As Israel enters into its fourth election in three years, impending corruption charges for the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could decide the fate of Israeli politics for years to come.
Having just emerged from an incredibly tumultuous year marked by widespread anti-government protests and a failure to effectively deal with the coronavirus crisis, in early December Israel began one of the world’s most ambitious vaccination programs, aiming to have the whole population of 9,000,000 people vaccinated by the end of April. But the euphoria which should have surrounded the initiation of this ambitious vaccination campaign was immediately quenched by the announcement, on the 22nd of December, that for the fourth time in three years, Israel is entering into an election.
On the face of it, the reason for this latest election was the collapse of the power-sharing coalition established as a result of the previous election in March 2020. Israel’s parliamentary system requires a 61-seat majority in the Knesset and the fragmented nature of Israel’s political map has historically necessitated the formation of often contentious coalitions between parties to secure the required seats. Previous elections in 2019 had both resulted in political stalemates, with none of the major parties willing to make the necessary concessions to enter into government. Thus, in March 2020, having secured just under 30% of the votes, Netanyahu and his Likud party were once again in search of an ally with whom they could form a coalition.
Despite opposition to Netanyahu being a fundamental element of his campaign, the leader of the centrist Blue and White Alliance, Benny Gantz, reneged on his election promises and entered into a coalition with Netanyahu and Likud. The terms of the agreement stipulated that Netanyahu would remain as Prime Minister until November 2021 before ceding control to Benny Gantz, who would adopt the title of Alternate Prime Minister. But the relationship was marred from the outset by infighting and distrust, and when the two parties failed to ratify a budget in late December, the seven-month old government was immediately dissolved.
But many Israeli political commentators are pointing to Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial as a primary motivating factor for his reluctance to ratify the budget and thus force an election. Speaking to the Financial Times, the former Israeli politician Yohanan Plesner, remarked “the reason we’re heading to an election is because Netanyahu refused to pass a budget so he can remain prime minister for the duration of the trial.” The trial, relating to alleged corruption and bribery, and which, in words not unfamiliar to 2020, Netanyahu denounces as a left-wing ”witch hunt” against him, has been but another black mark on a political career dotted with political deviancy and could spell the end of Netanyahu’s involvement in Israeli politics and may potentially see him serve a hefty prison sentence. Faced with such a daunting charge sheet, maintaining his political and social power as Prime Minister is a central concern for Netanyahu as the trial nears its conclusion in mid-2021.
But Netanyahu’s success in the upcoming election is by no means guaranteed. His increasingly unilateral and insular approach to governing has alienated many within his own party and as a result of this his two main contenders in March will be former allies of his from Likud who have defected from the party and are contesting the election as leaders of newly formed parties. These two parties, New Right and New Hope, both of which are more to the right of the political compass than the already very conservative Likud, could dethrone Netanyahu if they were willing to form a coalition with any of the multitude of right-wing parties in Israel. Netanyahu’s usual tactic of framing his political opponents as radically left-wing will be useless in the run up to this election, and many believe he will struggle to fight an election against candidates more to the right than himself.
The current state of affairs in the United States will also be of concern to Netanyahu. Israeli politics is heavily tied to and influenced by events in the U.S and the descent into chaos which is increasingly coming to characterise Trump’s final weeks in office may push voters away from Netanyahu towards a candidate who would be in a better position to deal with the Biden administration. Netanyahu was one of the last world leaders to congratulate Biden on his victory and he has had a pretty contentious relation with the Democratic Party in recent years, and the fear that his relationship with Biden could damage the wider American-Israeli relationship could be a deciding factor for many Israeli voters.
For Benny Gantz and the Blue and White Alliance, the picture is bleak. Gantz’s decision to partner with Netanyahu alienated many on the Israeli left and centre-left and the party’s failure to inflict any meaningful change on Israeli politics during their short stint in government has left many commentators and pollsters prophesising the end for the Alliance. Their absence may create a space for another centrist or leftist alliance to emerge but the fractured and fragmented Israeli left which has also succumbed to considerable infighting in the past year does not look set to be in a position to influence Israeli politics for a number of years.
On the international scene, Israel has recently signed a number of historic ‘normalisation’ agreements with neighbouring Arab nations, all as part of Donald Trump’s drive towards ending conflict in the region through his ‘Deal of the Century’ peace plan. The deals, which ignore a multitude of complex geo-political realities in the Middle East, have been widely criticised by scholars in the region and further afield. But Netanyahu will hope that, coupled with the rapid vaccination program already underway in Israel, these deals will be sufficient to appease his right-wing base and prevent him from losing too many votes to his former colleagues.
So, for Netanyahu, the next few months will be spent trying to, in between court appearances, convince a tired and angry Israeli electorate that he is the ideal candidate to lead them through what will be undoubtedly a difficult period in the country’s history. Failure to do so will be catastrophic for Netanyahu, so I suspect the next few months will be packed with political and personal attacks, as Netanyahu tries to secure not alone political leadership, but most importantly for him, judicial leniency.