Israel's fourth election: What will be the same, what will be different?

DIPLOMACY: There is one seemingly timeless issue that will dominate this campaign as it has the last three: Benjamin Netanyahu.

HERE WE go again. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
HERE WE go again.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Here we go again: For the fourth time in two years, Israel is hurtling full force to another election.
And while one could justifiably ask why the results this time should be any different than the last three elections, when Israel ended up with a hung jury, it is worth noting three factors that may come into dominant play this time that were not significant in the three previous campaigns dating back to March 2019: the coronavirus, US President-elect Joe Biden and Iran.
But before looking at those new factors – two that are very new (the virus and Biden), and one (Iran) that could play a much bigger part in the campaign this time – it is also worth bearing in mind that there is one seemingly timeless issue that will dominate this campaign as it has the last three: Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israel is not divided down the middle – as it has been in years past, over issues such as Judea and Samaria, the Ashkenazi-Sephardi rift, or what kind of economic system it should adopt – but, rather, by Netanyahu.
Is he an Israeli savior or a scoundrel? Should he be coronated or sent to jail? This campaign will be yet another referendum on Netanyahu, Israel’s walking fault line.
Netanyahu’s trial will once again play a starring role in the upcoming campaign, if indeed the process that began with the Knesset voting to disperse itself on Wednesday runs its full course and new elections are called.
Netanyhau’s opponents will argue – again – that his indictments should preclude him from being able to hold the highest elected office in the land, and that such a thing is simply “unthinkable.”
Netanyahu’s supporters, on the other hand, will argue – again – that he is the victim of a witch hunt, a legal fishing expedition led by those who understand that since Netanyahu can’t be defeated at the ballot box, he must be unseated through litigation. His supporters will say that not only is his holding office thinkable, it is desirable.
And none of that is new. Netanyahu’s legal woes have been bedeviling the country since the police began formally investigating him four years ago, in December 2016.
Just weeks before the March 2019 election, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit recommended indictments on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, pending a hearing. Netanyahu’s Likud still went on to garner more votes than any other party in that election, and the right bloc would easily have been able to form a government had Avigdor Liberman not unexpectedly kept his Yisrael Beytenu Party out of the coalition.
Netanyahu’s hearing before Mandelblit took place after the September 17 election, in which Blue and White beat the Likud but could not form a government, and on November 21 Netanyahu was formally indicted.
On January 28, just four weeks before the March 2 elections this year, charges were officially filed. Netanyahu then went on to outpoll Blue and White in the ensuing election.
What does that all mean? That the country knows all about Netanyahu’s legal situation and the ramifications of his remaining in office while under trial, and that it all makes little difference come election day. Netanyahu’s base remains his base, and all of Moshe Ya’alon’s fulminations, and Yair Lapid’s protestations that the situation is totally unacceptable, has mattered little.
Even though an upcoming election might be held in March, after the prime minister’s trial in Jerusalem District Court resumes in February and is thrust one again into the hourly news cycle, it is hard to imagine that this would radically impact the voting. Three instances of indictments not moving the needle constitute a pattern.
SO WHAT HAS changed this time around that could impact on the elections?
First, the coronavirus. When Israel went to the polls in September 2019, corona was the name of a Mexican beer. And when Israel voted in March 2020 the virus had already penetrated our borders, but few people imagined that it would wreak the kind of medical, societal and economic havoc that it has.
Nobody voted on March 2 thinking about which candidate would be best suited to fight a global pandemic. In fact, when people did vote on March 2, they did so while neither distancing themselves 2 meters from the person in front of them in line, nor wearing a mask. Nine months ago now seems like a different era.
But in this election things will be radically different. This time people will be going to the polls – though it is not even clear how safe-voting will be conducted – with the coronavirus having upended their lives. Health and economic issues, which were only tangential factors in the last three elections – and indeed have been overshadowed by security and diplomatic issues in every election here since 1948 – are likely to dominate this time around.
If Netanyahu succeeded in previous elections due in part to the argument that he has kept the country relatively safe from terrorism, in this election his opponents will argue that he has not succeeded in keeping the country safe from the virus. Expect Netanyahu’s opponents to lob the line that more people were killed by coronavirus in less than a year, than by terrorism in more than three decades.
The recent election in the US shows that governments can and will fall as a result of the virus, and that voters do take out their anger, frustration and pain, caused by the virus, on the leader in power.
