ANALYSIS: Israel Running Into Another Election Abyss?

The public doesn’t want it. The nation doesn’t need it. But another early election serves Netanyahu’s interests

By Yochanan Visser | | Topics: Benjamin Netanyahu
Photo: Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL

It’s hard to believe, but Israel is slowly getting ready to go to the polls again despite a feared third wave of coronavirus that seems to now be sweeping the country.

That would make the fourth election in less than two years. The new parliamentary crisis actually started the moment the government of national unity was sworn in at the end of May this year.

There was no relationship of trust between Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and his reluctant coalition partner and current Defense Minister Benny Gantz (Blue and White).

The lack of confidence was most evident when Netanyahu failed to inform Gantz about the peace negotiations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, which this week sent a large delegation to Israel to discuss trade relations.

Gantz and his fellow party member Gabi Ashkenazi, another former IDF Chief of Staff who is now Minister of Foreign Affairs, were completely taken aback by the news of peace deals with the Gulf states. This fact exacerbated the crisis of confidence between the parties, but officially the current impasse between Likud and “Blue and White” is over the failure to pass a state budget for 2020 and 2021.

Netanyahu has always said he wants a budget for two years, but Gantz has opposed that approach due to the precarious situation the nation is facing in light of the ongoing Corona crisis.

Yair Lapid, opposition leader and head of the Yesh Atid party, was behind the bill to dissolve the current Knesset. Gantz’s party voted in favor of this proposal on Wednesday, but that does not mean that the Knesset will now be dissolved immediately.

By law, there will be three more votes on Lapid’s bill, one of which will be in a special Knesset House Committee meeting next Monday.

Lapid’s bill received a majority of 61 to 54 votes in the Knesset after the 9 “Blue and White” members voted with the opposition. A Likud spokesman dubbed the move and act of betrayal and claimed that “Blue and White” had never been a genuine member of the government.

Putting Lapid’s bill aside, the fact is that under Israeli law the Knesset will automatically disband on December 23 if no state budget is passed by that date. That would lead to new elections sometime between mid-March and mid-June. The Central Election Committee could still change these dates, but chances that it will doing so are slim.

Gantz blames Netanyahu for the current crisis, and has charged the prime minister with thinking only of himself rather than the good of the nation. His remarks were a clear reference to Netanyahu’s legal troubles. The prime minister is facing three charges of fraud and bribery in a Jerusalem court.

Netanyahu, however, has the most to gain should Israel hold early elections in the coming six months. Every poll still gives his Likud party the most seats in the next Knesset, though it would fall from its current 35 mandates to 30 according to these predictions. His primary rival would be the right-wing Yamina party lead by Naftali Bennett, a former Education and Defense Minister who is predicted to win between 22-24 mandates.

“Blue and White” is expected to maintain its current 9 seats, while Lapid’s Yesh Atid would win 19 mandates. Lapid’s ambition to become prime minister remains a pipe dream, not least of which because Israeli voters see the former TV presenter as a spineless talking head who is ill-equipped to lead the nation.

Bennett and Yamina are a completely different story. The explosive growth of Yamina from its current 5 seats is entirely due to Bennett’s efforts during the Corona crisis, when he visited average citizens on an almost daily basis to listen and consider their concerns. Bennett then produced an alternative plan for dealign with the crisis the was widely welcomed by the public, while the Netanyahu government ignored it entirely.

Bennett, a former high-tech entrepreneur who is known as a determined and pragmatic politician, has made a name for himself as a leader who puts first the interests of the public.

Only compromise between Likud and “Blue and White” can now prevent new elections.

Netanyahu and Gantz are currently under great pressure to reach a compromise on the state budget by December 23, because the public in Israel is fed up with the political maneuvering and does not want new elections.

On Thursday the two leaders held a brief closed-door meeting on the sidelines of a welcome ceremony for new immigrants from Ethiopia. But it remains to be seen if these efforts will bear fruit, since Netanyahu has the most to gain from holding new elections.

Under the current coalition agreement, Netanyahu, who’s the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history, is obligated to vacate his position in November next year and allow Gantz to take over as prime minister for the remainder of the government’s term. As things currently stand, it seems Gantz’s dream of becoming prime minister will remain just that: a dream!

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