Election merry-go-round - Israel braces for a fourth round of voting

The coronavirus and, more specifically, the government’s handling of the pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis, has dominated this election campaign.

Gideon Sa'ar, Naftali Bennett, or Benjamin Netanyahu: Who is Israel's next prime minister? (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90 AND MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Gideon Sa'ar, Naftali Bennett, or Benjamin Netanyahu: Who is Israel's next prime minister?
Israelis head to the polls on March 23 for the fourth time in two years and, once again, the outcome hangs in the balance as a deeply divided nation decides whether or not to grant Benjamin Netanyahu a renewed mandate.
The coronavirus and, more specifically, the government’s handling of the pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis, has dominated this election campaign.
When the Knesset failed to pass a budget in December, automatically triggering early elections, the prime minister hoped to turn Israel’s worst-ever health crisis to his advantage.
Unveiling an ambitious vaccination campaign, he set the target of having families and friends sitting safely together around the Passover Seder table at the end of March, just a few days after the election date. As the whole world scrambled to obtain coronavirus vaccines, Israel struck a deal with Pfizer to ensure enough vaccines to inoculate the entire population.
Netanyahu took credit and hoped his popularity would surge as Israel defeated the pandemic. “We decided that Israel will be a global model state for the rapid vaccination of an entire country. We truly are a light unto the nations,” he bombastically declared. ”This is a breakthrough that will take us out of the coronavirus crisis and open the economy.”
But the strategy failed. The virus proved more resilient than thought and despite the impressive vaccination rollout, new strains of the disease meant infection rates remained high. The reopening of schools, shops and entertainment venues went slower than planned. Three weeks before the election the reproduction rate (the R number) stood at close to 1, with health officials warning that a Passover lockdown could not be ruled out.
Health Ministry Director General Chezy Levy said the plan by the government to ease coronavirus restrictions in the few weeks prior to the election was due to electoral considerations.
“We all assess that all these discussions are influenced and tainted by the panic over elections and are affected by it,” he said.
Netanyahu, who set a target of 36-40 seats for the Likud, failed to take off, even though the party remained significantly ahead of its nearest rival, Yesh Atid with a projected 19 seats. The pattern of Likud syphoning off votes from the smaller parties has so far failed to materialize and the polls showed very little movement.
In early March it looked like Israel was heading for another electoral stalemate. Most polls showed the Likud with 27-29 seats, and together with his natural allies, the two ultra-Orthodox parties, failing to achieve a 61-seat Knesset majority even if Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, with its 11-12 projected seats, was added.
Bennett set himself up as the potential kingmaker of the March election, steadfastly refusing to join either the “Only-Bibi” or the rival “Anyone-But-Bibi” camp. He considers himself a candidate for prime minister to replace Netanyahu, but refuses to rule out joining a Netanyahu government if the numbers dictate such a policy.
Bennett’s policy of not ruling out any other Zionist party changed dramatically in late February when he declared that although he would be willing to be part of a coalition with the centrist Yesh Atid, he would not serve in a government headed by Yair Lapid.
“He’s on the Left,” Bennett said of Lapid in an interview. “We don’t have a problem if he will be part of a government, but he can’t be its head,” he said. “Netanyahu can be replaced only by someone on the right.”
Gideon Sa’ar, head of the rightwing New Hope, was quick to follow suit.
“The camp on the Left is a small camp in the public and in the Knesset. Most people are right of center, so it’s not possible to have a government headed by Lapid. It’s just not possible politically. Everyone who understands the political system knows this,” Sa’ar said.
The declarations by the leaders of the two main right-wing parties opposing the Likud left commentators scrambling to cobble together a theoretical coalition without the Likud and the Haredi parties, assuming that Netanyahu cannot muster the support of 61 Knesset members.
But according to Dr, Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion researcher who has covered eight Israeli elections, such declarations should be taken with a pinch of salt.
“Anyone following Israeli elections knows full well that promises made regarding who will go into a coalition with whom at this point should be roundly and summarily ignored because they are broken dependably after every election.”
Any coalition to prevent Netanyahu remaining in power will almost certainly need Yesh Atid, New Hope, Yamina and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu as its base. The rejuvenated Labor party under Merav Michaeli and Blue and White would in all likelihood have to join in order to achieve a working majority and maybe also Meretz, even though Naftali Bennett insists he will not be part of a coalition that includes Meretz.
Above and beyond the question of who would lead such a coalition and what rotation agreements could satisfy the egos of the party leaders, there is the very real challenge of drawing up policy guidelines that would be acceptable to parties with such differing ideologies and agendas. Will the collective desire to end the Netanyahu era be enough to overcome such difficulties?
Overriding all such electoral calculations is the fact that 4 parties are  close to the 3.25% minimum threshold required to enter the Knesset with 4 seats: Meretz, Blue and White, the Religious Zionist Party led by Bezalel Smotrich and the Arab party Ra’am, which split from the Joint List.
Any of the four parties failing to enter the Knesset will impact on the overall seat distribution and a scenario in which both Meretz and Blue and White both fail to cross the line is likely to hand a decisive advantage to the right. Both parties declared that they would compete to the bitter end but pressure is likely to increase for them to withdraw at the last minute if the polls close to Election Day show them consistently failing to reach the minimum 4-seat mark.
However, according to Scheindlin, the fate of the small parties is not the only factor that could swing the outcome.
“Often in the last few weeks before an election there are some late hour shifts: sometimes in the last few days before an election. So there could be a surprise leap for one of the parties – usually one of the bigger or medium-sized parties – and that could also change the dynamics of coalition- building afterwards.”
In contrast to previous elections, the March vote does not see Netanyahu facing his biggest challenge from the center-left. Blue and White has disintegrated and New Hope and Yamina are both challenging the Likud from the right. Aiming to syphon votes from his right-wing opponents, Netanyahu’s campaign has stressed repeatedly that Sa’ar and Bennett will serve in a Lapid government.
The prime minister’s determination to ensure that no votes go to waste in the right-wing camp was clearly demonstrated with his behind the scenes political maneuvering led to Bezalel Smotrich quitting Yamina to form a joint list with Itamar Ben-Gvir from the far-right Otzma Yehudit party.
Ben-Gvir, a supporter of the late rabbi Meir Kahane’s racist Kach party, said that if he is elected as a Knesset member in a Netanyahu -led coalition he expects to be given a position of influence and will promote his plan to encourage some Arab Israelis to emigrate.
Netanyahu was also believed to have played a part in the breakup of the predominantly Arab Joint List. Contacts with Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas was one of the factors that contributed to Ra’am deciding to run separately from the other three parties on the list. Abbas argued that striking a deal with the prime minister was the best way to serve the Israeli Arab electorate.
It is unclear if Abbas’s party will cross the electoral threshold but the Joint List has been significantly weakened (benefitting Netanyahu) and is projected to win only 8-9 seats, down from 15 in the last election.
Two weeks after the election, on April 5, the witness stage will begin in the Netanyahu corruption trial. By then, hopefully, we will know if the defendant in the dock accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, already Israel’s longest-serving leader, is about to serve another term as prime minister or is about to become a former prime minister.