For Netanyahu the US elections should be a cautionary tale, especially since the opponent he is most concerned about – Yamina’s Naftali Bennett – proved himself efficient as defense minister during the first wave of the virus in taking steps to curb its effects. If Netanyahu is Mr. Security, Bennett has emerged – through his actions and his frequent recommendations on what needs to be done to fight COVID-19 – as Mr. Corona, something likely to work in his favor.
And a final way that the virus is liable to impact on the campaign is that it will rob Netanyahu of one of the strongest tools in his campaign toolbox: personal appearances at large campaign rallies.
Toward the end of the last campaign, Netanyahu crisscrossed the country, speaking at two to three rallies a night, energizing his base and firing up the crowds. He is a quintessential campaigner, and the secret of his success in these campaigns is connecting with the voters at rallies. His much improved showing in March 2020 over September 2019 was largely attributed to these rallies.
But this time, with large public events prohibited because of the virus, he won’t be able to hold these types of rallies. He’ll try on social media, where he has a strong presence, but the effect is not the same. He thrives off the glad-handing of the campaign, but glad-handing is impossible today.
The second new component to factor in this time that did not exist in the previous three elections is President-elect Joe Biden.
The April 9, 2019, election, the first of three elections in 18 months, took place two weeks before Biden officially declared his candidacy for president. And the March 2, 2020, election took place just two days after the turning point in the campaign – Biden’s overwhelming win in the South Carolina primary. In other words, Biden was not on any Israeli voters’ mind on the way to cast their vote.
This time, however, the election is likely to take place just a few weeks after Biden’s inauguration. Interestingly, there is a pattern here. In 2009, the Israeli electorate voted in Netanyahu and a right-wing coalition just weeks after Barack Obama was elected US president, and in 2013 they reelected Netanyahu shortly after Obama himself won a second term.
What’s the lesson there? The way America votes does not impact on how Israelis cast their ballots, and Israelis do not vote according to which candidate shares the worldview closest to that of the US president, and who it would seem would be able to forge a better relationship with him. This might seem counterintuitive, but it is borne out by what happened both in 2009 and 2013.
Which doesn’t mean that there will not be a Biden factor in the upcoming elections. There will be to the extent that Biden is not US President Donald Trump, and there will be nobody in the White House who will give Netanyahu preelection gifts in the hope that this will help him at the ballot box.
Trump bestowed two major gifts on Netanyahu before two of the last three elections – recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights before the March 2019 balloting, and the “Deal of the Century” before the March 2020 voting. Did it help? Netanyahu’s worst showing came before the one election – September 2019 – when there were no Trump gifts forthcoming.
Israelis have shown that they do not vote on their prime minister because of who is in the White House, but the person in the White House can sway some votes if he bestows a gift. This is not guaranteed, however. Bill Clinton openly supported Shimon Peres in the 1996 campaign against Netanyahu, and arranged a “Summit of Peacemakers” in Sharm e-Sheikh to help him prior to the election. It didn’t work, and Netanyahu won that year’s voting.
The final element that could be a factor this time, more than in the past three elections, is Iran.
While Iran is always a background factor in that it is part of the country’s major security threats, and security – or, rather, who will best ensure security – is traditionally the main determining factor in how Israelis vote, this time, because of the killing of Iran’s nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and the possibility of Iranian retributive action, it could be a more concrete factor.
Many are speculating that the Iranian leaders might delay their vowed retaliation until after Trump is out of office on January 20, to deprive the US president of an excuse to attack or undertake any other major military step. The Iranians would also be wise to factor the Israeli election calendar into their calculations as well.
Why? Because if Iran attacks Israel now, Netanyahu – who in his more than 14 years in office has proven that he is not a military adventurer or someone fast on the trigger – might be tempted to use an attack as an excuse to hit Iran harder than Israel has ever hit it in the past, first as a way to push back its nuclear program and act as a deterrent, and secondly because this is something that could redound to his advantage politically.
This is not to say Netanyahu would risk such an attack to win an election, but, rather, that it could be another item to place on the plus side of the pro-con ledger to be drawn up when considering a response to any Iranian retribution.
Sound crazy? Consider the following: on June 7, 1981, Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor under construction at Osirak. Then, it was prime minister Menachem Begin who gave the order. Israel went to the polls 23 days later.
Did Begin attack Osirak because of the election? No, though Peres – his opponent at the time – criticized the attack as a “political ploy.” Peres’s criticism of what most Israelis felt justified and fervently applauded did help Begin, and in the end Begin’s Likud beat Peres’s Labor by one seat and went on to form the next government.
The Iranians are known for a long historical memory. They would do well to keep recent Israeli history in mind as well when considering their next moves.