As April elections loom, Israeli party leaders face daunting issues

The principle questions: Why elections now, what will they focus on, and which individuals are throwing their names into the fray?

View of the Plenary Hall during a session for the vote on a bill to dissolve parliament at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Dec. 26, 2018. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
View of the Plenary Hall during a session for the vote on a bill to dissolve parliament at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Dec. 26, 2018. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Politics in Israel moves fast. National elections were just announced on Monday and immediately, commentators on television, radio, online and in print, as well as nearly every citizen in Israel, have begun making predictions. By the time election day rolls around on April 9, 2019, a right-wing coalition will have led the country for 10 years, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm. Will a right-wing government lead again after April and will Netanyahu once again serve in the top job?

These are typical questions, but the timing and circumstances are less so. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has just been handed a recommendation by the State Prosecutor and Israel Police to indict Netanyahu for corruption in three separate cases. Mandelblit’s decision, expected possibly within the next few weeks, could directly affect the outcome of this election campaign—and everyone knows it.

So why elections now, and what will they focus on?

Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, told JNS that “especially now, when the coalition is fragile, there is an interest among the different actors to go for an early election.” All parties have an interest in going to early elections, according to Plesner, including Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and the ultra-Orthodox. “The most important actor is, of course, the prime minister, who has both substantive political reasons and reasons that have to do with his legal status.”

Plesner admitted that Netanyahu is “ostensibly leading in the polls.”

From a legal standpoint, assuming the Attorney General will indict “the common wisdom is that it is in Netanyahu’s interest to go to early elections after the indictment, but before there is a final decision,” he said. “This is the right time for the prime minister to go for an election because it means he will enter the hearing process in a position assuming, as he hopes, [to] gain a fresh new mandate from the Israeli public. He will be able to claim, ‘Well, I’ve obtained a mandate from the Israeli people who were aware of the intention to indict me, but nevertheless have chosen to elect me for this position.’ This would make it more difficult for the attorney general to reverse a decision made by millions of Israelis.”

What is the focus of the April elections?

In terms of the substance of the elections, it remains to be seen. Plesner believes that the elections will be about “competence” both in terms of security and the economy. “So far,” he said, “Netanyahu’s ratings are relatively good, but both environments might change.”

Gayil Talshir, a senior lecturer in political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told JNS that at this point, the gist of these elections have not yet been defined. Unlike Plesner, however, she believes t might focus on “collective identity,” and not on economics and security.

“It’s not clear what the right-wing is going to campaign on,” she said. “You would suspect it would be on security, and that Netanyahu is the only one who can make Israel secure.” But she speculated that Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria would say that Netanyahu is not tough enough on security, “therefore I am not sure the security or terror issue will be central.”

“It’s clear the anti-Netanyahu camp is going to try to put Netanyahu on the spot, but it’s not clear it will be helpful. Usually, the right-wing in Israel gathers around the wounded, so I’m not sure it will be a good tactic.”

Talshir believes that the anti-Netanyahu camp will campaign “both around issues that are anti-Netanyahu himself and on issues over saving Israeli democracy,” such as the public media, the civil service, the judiciary and all of the other democratic institutions they perceive as being under attack by Netanyahu.

As reported in these pages, the White House said that the election could also affect the timing behind the highly anticipated rollout of its Mideast peace plan, dubbed the “deal of the century” by the Trump administration.

According to Plesner, “Netanyahu has nothing to gain, even if Trump submits a peace plan. It won’t work in Netanyahu’s favor because it will force him to choose between the [Israeli political] far-right and the president of the United States. It’s a choice Netanyahu will not want to make. Whatever elements in the plan that will be in favor of Israel, there will also be elements that will require Israel to compromise. This will leave room for some [politicians] to position themselves on the right of Netanyahu and the Likud, and he does not want that to happen.”

Other issues and names to watch

Another significant development, besides the announcement of the elections, was that Kahlon said he will not sit in the government if Netanyahu is indicted.

“I don’t see a majority after the elections that will be willing to sit with Netanyahu,” said Talshir.

She also said it is possible that Netanyahu voters who do not want to vote for someone else will not go out to vote at all, resulting in a low voter turnout.

One thing to look for, she noted, are the generals who are entering the political fray, including former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former IDF Chiefs of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, Benny Gantz and possibly Gaby Ashkenazi. They are entering or returning to politics to counter the common misconception that Netanyahu is supposedly the only one who can maintain Israel’s security and best defense.

Also of note: Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon just resigned from his position at the world body to put his name into the Likud Party political fray this spring.

Another issue, according to Talshir, is the economy. The “yellow vest” protests that began in Paris have spread to other parts of the globe, including Israel. Consumer prices are rising in Israel, and so far a smattering of protests have taken place, but it’s possible this movement will grow in the next few weeks and thus have a significant impact on the outcome of the election.

The right-wing Likud Party currently has a clear lead on any other political party, with a projected 30 seats in the next government, according to one poll. The right-wing party Bayit Yehudi would gain three seats, while the left-wing Zionist Union would fall 15 seats from its current 24 to just nine. Clearly, at least at this point, Israel is looking at another right-wing government in the next Knesset.

While it’s still too early to tell what Mandleblit will decide and what effect that will have, Talshir was confident: “I don’t think we are going to see a Netanyahu government after the indictment.”

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