a Netanyahu-led coalition 61 seats, then that is the coalition that will likely come together (following inevitable negotiating crises). If Netanyahu, in partnership with Bennett, fails to reach 61 seats, he would still have a slim chance at forming a coalition by peeling off the required additional members from other parties.

A winning anti-Netanyahu coalition would need to include Lapid, Sa’ar, Bennett and Lieberman (plus Labour, Blue and White and probably Meretz if they all cross the threshold, or, less likely, the Palestinian parties), but these parties’ leaders would likely spar acidulously over how to divide power. It is hard to see how such distinct personalities and parties would be able to form a coherent coalition, but the determination to unseat Netanyahu could prevail and hold them together for at least a while.

If Netanyahu proves able to pull together the necessary majority, he will almost certainly find a way to achieve parliamentary immunity and avoid trial.

If Netanyahu proves able to pull together the necessary majority, he will almost certainly find a way to achieve parliamentary immunity and avoid trial. Thus, all those who seek to replace him have a major incentive to cooperate in forming a coalition if given the chance. If, instead, leaders of an anti-Netanyahu camp of 61 parliamentarians agree – in the period between 6 April, when the Knesset is sworn in, and the date on which a coalition is formed – they could try to pass a law barring the president from inviting a minister charged with a crime to form the government, thereby scotching Netanyahu’s chance at becoming prime minister again. It would be possible, but not easy, to pass such legislation, though it would subsequently face challenges in the courts.

There are other scenarios. If Netanyahu is unable to form a coalition, Likud might abandon him and cobble together what would be the most natural alliance in the new Knesset – a government of the nationalist and religious right comprising Likud, Sa’ar, Bennett and the ultra-Orthodox parties – which would have a clear majority. Such a scenario could also emerge not immediately but sometime during the next Knesset’s term. Some also speculate that Netanyahu’s allies and rivals may offer him the post of president, which carries the benefit of legal immunity, unlike the prime minister’s job.

If neither camp has a working majority to form a government after the allotted period of time, Israel will need to hold yet another election – an unprecedented fifth in search of a stable coalition.

How could the election results affect Israeli-Palestinian dynamics, the Middle East and the Iran file?

No matter what the election results are, there is little reason to expect much change to the status quo of de facto annexation, which is undermining a viable two-state option further and further as it proceeds. A narrow Netanyahu-led right/hard-right coalition can be expected to escalate provocations of Palestinians, in particular by expanding settlements, displacing more communities and continuing to commit other human rights violations, possibly including renewing a push for de jure annexation. These policies might lead to more open tensions between Israel and the Biden administration.

If a coalition without Netanyahu emerges, it will include parties aligned with existing hardline positions vis-à-vis the Palestinians, namely the parties of Bennett, Sa’ar and Lieberman.

If a coalition without Netanyahu emerges, it will include parties aligned with existing hardline positions vis-à-vis the Palestinians, namely the parties of Bennett, Sa’ar and Lieberman. The inclusion in prominent positions (up to and including the premiership itself) of Lapid, Labour and even Meretz would militate against the most visible provocations (including de jure annexation) but would likely neither prevent the relentless march of settlement construction nor create a real diplomatic opening toward the Palestinians. Lapid has taken positions that negate the prospect of a viable sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel or a substantial reversal of Israeli policies in the territories that contravene international law.

Regarding Israel’s northern front, any Israeli leader will likely continue what Israeli security experts call the “war between wars” (targeted military campaigns to pre-empt perceived threats) with Hizbollah and Iran in Lebanon and Syria. Tensions in the north will therefore remain high. On the broader question of Iran, Netanyahu will continue to work within the U.S. political arena to keep the Biden administration from returning to the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and discourage give-and-take dealings on other regional files.

Any successor to Netanyahu would be less experienced. A new prime minister might therefore be less bold in crossing the Biden administration. Lapid, for one, along with some in the defence establishment, might consider a return to the JCPOA to be the least bad option for Israel. Alternatively, there might be full continuity with the Netanyahu position or competing power centres within a governing coalition – which could mean that the U.S. would face a less united front of Israeli opposition to the nuclear deal.

More broadly, any non-Netanyahu government would see a good deal of internal jostling, meaning that there would be more room for miscalculation or impetuous action, notably on the northern border or in Gaza. There might also be additional unexpected domestic or regional flare-ups during the interregnum, when parties are busy negotiating a winning coalition, including if Netanyahu’s political fate hangs in the balance and he decides to strike rashly in the occupied territories or beyond Israel’s borders.