A Campaign Like No Other
Mar 2, 2021 | Amotz Asa-El
A tense tenth election for Bibi
Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu faces the verdict of the voters – again.
Having recently begun his 13th consecutive year in power and 16th overall, Israel’s embattled Prime Minister is now the developed world’s longest serving leader after Germany’s Angela Merkel. It is a status he might lose following the March 23 vote, even though he and his party, the Likud, are leading handsomely in all polls.
That’s because Israel’s fourth election in less than two years looks markedly different from the previous three. The most crucial difference is that Likud’s main rival in those contests, Blue and White, has disintegrated and no longer possesses a following roughly equal to Likud’s.
Blue and White split last year when its leader, current Defence Minister Benny Gantz, decided to join Netanyahu’s coalition. His main partner and number two, former finance minister Yair Lapid, refused to join him, and thus became Leader of the Opposition.
In this election, Lapid is again fielding his original party, Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”), with polls predicting he will win some 15% of the vote. Gantz is forecast to win hardly a third of that and may not even pass the threshold to enter the Knesset. This leaves Likud and Yesh Atid – which looks likely to be the second largest party in the next Knesset, according to opinion polls – with a predicted ratio of votes that is nearly 3:2 in favour of Likud.
However, while Likud can bask in its apparent defeat of the Blue and White challenge from the political centre, it must now contend with challenges from the Right.
The key challengers are former defence minister Naftali Bennett and his Yamina (“Rightward”) party, and former education minister Gideon Sa’ar and his New Hope party, which between them are currently forecast to garner between 20-25% of the vote – potentially comparable to the Likud’s predicted 24-27%
On the face of it, these seem to be similar challenges to some that Netanyahu has already faced in the recent past. For instance, former finance minister Moshe Kahlon left Likud and established a party called Kulanu (“All of Us”), which in 2015 won nearly a 10th of the electorate. However, that party later dissolved. Similarly, former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman left Likud and established Yisrael Beteinu (“Israel our home”), which in 2009 won 15 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. However, since then it has lost more than half of that following.
Then again, the context is different this time around. Bennett and Sa’ar are attacking Netanyahu in ways he has never been previously challenged from the Right.
The biggest change since last March’s election has been the coronavirus pandemic.
The crisis which has rattled the entire world since then has added yet more contentiousness to Netanyahu’s already controversial image, arming both sides of the debate regarding his record and future.
Netanyahu and his followers celebrate Israel’s vaccination program, which has indeed been remarkable.
Israel had vaccinated 3.8 million people by mid-February – 44% of the population. That’s twice as high a proportion as the next highest vaccinator, Britain. The rest of the world is well below these levels, The US and Germany, for instance, had vaccinated 11.1% and 3.3% of their populations respectively at that time, according to “Our World in Data”.
Netanyahu, who did indeed personally lead the effort to purchase millions of vaccines ahead of other countries, is making this a central feature of his campaign, claiming he led Israel to victory over the virus.
Netanyahu’s opponents point to the pandemic’s exorbitant economic cost, and the Government’s haphazard policy-making toward it over the course of last year, which they portray as “shoot from the hip” administration and political chaos.
The pandemic’s special spending, including swollen unemployment payments and compensation packages for businesses, resulted in a NIS 160.3 billion (approximately A$62.26 billion) budget deficit, equal to 11.7% of GDP – a shortfall Israel had not seen since the hyperinflation crisis of the 1980s. GDP itself contracted last year by an unprecedented 4.2%.
Bennett and Sa’ar blame these numbers on Netanyahu personally, citing in particular his failure to pass a national budget since the last election. This failure was indeed the cause of the current early election, and Netanyahu’s opponents claim that not passing a budget and forcing an election was the PM’s aim all along, in the alleged hope a new Knesset would be elected which would pass a law postponing his trial on corruption charges until he leaves office.
Netanyahu’s opponents also say that his Finance Minister, Yisrael Katz, kept improvising and imposing upon the civil servants, causing both the budget director and the director-general of the Treasury Department to resign, instead of working collegially and methodically with them.
In terms of the policy itself, Netanyahu’s opponents, especially Bennett, say the repeated sweeping lockdowns of workplaces, schools and malls over the past year were medically unnecessary and economically destructive.
