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Israel’s Fourth Round of Elections Closer Than Ever

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19 Mar 2021
Israel’s Fourth Round of Elections Closer Than Ever

Israelis will head to the ballot box next Tuesday (23 March) in their fourth national elections of the past 30 months. The latest polls indicate this may be the closest race yet in these repetitive bids to oust long-time Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. Somehow, he has managed to stay in office for more than a decade now, despite numerous determined attempts to unseat him, but the key to whether Netanyahu will remain in power this time lies within his own nationalist camp.

The election campaign is winding down just as the nation is emerging from a major corona-related lockdown, thanks to the Netanyahu government’s very ambitious mass vaccination program. With almost 90% of all Israeli adults now vaccinated, everyone is hoping for life to return to normal and for the economy to recover. This may give Netanyahu a last-minute boost which keeps him in office. But it is just as possible that too many party leaders from the center/right – namely Naftali Bennett of Yamina, Gideon Sa’ar of New Hope, and Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beiteinu – will refuse to join a Netanyahu-led coalition, thereby ending his historic run as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

How did we get here?
In the third election cycle last March, the center/left cobbled together an alignment of parties featuring Benny Gantz and two other former IDF chiefs-of-staff, along with Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, to try to bring down “Mr. Security” – as Netanyahu is known. The election results were deadlocked, but due to the corona crisis Gantz decided to break his vow not to sit in a government with Netanyahu and entered a rotation deal which called for Gantz to take over as prime minister in November of this year. However, that agreement fell apart in late December when the ruling coalition failed to pass an annual state budget in time, triggering yet another round of elections.

What is at stake?
Israel’s traditional political fault line of hawks vs doves has been increasingly irrelevant over the last four elections, and never more so than now. The Left vs Right divide has taken a back seat to the simple question ‘Bibi or not Bibi.” The peaceniks are still losing ground to the nationalist camp, but even within his traditional conservative base Netanyahu is hemorrhaging support. Liberman abandoned his former ally last election, and Sa’ar just broke away from Likud to form New Hope on a promise to finally replace Netanyahu with a new prime minister. This has left Bennett in the critical position of kingmaker – able to decide if Bibi stays put or not while exacting political benefits for himself either way. Should Netanyahu prevail yet once more in this prolonged political struggle, his legend as an Israeli leader will only become more embellished.

What is their bone with Bibi?
Many contend that Israeli democracy is actually at stake in this election, due to their perception of Netanyahu as corrupt, self-serving and privileged. Fueled by the three corruption trials now pending against him, the drive to oust Netanyahu has become relentless. The “Black Flag” movement has staged weekly boisterous protests across the country for an entire year now – despite corona lockdowns and stormy winter weather. Even younger rivals on the Right are now jumping onto this bandwagon, perhaps exploiting the growing anti-Bibi sentiment as an opportunity to accelerate their own political rise.

Bibi’s rebuttal
This all ignores, of course, Netanyahu’s many lasting contributions to the country, such as his economic success in marketing Israel as the Start-Up Nation; his adept handling of Israel’s many security challenges, including the Iranian nuclear threat; and his many diplomatic achievements, such as the recent Abraham Accords. In recent days, Netanyahu has even hinted that four more Arab/Muslim nations are ready to make peace with Israel. On the other hand, the landmark normalization pact with the United Arab Emirates did hit a slight snag this week when Netanyahu tried to pay an historic visit that Abu Dhabi sensed was skirting too close to the Israeli elections.

Are there any wild cards?
Polls show there are several parties hovering right at the electoral threshold of 3.25% of the national vote count to enter the Knesset – Blue & White, Religious Zionists, Meretz and Ra’am. The failure of one or more of these parties to reach that minimum number of votes could end up boosting other parties last-minute and thus make a crucial difference in the pro/anti-Bibi divide.

  

In addition, the Arab vote has become a key factor in this election. The Arabs make up around 20% of the Israeli population, and thus could potentially account for some 23 Knesset seats. They traditionally vote for Arab and leftist parties, but Netanyahu is courting them for the first time to vote Likud. The leaders of the main Arab party, the Joint List, broke precedent last election by recommending Gantz as prime minister. There is a chance they might go further and actually seek to join a coalition government this time, but the question is whether that could include one with Netanyahu at its head. In an odd twist, Arab party leaders are still reluctant publicly to sit in a government with Netanyahu, even while one recent survey found that a third of all Arab voters prefer him as prime minister – more than any other candidate. The small breakaway Ra’am party is promising to be pragmatic about securing advances for the Arab sector and thus may provide Netanyahu a difference-making boost from an unusual source.

Final forecast?
Neither Naftali Bennett nor Gideon Sa’ar have managed to build enough backing to seriously challenge for the premiership, leaving Yair Lapid as the only realistic alternative to Netanyahu as the next head of government. There were indications this week that the Likud party has gained a seat or two on Yesh Atid due to the positive national mood created by the recent lifting of corona restrictions and the gradual return to normalcy. Thanks to the mass vaccination campaign, malls and restaurants are starting to re-open – just as the polls are about to open.

Netanyahu has managed to seize just enough last-minute momentum to secure re-election several times before, and it may be happening again. If Bennett could be swayed by this most recent late shift, plus some hefty political rewards, it could be enough to convince him to join Netanyahu in a narrow but stable right-wing government. With such an outcome, Bibi’s political prowess would approach the mythical.

David Parsons is an author, attorney, journalist, and ordained minister who serves as Vice President and senior spokesman for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem; www.icej.org/

FOR MORE INFORMATION on this subject, please watch the ICEJ webinar “The Israeli Elections” from Thursday, 18 March 2021, moderated by ICEJ spokesman David Parsons, and featuring Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, and Chris Mitchell, Jerusalem bureau chief for CBN News.

 

 

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