Our movie’s antihero, an Israeli citizen, wakes at 6 a.m. to the buzz of an alarm clock and groggily slaps it off. By force of habit, he — or she, perhaps, in this remake — grabs a cellphone and checks the news. Headlines refer to elections and polls, to Yair Lapid and Benjamin Netanyahu. One is prime minister, the other the challenger. Which is which? Our antihero tries to remember. Is this the third or the fifth recent election in which they’ve faced off?
She, or he, scrolls down. More headlines: a warning to Iran from the prime minister (which one is he again?); more testimony in Netanyahu’s corruption trial; a Palestinian killed by Israeli troops; Israelis wounded in a Palestinian attack. The latest polls say that Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and its religious satellite parties will receive 58 seats out of 120 in parliament, or maybe 60 — still short of the majority needed to form a government. The “just not Bibi” bloc, referring to Netanyahu, is also falling short because a few seats will go to an Arab-backed ticket unlikely to join any governing coalition.
This is the same news that our antihero saw the last time the clock buzzed. The news is never new. Welcome to Israel’s version of “Groundhog Day,” a real-life political drama on a seemingly endless loop.
The Israeli election on Nov. 1 will in fact be the country’s fifth in 3½ years, an unprecedented stretch of indecision and instability. The last election, in 2021, pushed Netanyahu out of power. But the fragile coalition that replaced his government collapsed in June of this year. Naftali Bennett, leader of a small right-wing party who became the unlikely prime minister for a year and a few days, is leaving politics. Lapid, a centrist, heads a caretaker government. If incumbency has given him an edge, it is hard to detect.
If polls were precise predictions, the certain results of this election would be more deadlock and another round by next spring. The large, looming issues are unlikely to make a difference. Yet small changes — less likely to show up in post-election stories in the foreign media — might tip the balance at last.
Netanyahu’s endless trial, for instance, doesn’t move the needle. His supporters either aren’t paying attention or accept his claims that the charges are a plot against him. His opponents correctly argue that the former prime minister’s conspiracy-mongering undermines the rule of law. But those who recognize the danger have already voted against him four times.
The Likud keeps voters’ phones buzzing with text messages blaming Lapid for high prices. The opposing camp knows that Netanyahu’s 12-year hold on power actually shaped the economy. The issues, in short, haven’t changed since this endless election campaign began in 2019.
The old dividing line in Israel ran between those who supported permanent rule of the West Bank and those who hoped, intensely or vaguely, to end it. The new divide, between Netanyahu’s loyalists and their opponents, is mostly congruent with the old one — but not entirely. A portion of the old right has come to see Netanyahu as a danger to democracy within Israel. Here, there is potential for some movement. Bennett’s party has crumbled. Two of its Knesset members have moved to the center-right National Unity ticket, opposed to Netanyahu. If — if — they persuade some of their erstwhile voters to follow them, the electoral scales might shift.
Turnout, of course, is crucial. Which side’s voters are more likely to have lost interest? If predictions of low turnout among the Arab minority come true, Netanyahu will profit. Most Arab votes go to two small parties. One broke precedent by joining the current governing coalition. The other, known as the Joint List, is unlikely to join any coalition — and certainly not Netanyahu’s.
Indeed, a difference of a few votes for a small party could shift the entire outcome. In Israel’s proportional election system, a party needs 3.25 percent of the national vote to get into parliament. If it reaches that number, it will get four seats. If it falls short, it gets none. A threatened ideological split in the Joint List could create two competing tickets — one or both of which may fail to pass the threshold. Again, Netanyahu would benefit.
On the other end of the spectrum, a split is looming in United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox party tightly aligned with Netanyahu. Recent polling shows that one of the factions is unlikely to get into parliament if it runs separately. In that case, Netanyahu’s chance of returning to power will shrink.
The deadline for parties to submit their lists of candidates — and to decide on alliances or splits — is Sept. 15. Keep an eye on backroom decisions until then to understand the results in November: Netanyahu’s return, or the end of his long damaging grip on Israeli politics — or Israel waking up to the next election campaign, still trapped in Groundhog Day.