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March 17, 2021

MENA

ISRAEL: Netanyahu in another toss-up election

BY Jon B. Alterman

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( 4 mins)
  • Israeli politics continue to revolve around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose center-right politics have move rightward with Israeli sentiment.
  • The election’s outcome will depend on which small parties make it over the electoral threshold for inclusion in parliament, and how large the “wasted vote” will be.
  • Whatever coalition emerges is likely to be fragile and short-lived.

Benjamin Netanyahu must sometimes wonder why he needs to run for re-election at all. Israel leads the world in Covid-19 vaccinations, thanks to a deal he struck with Pfizer early in the pandemic. Israel’s peace agreements with four Arab governments represents the most fundamental shift in Israel’s diplomatic position in four decades, and he sacrificed almost nothing in exchange. Either one of those accomplishments could arguably secure his legacy in Israeli history, but once again Israel’s longest-serving leader finds himself fighting for his political life.

Israeli politics have become much more volatile, and the 23 March parliamentary elections are the fourth in just two years. 39 parties have registered to run, and perhaps a third of them will gain seats. Slim majorities, deep internal divisions, and Netanyahu’s own polarization of the electorate drive instability.

To a remarkable degree, Netanyahu’s personality continues to dominate Israeli politics. Many of his former right-wing allies are now his fiercest opponents, including former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman and former interior minister Gideon Saar. Still, Netanyahu has shown a sure-footed ability to feel to the center of Israeli politics, never making clear where precisely he stands on divisive issues such as settlements while reassuring a wide variety of actors that, deep down, he agrees with them.

He has long antagonized the Israeli Left, and he also has helped marginalize it. Israel’s Labor Party was a dominant force in Israeli politics for decades; now it holds a mere two seats in parliament. Other leftist parties fare scarcely better. But Netanyahu’s greatest political strength is that he goes far beyond coalition-building; he is an expert at destroying his opponents’ coalitions, paving the way for his own durable rule.

For example, Netanyahu has foiled two efforts by former Army Chief of Staff and Kachol-Lavan party chief Benny Gantz to form a government in 2019 and 2020. In the latter case, he persuaded Gantz to join a unity government with a rotating prime ministership, but government fell apart before Gantz had an opportunity to serve. Netanyahu helped nudge Gantz’s party toward dissolution, first by bringing Gantz in (and alienating Netanyahu’s foes) to start with, and then by marginalizing Gantz when he was ostensibly his partner.

Netanyahu’s latest political gambit has been breaking apart the Joint List, a collection of four Arab parties that had fancied itself as Israel’s political kingmakers when it won 15 seats in the last parliament. Despite decades of harsh anti-Arab rhetoric, Netanyahu lured away Mansour Abbas, an Islamist politician who leads the Ra’am party, simultaneously weakening the Joint list and threatening Ra’am’s presence in parliament at all. All parties must win at least 3.25% of the vote to cross the electoral threshold. Netanyahu’s power is strengthened if a large number of small parties fail to cross the threshold, resulting in “wasted votes” among his opponents and a larger plurality for him and his allies.

Netanyahu faces two principal threats: former right-wing allies Naftali Bennett and Gideon Saar running from his right, and centrist politician Yair Lapid running from his left. Only Saar has tried to portray the election as one between him and Netanyahu. To his credit, Netanyahu has what one might term a home-field advantage: he has negotiated and won coalition agreements that have put his Likud Party in power. He also benefits from a set of taboos in Israeli politics, from some religious parties sitting in a government with avowedly secular parties, and for any government relying on Arab votes for its majority.

Netanyahu has a keen interest in retaining power, as he is in the midst of a corruption trial. He is likely to seek immunity from parliament if he has an opportunity to assemble a new government after the election.

Pre-election polling cannot capture which of Israel’s smaller parties will cross the electoral threshold, and the margins for the major parties are tight, making it impossible to judge what a ruling coalition might look like. Netanyahu’s enemies are numerous and varied, and many would seize any opportunity to push him from power. Even so, some in Israel are beginning to talk of a fifth consecutive election in short order after this fourth one is concluded. Israeli politics are getting messier and not clearer, despite what Netanyahu sees as his clear victories, and despite what his opponents view as his clear deficiencies.

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