These contradictory impressions concerning Netanyahu’s coronavirus record – positive regarding the vaccine rollout, less so with respect to previous pandemic management – may have cancelled each other out as electoral factors if not for the added controversy over the ultra-Orthodox community’s response to the plague.
Netanyahu’s opponents charge that the Government’s failure to shut down Ben Gurion Airport until late January was a surrender to his ultra-Orthodox political allies, who wanted American students to continue flying back and forth to Israel’s religious seminaries. It was, they claim, part of a broader picture.
There have been massively attended ultra-Orthodox weddings and funerals in stark violation of the pandemic’s restrictions, with police apparently turning a blind eye. In addition, some ultra-Orthodox elementary schools remained open while all other schools were shuttered.
Many voters whose children spent a full year at home, struggling to study through Zoom and with parents having to somehow keep them busy and active, are angry at what they see as a double standard. Some of them might punish Netanyahu at the ballot box.
This may well help explain predictions from pollsters that Netanyahu and his Likud party, despite their handsome lead overall, are likely to lose roughly one-fifth of the 36 Knesset seats they currently hold.
Moreover, beyond these pandemic issues, Netanyahu also faces an unprecedented rightwing attack on his moral record.
Netanyahu’s original right-wing competitors, namely Bennett and Lieberman, avoided criticising him in the wake of the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust that he is currently facing in court. Sa’ar has broken that pattern, and charges Netanyahu with imposing his personal legal situation onto his party’s politics, and prioritising his own personal interest in avoiding facing justice over the national interest. Likud, Sa’ar said in a televised address, has ceased to serve ideas, and instead serves its leader.
This assault, too, will be tested in this election, with New Hope offering voters a “clean government” ticket that is also impeccably right-wing, so much so that its candidates include former minister Benny Begin, son of the late Likud founder and guiding light, former PM Menachem Begin.
Netanyahu, for his part, hopes to offset these challenges by emphasising the peace and normalisation agreements he has delivered with four Arab states.
Just how this exceptional constellation of pandemic, diplomatic, and legal circumstances impresses voters is what will decide whether Netanyahu’s protracted incumbency will continue or end.
If polls are correct, Netanyahu’s Likud and its allied ultra-Orthodox parties will end up with even fewer seats than the 52 they currently hold. That figure, which falls well short of half the Knesset’s 120 seats, is what compelled Netanyahu to create a coalition with Benny Gantz last year.
Sa’ar had made a very clear public commitment not to serve under Netanyahu after the election. Bennett, however, has made no such statement, saying he is against such political boycotts. Netanyahu thus hopes Bennett will provide him the backing he will need to create the kind of narrow, right-wing coalition in which he, Netanyahu, feels most at home.
However, Bennett has been humiliated by Netanyahu repeatedly over the years, and is believed to have a deep mistrust of the PM he once served as chief of staff. Moreover, Bennett has worked well with both Lapid and Sa’ar.
Chances are therefore looking high that the three will team up to unseat Netanyahu, even though this would appear to require a colourful and very broad governing coalition ranging from Lieberman and Bennett on the Right to Labor and Meretz on the Left. Those two left-leaning parties are expected to garner some 7% of the vote, though one of the two might push the other under the electoral threshold.
Another factor which could raise the prospect of Netanyahu being replaced is, paradoxically, the legitimacy he himself lent to Israeli Arab politicians, whom he used to deride as anti-Zionists and supporters of terrorism.
Netanyahu held talks with one such lawmaker, Dr. Mansour Abbas, a dentist with Islamist beliefs, seeking Abbas’ support for his coalition. Abbas, for his part – now running as the head of his own party – has said only Likud could make peace, and called on his former partners in the Joint List, a federation of Israeli Arab parties, to consider backing a Likud-led coalition in return for expanded budgets for Israeli Arab causes.
This precedent makes it more likely that Arab lawmakers could vote in favour – or at least abstain – in a parliamentary vote to unseat Netanyahu and crown the liberal Lapid, or even the nationalist Sa’ar, as his successor after this election.
That is in the case the pandemic protest vote proves insufficient to unseat Netanyahu. Then again, Netanyahu’s self-congratulatory stance as pandemic saviour and peacemaker may yet deliver him the victory he craves. In ten prime ministerial bids over a quarter of a century, including two defeats and three inconclusive elections, such a victory would be Netanyahu’s fifth. From his personal point of view, it would also almost certainly be the sweetest.