In a little less than two months, Israel will face its fourth – yes, you read that right, fourth – parliamentary election in the span of two years. While the first two elections yielded no clear results, the third one formed a unity government between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival, Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz that lasted for only eight months. Now, with the Knesset failing to pass the 2020 state budget before the deadline, Israeli laws stipulate that Israel will hold a fourth election on March 23rd, 2021. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s career may depend on whether his Likud party and its allies can retain a majority in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.
In these eight short months, a lot has happened. The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged Israel. Gantz’s party has broken apart while new forces are on the rise. And now, the ongoing vaccination process might further affect the outcomes.
Anshel Pfeffer, the author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu and an Israel correspondent who has worked for The New York Times and The Washington Post, discussed the current politics of Israel and what to expect from this upcoming election in a Jan. 27 Zoom webinar hosted by the Israel Innovation Project.
Pfeffer noted that for 71 years since the founding of the State of Israel, transitions of power occurred between the Labor and Likud parties without major issues. But this was disrupted by what he calls the “Bibi bug” in the system: the Israeli version of populist politics that is ascendant around the world, where personalities take precedence over issue.
Israeli politics and the party system have evolved to center around Prime Minister Netanyahu since 2009, when he was first elected. Especially in the past few elections, there has been “no issue, no agenda,” Pfeffer said. “It was all about, ‘is Netanyahu suitable?’”
Even though Netanyahu is losing support, the opposition against him is fragmented and has failed to provide an alternative vision. The Labor Party, considered the Israeli “state-building organization” and once the main competitor of the Likud party, had been in decline ever since it lost its first election and with it, its own party identity. The new parties trying to replace Labor, Ariel Sharon’s Kadima party and now, Gantz’s own Kahol Lavan alliance, all faded away within five years of their initial rise.
Still, there might be hope for the center-left. According to Pfeffer, Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli indicated a possibility that the party might regain an identity if it looks for new ideas. However, this might take a long time to achieve.
Looking away from the center-left, Pfeffer found an unexpected challenge to Netanyahu. “[The] biggest challenge to Netanyahu, for the first time in polls we see there’s more votes for anti-Netanyahu right-wing parties than for Likud,” Pfeffer said. If the three right-wing parties – Yamina, Yisrael Beiteinu and New Hope – stand their ground against Netanyahu, the prime minister may be ousted for the first time in 12 years. This alternative, however, could involve very bizarre scenarios, where the right-wing parties have to form a coalition with centrists, the Labor Party or even the left-wing Meretz party.
Even though there are only two months until the election, it is still hard to predict what might happen. For one, there’s still eight days before the filing deadline for parties. Usually, the party leaders will “merge their parties at the last moment,” making the final political lineup still uncertain, Pfeffer said.
Another uncertainty is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and Israel’s vaccination efforts. Netanyahu “will be seen as the failure who dropped the ball,” Pfeffer said, “or he will be seen as the savior who delivered vaccinations.” Will Netanyahu prevail in convincing the voters? Or will backlash against his ultra-orthodox allies for not abiding by lockdown rules be his downfall?
The upcoming months can make or break Netanyahu’s future career. It represents a challenge, but also an opportunity, for the Israeli opposition to build an alternative vision for Israel.