As we enter a fourth round of elections in two years, one cannot help noticing that besides the fact that four rounds of elections in a row, for whatever reason, are highly irregular in a democratic system, the way the political constellation is shaping up toward these elections, and the nature of the campaign that is unfolding, are anything but normal.
The results of the elections to the 21st, 22nd and 23rd Knessets, and the results of opinion polls regarding the predicted outcome of the elections to the 24th Knesset, all indicate that the Israeli public is more or less split down the middle on the question of whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should remain in power or be ousted, with a slight advantage to the latter.
In any normal country, this would be taken as a clear indication that what is required is a government made up of all the parties that are more concerned with national unity and reconciliation than with the personal interests of a certain political leader, or with realizing their ideological platforms, which will at long last cut us loose from the Gordian knot that is threatening to stifle us.
In the first of the four election campaigns, Netanyahu, at the head of the Likud, and his right-religious bloc, were confronted by a single conglomeration of three centrist parties that had decided to run together as Blue and White, a rapidly diminishing Labor Party, the relatively stable Meretz, and the newly formed Joint List, made up of four Arab parties that were forced to join together by the qualifying threshold being raised from 2% to 3.25%, which had been initiated by Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, in order to try to get rid of at least one of the Arab parties.
By the third round of elections, the center-left “just not Bibi” bloc was first joined by a right-wing party,Yisrael Beytenu, and following these elections another right-wing party – Naftali Bennett’s Yamina – half-heartedly joined. However, the new bloc, which had a majority in the Knesset, was unable to form a government because there was no agreement about such a government being supported by the Joint List, with its 15 Knesset seats, so that in practical terms the majority was sterile.
In the current round of elections there are three right-wing parties running under the slogan “Bibi must go,” after a group of Likud MKs broke away from the Likud and formed a party under Gideon Sa’ar. Of the three, Yamina does not identify itself as a “just not Bibi” party.
However, the most significant change on the political map is the fact that almost nothing remains of Blue and White, following the decision of its leader, Benny Gantz, to join an emergency government led by Netanyahu several months after the third round of elections, contrary to his promise to Blue and White’s voters that he would not sit in a government with Netanyahu, and later on his inclination to remain in this malfunctioning government, despite all of Netanyahu’s broken promises to him.
Today, Blue and White has been replaced by the medium-sized Yesh Atid, which was one of its components, and a large number of new center-left splinter parties, which will have to try to create unions among themselves by February 4, in order to avoid the loss of numerous center-left votes.
The political constellation has changed also because of the great weakening of the Joint List due to internal squabbles (the polls show it going down to 10 Knesset seats).
IN THIS situation Netanyahu has developed a whole set of tricks and machinations to try to increase the chances of his own bloc gaining the majority that has eluded it in the three previous elections.
The first, which he practiced also during the previous three campaigns, and seems to be repeating in a slightly different form in the current one, is to prevent right-wing votes being lost due to splinter parties failing to pass the qualifying threshold, by actively encouraging all the National-Religious, right-wing parties to run in a single list – including Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Kahanist Otzma Yehudit, which before 2019 was considered morally “beyond the pale.”
This time, Netanyahu seems to be interested in the separation between Yamina and Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union, while encouraging Smotrich to run with Ben-Gvir, since this couple is certain to join the coalition he hopes to form (if they will pass the qualifying threshold), while Yamina is currently sitting on the fence, and Bennett has his eyes set on the premiership.
Simultaneously, Netanyahu is doing something that until now was considered inconceivable – courting individual Arab voters, with the hope that through promises and whispers of sweet nothings he might convince large numbers of them to vote for the Likud, on the one hand, and reaching all sorts of tactical understandings with the United Arab List, so that it might support his candidacy for prime minister after the elections, and vote with his bloc both on procedural matters and on bills that he wishes to enact, without including it in his coalition. For the first time he has also included an Arab candidate in the Likud list.
Netanyahu is also trying to gain the support of Jewish voters who might be considering voting for either Sa’ar, Bennett or Liberman, by bragging about the peace, or normalization of relations, agreements he signed with four Arab states (with US President Donald Trump’s extremely generous assistance), and his great success in acquiring millions of anti-COVID-19 vaccinations, and having them flown to Israel way ahead of other countries that are also anxiously awaiting their arrival.
The use Netanyahu is making of the vaccinations for political purposes is cynical, since as head of the government it is his duty to ensure that the vaccinations be acquired and delivered as soon as possible, while the manner in which he allegedly achieved this feat has been (according to his own admission) to place heavy pressure on the Jewish CEO of the pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer by contacting him directly at least 13 times, and to agree (according to media reports) to pay an exorbitant price for the vaccinations and their quick delivery.
Then, rather than keep silent about the nature of the deal in order to avoid embarrassing Pfizer, and to avoid encouraging the spread of “Elders of Zion”-style conspiracy theories, he turned it into a shameless election campaign issue, personally going down to Ben-Gurion Airport every time a consignment of the vaccinations arrives, for a photo opportunity.
Since there are still nine weeks to go to Election Day, it is difficult to tell how the campaign will proceed. At the moment it is Netanyahu who is calling the shots, and it is not clear whether his rivals will manage to force him to contend with all his personal failings and policy failures – especially in the economic field.
The approaching elections, like the three that preceded it, will once again be about “yes Bibi” versus “no Bibi” – that is unavoidable. Hopefully, it will be the last such election, and the elections to the 25th Knesset will return to something resembling normalcy.
The writer was a researcher in the Knesset Research and Information Center until her retirement, and recently published a book in Hebrew, The Job of the Knesset Member – An Undefined Job.