Israeli elections: The view from Washington

Israeli elections: The view from Washington
Comment: While Biden may prefer someone like Yair Lapid at the helm, his administration is preparing for another Netanyahu-led Israeli government, writes Mitchell Plitnick.
6 min read
22 Mar, 2021
The outcome is unlikely to yield a stable government that lasts its full term [Getty]
On Tuesday, Israeli voters will go to the polls for the fourth time in two years.

As always, it is crucial to recall that not all the people who have a direct stake in this election can vote. Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank, including most of those in East Jerusalem, and in the Gaza Strip have no say in who will be in control of their lives.

For its part, the United States will be looking on with particular interest. After four years of Donald Trump doing all he could to promote the most extreme right-wing elements in Israel, the Joe Biden administration is making every effort to return to the pre-Oslo status quo.

To revive that failed paradigm, Washington will want to engage whatever representatives emerge from Israel's election in a few days. Palestinian elections are scheduled for May and July, but many are not convinced that they will be held and, even if they are, whether the international community will accept an outcome they do not favour.

But for the moment the focus is on elections in Israel, and, once again, the outcome is unlikely to yield a stable government that will last its full term.

Netanyahu vs anti-Netanyahu

This election is largely another referendum on the long-time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Under indictment on corruption and bribery charges, Netanyahu is desperate to cling to power to avoid facing potential prison time for his alleged crimes.

But he has a difficult battle this time. The most recent polls show that parties loyal to the current head of state are likely to win somewhere between 46 and 50 seats, well short of the 61 required for a majority in the Knesset. Netanyahu's hope lies in picking up a few extra seats due to the vagaries of polling and then convincing one of his rivals on the right - probably Naftali Bennett of the Yamina party - to join his coalition.

  Lapid strongly supports dialogue and negotiations, which is what Biden is focused on reviving  

This might be the likeliest of the possible outcomes of Tuesday's election, but it is far from certain. Bennett has positioned himself as a kingmaker and has remained open to working with Netanyahu or one of his rivals. They include Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party and Gideon Sa'ar, who left Netanyahu's Likud to form the New Hope party and, like Bennett, to challenge Netanyahu from the right.

Yesh Atid is likely to gather the second most votes behind Netanyahu's Likud, which means that if Netanyahu fails to assemble a governing coalition, Lapid is the most likely person to get the next crack at it.

But Lapid, too, will have a difficult time cobbling together a coalition. Sa'ar has stated that he will not be part of a coalition headed by either Netanyahu or Lapid. Bennett has been non-committal, but Lapid's support mostly comes from the centre-left. Those parties, along with Lapid's will only gather 35 seats at best.

Lapid might be able to bring in some right wing partners, but such a coalition would be highly unstable even if he managed to pull it off, as it would be united only by their opposition to Netanyahu, and that may not be enough. Even if it is, it's likely to be a razor-thin majority.


There's also a remote chance that either Sa'ar or Bennett might have a chance to form a coalition, but the same problems would persist, and they would be worse with those men because their parties are unlikely to have more than a dozen or so seats in the Knesset. They would not be seen by many as legitimate prime ministers with such slight direct support.

The White House weighs the outcomes

For the Biden administration, there is little doubt that Lapid would be the preferred victor due to his long-standing connections to the conservative wing of the Democratic party.

Read more: Sa'ar lashes out at right-wing rival Bennett as Israel election campaign draws to a close

Lapid's rise to political prominence in Israel was shaped in great measure by Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and political adviser. Mellman has more recently launched the so-called Democratic Majority For Israel (DMFI), an organisation associated with AIPAC and dedicated to maintaining hawkish stances on Israel and Palestine among conservative Democratic leaders and combating the rising support for Palestinian rights among Democratic voters.

Lapid, who once kicked off an election campaign in the illegal settlement of Ariel, is a vocal supporter of a two-state solution, but his vision would be unlikely to be appreciated by Palestinians. He advocates for Israel annexing the major settlement blocs and maintaining full control over an undivided Jerusalem. Needless to say, he opposes the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

But Lapid strongly supports dialogue and negotiations, which is what Biden is focused on reviving. Until a more cohesive and assertive Palestinian leadership emerges, there is no incentive for Democrats to press hard for progress in such talks. Holding the discussions is enough.

Gideon Sa'ar or Naftali Bennett would find more friction with the Biden administration. They are both more ideological and more nationalistic than Netanyahu. Still, both men recognise that Netanyahu's embrace of the Republican party was foolish and would do all they can to heal the breach with Democrats, the Biden administration, and centre-left American Jews, all of whom have been alienated by Netanyahu.

  They are also taking advantage of the looming elections in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza to punt the issue of the occupation further down the road  


Still, for any of Lapid, Sa'ar, or Bennett, the difficulties in pulling together a coalition make it more likely than not that Netanyahu will continue to hold the prime minister's office. He might be able to construct a coalition, or he might force yet another round of elections, which means he will stay in office pending that outcome. Either way, it will mean Netanyahu will be the man Biden has to deal with for the immediate future.

Biden seems to expect this. He and his administration have not made any early moves to address Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. They have distanced themselves from Donald Trump's ludicrous "Deal of the Century" but have not reversed his policies yet. They have made a few moves to re-establish diplomatic connections with the Palestinians but have done little more.

The White House is prioritising engagement with Iran at the moment and will want to avoid a political fight with pro-Israel forces in Washington on other issues, saving their political capital for the effort to re-enter the JCPOA.

They are also taking advantage of the looming elections in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza to punt the issue of the occupation further down the road. In the meantime, Biden has kept Netanyahu at arm's length, while also making sure that the relationship between the two remains reasonably warm, so they can easily engage when need be.

No doubt, after Netanyahu's embrace of the Republicans and Trump, Biden would prefer to see a different prime minister in Jerusalem and would be most pleased if it turned out to be Lapid. That could happen, but more likely Netanyahu will continue to be the man Biden must deal with and that seems to be the scenario Washington is prepared for. 

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.