At the beginning of March, Israel had just completed its third inconclusive election in less than 12 months, leaving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu barely shy of his preferred right-wing-majority coalition. Yet, a conglomerate of left-wing parties and right-wing Netanyahu defectors were no closer to ousting Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
With neither side seemingly able to form a government, rival politicians attempted a judicial and parliamentary putsch, by tabling new legislation that would forbid Netanyahu from serving as prime minister while facing corruption charges. The power play took place just weeks after Netanyahu’s Likud had received the most votes for any party in Israel’s history—despite the looming indictments.
The attempt ended in the resignation of longtime Knesset Speaker and Netanyahu loyalist Yuli Edelstein, whose authority to control parliamentary procedure—which is enshrined in Israel’s Basic Law—was encroached on by Israel’s left-leaning and hyper-activist Supreme Court.
At precisely the same time, the coronavirus crisis took over the world stage. Facing an intractable electoral crisis and a global pandemic certain to infiltrate Israel’s borders, political challenger Benny Gantz was pressured into severing his own Blue and White political alignment and broke his repeated campaign promise by agreeing to join a Netanyahu-led unity government.
Rotation arrangement or ruse?
Gantz extracted a heavy price from Netanyahu in exchange for the unlikely agreement. Netanyahu offered to hand over the reins of his office to Gantz in November 2021 as part of a rotation arrangement. Gantz similarly received an outsized number of portfolios for his remaining party members, including the coveted defense, foreign affairs and justice ministries.
Changes were made to Israel’s Basic Law to facilitate the unprecedented deal, and numerous clauses were negotiated to ensure that if Netanyahu attempted to break the coalition terms, Gantz would automatically become prime minister before a new election.
From the outset, it was clear that the marriage of opposing parties was not meant to last. As soon as the deal was inked, Blue and White served as an opposition party from within the coalition, always one no-confidence vote away from crashing the government, while Netanyahu was forced to govern with a dysfunctional Cabinet and parliament.
The two parties failed to pass a budget for 2020, which in Israeli law is an automatic trigger for elections. This specific trigger was also the only scenario according to the coalition agreement in which Gantz would not automatically take over as prime minister.
As it became clear that Netanyahu had no intention of honoring the rotation arrangement, it was equally obvious that no budget would be passed. When an extended deadline expired earlier this week, the fourth Knesset elections in less than two years were set on course, with the date for the event scheduled for March 23.
Yet in not passing the reins of power to Gantz, Netanyahu is actually fulfilling the will of the electorate. While Gantz’s Blue and White alignment received 33 mandates in the third elections earlier this year, the now-severed party may not even cross the minimum electoral threshold just 12 months later. In polls, barely 10 percent of Israelis believe that Gantz is the best candidate among current politicians to serve as prime minister.
Meanwhile, without a formal budget, which affects the functioning of government ministries, and without a functional parliament, Netanyahu continued to deliver for the State of Israel.
Despite a constant barrage of criticism over his management of the coronavirus crisis, including two nationwide lockdowns so far—with a third slated to start on Sunday—Israel has among the lowest COVID-19 fatality rates in the world.
Amid a global pandemic, total deaths in Israel during 2020 are extraordinarily below what they were in 2019. Netanyahu worked to sign contracts with leading pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer and Moderna, to put Israel at the front of the line for coronavirus vaccines. And as of today, Israel has vaccinated more citizens per capita than any other country in the world.
More astonishingly, in a year of geopolitical turmoil, Netanyahu singlehandedly delivered the world’s greatest geopolitical achievement: the Abraham Accords. In the past four months, Israel has signed historic normalization agreements with the Sunni-majority countries of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
The Abraham Accords caught the world and Israelis by surprise, including Defense Minister and Vice Premier Benny Gantz, and Foreign Minister and Blue and White No. 2 Gabi Ashkenazi. Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, has led Israel’s official senior delegations of Israel to each of the countries to advance the normalization agreements, which include direct commercial two-way flights.
