An impasse after Israel's fourth national election in about two years may mean that Israelis may soon be asked to go to the polls for a fifth time.
But the stalemate is mostly due to a politician, not policy. The nation is deeply divided over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose 14-year rule is the longest in Israeli history. He has a strong track record on Israel's innovative economy, its world-leading vaccination rates, and regional peace pacts with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.
But his polarizing style — and criminal charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust — have led some like-minded members of the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, to run for office in opposition in a coalition that includes a dwindling Labor and other left-leaning parties, as well as some centrist and Arab parties. This grouping procured the most votes this week with 57 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
Netanyahu's party, Likud, won the most seats outright with 30. But his coalition only has 52 seats. Up for grabs are the four seats won by Raam, an Islamist Arab party, and seven by Yamina, a right-wing party. While theoretically these blocs could deliver a majority, some members of each coalition have threatened to bolt if either Raam or Yamina (or both) bolster their bloc.
It will be up to Israel's mostly ceremonial president, Reuven Rivlin, to invite either Netanyahu or opposition leader Yair Laipid to try to form a government. When that occurs, expect Knesset members to be as stalemated as the voters.
And yet a clear and increasing consensus for center-right to right-wing policies seems to have solidified, which will provide President Joe Biden with clarity, albeit challenges, as he works with America's close ally on the administration's priorities of an Israel-Palestine peace accord and mitigating the threat from Iran's potential nuclear-weapons program by re-engaging on the nuclear deal.
"This election should not be interpreted as a rejuvenation of the left," Ron Krebs, a University of Minnesota professor of political science, told an editorial writer. "The overall number of votes for right-wing policy remains as strong as ever, and there is no evidence of that reversing."
This does not mean that the Biden administration shouldn't continue to press for a two-state Israel-Palestine solution or be passive about its belief that diplomacy is the only way to truly defuse the enduring Iran crisis. And yet the administration needs to approach these diplomatic endeavors with a clear understanding of Israel's domestic politics.
"American officials do understand, and need to understand, that while the United States is Israel's most important ally by far, at the end of the day Israeli political leaders will do what their constituency wants, and they will pursue policies that are in line with their vision for the state of Israel," Krebs said.
Perhaps even more important than the upcoming Knesset wrangling or even a fifth vote would be the results of a promised Palestinian election set for May 22. Unlike Israel's repeated plebiscites, it would be the first since 2006, and may finally address the deep rift between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Fatah, which has limited control on portions of the West Bank.
A peace process needs to occur between these Palestinian factions before an accord with Israel could be met, and the U.S. should have as keen an interest in that outcome as it does in the Israeli results, whenever they come.