On Monday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister (and Alternate Prime Minister) Yair Lapid revealed news that surprised no one, announcing that they were dissolving their government barely one year into its term and that Israel would hold new Knesset elections in the fall. With actual and potential defectors on both sides of the coalition, Bennett and Lapid were in a race against time, with each additional day that the government held out also being an additional day for Binyamin Netanyahu and the opposition to try to form an alternative government from the current Knesset makeup and avoid elections altogether. So barring any unexpected developments in the next week—which is a big caveat given that Israeli politics often feels like nothing but unexpected developments—Israelis will be voting in October or November for the fifth time in three and a half years.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on June 14, 2021 by Kobi Gideon/Government Press Office (Israel), licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image)

Questions abounded in each of the previous four votes, and there will be many in the run-up to the fifth one as well, including some that are the result of new dynamics that have emerged. To what extent is Haredi voters’ newfound right-wing nationalism going to translate into votes for parties other than Shas and UTJ, and particularly, how many votes will Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir’s bigoted, Kahanist Religious Zionism party pick up among the more politically radical ultra-Orthodox? How will political parties that do not have primaries construct their Knesset lists going forward in light of the epidemic of little-known and first-time MKs defecting, threatening to defect, or refusing to vote with the coalition, which resulted in the Bennett-Lapid government’s downfall? Will Bennett remain in politics or go into self-imposed political exile, coming off the shortest prime ministerial term after an election in Israeli history yet having also pulled off the feat of serving as prime minister for over a year despite controlling only six, and then five, Knesset seats? If Bennett stays, what happens to his longstanding political partnership with Ayelet Shaked? All of these are important and will shape what the next Israeli government looks like, but in the earliest days of the Knesset’s dissolution and the beginning of another election campaign, here are three big questions that will determine the ultimate big question, which is if either side will be able to form a government or if this is the start of another wash-rinse-repeat elections cycle.

Who from Yamina or New Hope will break ranks?

While there has been discontent among MKs in Labor, Meretz, and particularly Ra’am for various reasons, from the coalition’s start the real pressure has been on the MKs from Yamina and New Hope. Their refusal to form a coalition led by Netanyahu is what prevented him from continuing as prime minister, and they have been the subject of vitriolic attacks from within their own ideological camp accusing them of selling out Zionism and the Israeli right. Renegade Yamina MK Amichai Chikli bolted before the government was even confirmed by the Knesset, and the current months-long political crisis that is resulting in the government’s dissolution was kicked off by Yamina MK Idit Silman quitting the coalition in April. Rumors surrounding Yamina MK Nir Orbach jumping to Likud have been swirling for months, and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked has been widely viewed as a reluctant participant in the broad Bennett-Lapid government from the outset.

The pressure on these MKs has come from their families, friends, and longtime political allies, which is far harder to resist than criticism from the left. Furthermore, forming a government with Ra’am, Labor, and Meretz while Netanyahu and Likud seethe in the opposition goes against the political and ideological DNA of Yamina and New Hope. There are also tactical considerations at play since this all impacts how these two parties will fare in the upcoming election, particularly for New Hope as it flirts with not making the Knesset threshold. The result is that there are many incentives for MKs from both parties to reverse course, and “come home” and rejoin Likud in New Hope’s case or revert to being part of the natural Netanyahu coalition in Yamina’s. Likud has been trying to attract defectors and will continue to furiously do so before the Knesset actually dissolves, but even if that gambit is unsuccessful, there is no guarantee that Yamina or New Hope can be added to the non-Netanyahu camp following the next election when doing the potential coalition arithmetic. The allure of joining Netanyahu will be strong, particularly if it means the difference between the magic number of 61 Knesset seats or plunging back into yet another election campaign.

Which Arab party’s vision will be more persuasive?

Ra’am’s break from the Joint List prior to the last election ended up being the most important decision in Israeli politics in years. It marked a deep distinction between the Joint List’s position of effectively participating in Israel’s political system as a form of protest, and Ra’am’s position that it was willing to join any coalition that would accede to its political—rather than ideological—requests. Ra’am went on to back up its words with deeds, becoming the first independent Arab party to be part of a Knesset coalition. Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas has focused not on issues surrounding Zionism or the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but on issues of budgets and quality of life for Israeli Arabs and particularly Bedouins living in the Negev. While Israel’s four Arab or predominantly Arab parties have always been strange ideological bedfellows, spanning the gamut from communists to Islamists, there is for the first time a stark choice before Arab voters of supporting a party that is willing to join a coalition—and join with either side if its interests are served—and one that is not.

MKs Mansour Abbas, Ayman Odeh, and Ahmad Tibi in 2014 by Zaher333, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)

Whether Ra’am’s vision wins out will largely depend on how Arab voters view its track record of success over the past year. Ra’am has been part of a Zionist coalition that is viewed as purposely eroding the Temple Mount status quo, preventing family reunifications between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian non-citizens in the West Bank, and catering to settlers as violent attacks against Palestinians continue. But Ra’am has been part of a coalition that has also allocated millions of additional shekels to Arab municipalities, hooked up unrecognized Bedouin villages and homes to the electricity grid, and started to tackle violent crime in the Arab sector. There is a direct contrast between ideological considerations and practical material considerations, and the question will be whether Ra’am has made enough headway in the latter to overcome reservations stemming from the former. If Ra’am can maintain its position or even pick up an additional seat or two, it will be proof of concept that will make it easier for someone to form a coalition, as the number of Joint List seats that make the coalition math not a complete zero-sum game will decrease.

What will Lapid do in his time as prime minister?

Part of Bennett and Lapid’s announcement on Monday was that Lapid is going to become interim prime minister in the period between the Knesset’s dissolution and the election, which further cements him as the figure opposite Netanyahu in voters’ minds. Lapid will have much on his plate over the next three or four months, but one of his most important tasks will be to keep the disparate non-Netanyahu camp together, which will be easier said than done, and to consolidate his political strength in order to avoid giving up the prime ministerial chair should there again be 61 MKs willing to form a coalition without Netanyahu.

Yair Lapid heading for consultations with then-President Reuven Rivlin in May 2021 by Haim Zach/Government Press Office (Israel), licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image)

Lapid will be the political leader of the titular left-wing despite being an avowed centrist, which may cause him headaches with Meretz and even more so with Labor. He will need to make decisions on West Bank issues, from responding to terrorism to the ongoing fight over the fates of Evyatar and Homesh, that will either be hard for Meretz and Ra’am to reconcile or drive Yamina and New Hope back to the uniformly right-wing camp. He will have to convince Ra’am and its constituents that he represents a different form of Zionism that seeks to accommodate and integrate Israel’s non-Jewish citizens while assuaging moderate right-wingers and Netanyahu foes that he is not selling out Israel’s Jewish identity. Most pressingly, he will have to continue his détente with his erstwhile political partner Benny Gantz, who has coexisted alongside Lapid as one of the three most important ministers in this government but who split with Lapid when Blue and White broke up after the third election and who still views himself as the most suitable candidate for prime minister. Gantz will be looking for any opening to turn himself into the next cycle’s Bennett, the person who becomes prime minister despite not coming from the largest party because the seats he controls are indispensable to both sides. Keeping Gantz in his corner without relinquishing his presumption to form the next government himself will be Lapid’s most complicated task, and the one that may be decisive in determining what happens once the votes are tallied.