The agreements brokered by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump were worked on clandestinely for years by Netanyahu confidants Yossi Cohen, director of the Mossad, and Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
Netanyahu, who has been often accused of failing to groom a successor, has recently stated that Cohen and Dermer are the two leaders most capable of running the country at the end of the prime minister’s tenure. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has no intentions of abdicating his post.
The defeat of Israel’s left-wing
In the upcoming fourth elections, Israel’s political map has tilted strongly to the right.
Netanyahu’s newest contender is Gideon Sa’ar, who challenged Netanyahu earlier this year for the chairmanship of the Likud Party and lost in a 75-25 percent landslide. Just prior to this week’s budget deadline, Sa’ar announced his resignation from Likud and the formation of the New Hope party, created to pose a center-right alternative to the Likud. Some other Likud members, including Minister of Water Resources and Higher Education Ze’ev Elkin, have defected to join Sa’ar.
New Hope is presently polling at close to 20 mandates, 10 seats shy of the Likud. Sa’ar is now the newly minted head of the greater anti-Netanyahu political camp. Like Gantz during the previous election cycle, Sa’ar has pledged not to sit in a Netanyahu-led government.
The third most popular party in early polling is the right-wing Yamina, led by Naftali Bennett. Bennett has lambasted Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic and attacked the dysfunctional coalition, which his party refused to join earlier this year. Serving in the opposition has boosted the popularity of the small, six-seat party that failed to cross the electoral threshold altogether during the second of the three consecutive elections.
The emergence of two right-wing parties as the primary challengers to Likud is itself a major victory for the prime minister. Just as Netanyahu has effectively crushed the Blue and White alliance that came close to defeating him less than a year ago, he has similarly demolished Israel’s greater left-wing camp and shifted the political map sharply to the right.
According to the most recent polls, right-wing parties would receive a thunderous 83 mandates, compared to just 26 for left-leaning parties, with Arab parties receiving the remaining 11 seats. The once-powerful left-wing Labor Party, which had as many as 24 seats prior to the three consecutive elections last year, is not expected to gain the minimum four seats needed to enter into the next Knesset.
Coordinated attempts by the left-wing media, the justice system and the opposition have utterly failed to convince the electorate that Netanyahu’s policies on security, diplomacy and economics have been wrong. And the upcoming election is now almost exclusively a referendum on personality.
Can small parties send Netanyahu packing?
After Gantz’s failure, it is clear in today’s political climate that no single center or left-wing challenger can come close to defeating Netanyahu. As such, when Israelis head back to the polls, the primary question will be whether the smaller right-wing parties will ultimately agree to once again sit together with the man whom they now desperately seek to replace.
Or will Israel’s alternative right-wing parties—led by Sa’ar, Bennett and Yisrael Beitenu chairman Avigdor Lieberman—forge ties with left-wing leaders, including the current head of the opposition Yair Lapid, and scrape together an alternative coalition that would finally send Netanyahu, Likud and Israel’s religious parties into the opposition?
In an address to the public this week, Netanyahu asserted that only he could form a strong right-wing government. Any other alignment would threaten to be as dysfunctional as the outgoing government—a coalition cobbled together of smaller parties with disparate ideologies.
A strong right-wing government?
If Sa’ar and Bennett place the will of a decidedly right-wing electorate ahead of their own political ambitions, Israel will be on track to assemble the largest right-wing government in the history of the Jewish State, with Netanyahu once again at the helm.
A strong right-wing government would finally be empowered to temper the overreaching influence of Israel’s left-leaning Supreme Court; defend against the malign activity and nuclear ambitions of the Islamic Republic of Iran; stand up to likely diplomatic pressures from the incoming U.S. administration of President-elect Joe Biden; and advance closer towards a formal declaration of sovereignty in the biblical provinces of Judea and Samaria, commonly known as the West Bank.
Going into a fourth election, it is clear that Netanyahu has every ambition to continue leading the country, and has once again proven to be capable of crushing his political opponents while achieving momentous accomplishments for the Jewish state.
And while new elections are yet again an imperfect outcome for Israel’s far-from-stable parliamentary system, Israelis can be thankful that when the system breaks down, the mandate is once again returned to the public.
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.