On March 23rd, Israel will be facing its fourth election in two years. After seven months in power, the coalition government formed between Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party and Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Alliance has collapsed. A squabble over whether the budget should be for one year or two years led to the dissolution of parliament, and not for the first time, disagreements between those for and against the prime minister have stymied the Israeli political process.
Broader issues in the coalition were restrictions on his power to make cabinet and judicial appointments, Netanyahu claims. Although confident he will win, the political stalwart is facing trials for corruption charges that have hampered his support. The Coronavirus pandemic and emergence of a new political party have not helped.
Gideon Sa’ar, a former member of Netanyahu’s party, is campaigning against Likud under the moniker of “New Hope”. Sa’ar defected from Likud after losing the leadership race, and his party leans to the right. While Netanyahu loyalist Osnat Mark describes New Hope as a band of “traitors and deserters”, other influential allies, such as Avigdor Lieberman or Naftali Bennett, may defect. Israeli politics is very much organised around the central figure of Benjamin Netanyahu, and it was the desire to oust him from power that brought three groups together to form Blue and White. The emergence of the party in the 2019 elections did prevent Likud from clinching a majority, but at the cost of formation of a government. The following year, Gantz struck a deal with Netanyahu, following another round of minority election results, to share power by alternating who would be in the premiership. This agreement was made under the threat of the pandemic, and lost the Blue and White leader his credibility. It is perhaps out of a desire to claw it back that Gantz has been so uncooperative with the PM.
Some have characterised Netanyahu’s refusal to pass the one-year budget as a power grab from a point of popular weakness. Incumbent popularity fluctuates with economic performance, and the deleterious effects of local lockdowns in this regard have taken the shine off Netanyahu’s track record. However, the broader issue which has captured public attention in recent years is that of corruption. He has been accused by the national courts of giving political favours to media tycoons in exchange for positive news coverage and gifts, most famously including imported champagne and cigars worth thousands of dollars. In a survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, two thirds of respondents did not think a prime minister can serve and simultaneously try to clear his name in court. Netanyahu has sought to portray himself as a victim of trumped-up charges, and he maintains many allies and supporters. However, protests against his premiership are held on a weekly basis. His request to parliament for immunity from prosecution was denied, but as prime minister, he can stand trial whilst in office under Israeli law. For him to be ousted the entire appeals process would have to be exhausted, a process that could take years.
By dissolving parliament, the PM retains his post and prevents Gantz from assuming power under the terms of their agreement. The leader of the Blue and White was supposed to take Netanyahu’s position after 18 months, but the move has both weakened Gantz and allowed Likud to regroup. Opinion polls suggest that the latter has the lead, finding a strong support base among the ultra-orthodox right. The second contender is now New Hope, which jostles for the same voters. There are thus no credible centrist or leftist contenders in the race, a prevailing tendency in the national politics after the question of West Bank occupation became less divisive. The two right-wing parties would also look towards the same minority parties for support when in government.
Netanyahu, now 71, is Israel’s longest serving leader. He first held power between 1996 and 1999 and has been prime minister since 2009. He portrays himself as strong and capable, with a track record of improving the economy and successfully containing the volatile situation between Israel and Palestine. With the help of the US, he has normalised aspects of Israeli foreign policy, establishing diplomatic relations with key regional powers like the UAE. He held office during years of relative security and stability, and takes personal credit for securing the country their coronavirus vaccines. Previous campaigns were held with the support of Trump, his closest international ally.
The wider context of Israeli politics, however, make the contest more than just a case of sclerotic leadership. Yossi Mekelburg, senior consulting research fellow at Chatham House, finds a deeper cause in systemic behavioural issues. Politicians regularly change parties and the parties themselves split to form new parties. The 2020 budget crisis was the trigger of a build-up in events, he says, and removing Netanyahu could be the first step to healing the political system in a divided society. Akiva Elder, a political analyst, argues that Netanyahu is a representation of ideological bigotry, and removing him will not stunt this kind of problematic politics. Others find fault in the Proportional Representation system used to elect the Knesset. Although aiming to emulate the governance model of the Jewish community in Palestine that preceded the foundation of the Israeli state, this electoral model also gives voice to smaller parties, some of which may have radical or repugnant views. This means that a culture of consultation and consent is important for proper political function, or else disagreements may lead to dissolution of parliament. In Israel, this culture appears to be weakening. In 2019 a bill proposed to exempt ultra-orthodox Haredi students from national service led to defence minister Lieberman resigning, which contributed to parliament dissolving and the snap election that September. A graphic from Israel Democracy shows that Israel has been having elections every 2.3 years since Netanyahu took power. In comparison, Germany, a state of similar age that also uses PR, has witnessed 50% fewer elections in the same timeframe.
Whoever wins the next election will have to contend with a new administration in the USA, with many expecting Joe Biden to put pressure on Israel to stop annexation and settlement activity in the West Bank and to make concessions to Palestinians.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, says, “there are a lot of smoke screens, but I think we need to be fair and to be quite explicit about it… this won’t end until either Mr. Netanyahu is replaced or if he finds a way, by legislation or political manoeuvring, to either put his trial on hold or to suspend it altogether”.