Israel braces for its fourth election in two years

The March election will not be the usual Netanyahu vs the centre-left. This time, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister will have to focus his efforts against right-wing rivals.

GIDEON SAAR in his Knesset office this week: Leadership is based on advancing your ideology, and the public respects that. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
GIDEON SAAR in his Knesset office this week: Leadership is based on advancing your ideology, and the public respects that.
The most dysfunctional government in Israel’s history came to an inglorious end in the early hours of December 22nd when Knesset members voted 49-47 against extending the deadline for passing the budget.
The dramatic vote automatically triggered new elections, forcing Israel to hold its fourth election in two years on March 23.
Earlier in December, Gideon Sa’ar upset the political apple cart when he quit the Likud to form the New Hope party, which immediately established itself as a serious rival on the right to both Likud and Yamina.
The New Hope momentum was maintained a few days after the fall of the government when minister Ze’ev Elkin, one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closest associates, dropped a political bombshell, declaring he was also resigning from the Likud to join Sa’ar’s new party.
Elkin did not mince his words in a biting indictment of Netanyahu’s leadership when he announced his defection in a live television address.
“I have increasingly felt that your personal considerations and the whims of your close inner circle have played an increasingly more central role in the process of making decisions, the impact of which is often critical for the State of Israel and its citizens,” he declared. “As someone who has watched that dangerous process from up close, I am increasingly worried, and my confidence in you and your intentions has become increasingly broken. The personal consideration has become mixed in with the national consideration, and has increasingly come to supersede it.”
The Likud accused Elkin of jumping ship because he failed to get into the party’s top 10 and didn’t get the ministerial position he wanted.
“Gideon’s party is a camp for refugees and defectors who failed in democratic elections in the Likud and who couldn’t get elected in them. Even Elkin knows that Gideon doesn’t have a government without Lapid and the left,” the Likud said in a statement.
The prospect of elections in March was not good for either Netanyahu or Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, so they struck a last-minute deal to extend the budget deadline. However, a small number of parliamentarians from both parties failed to back the deal, resulting in the surprise Knesset defeat.
The result of the vote hung in the balance until the last minute and two Knesset members even hid in their cars in the Knesset parking lot until the vote was called, rushing into the chamber at the last minute to vote against, in a successful ruse to deceive the government counters.
One of the Likud rebels, Knesset member Michal Shir, announced after the vote that she was quitting the party to join New Hope. She was joined a few days later by the last remaining member of the Sa’ar camp in the Likud, Sharren Haskel, who was absent from the Knesset vote.
Earlier, the two members of Derech Eretz, originally part of the Telem faction in Blue and White – Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser – had also joined New Hope, as had the much sought- after Likud Knesset member Yifat Sasha-Biton, who came to prominence during the pandemic by repeatedly speaking out against the government response in her role as chair of the Knesset Corona Virus Committee.
Gideon Sa’ar is also pressuring former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot to join his new list, but Eisenkot, who was also reportedly being pursued by other parties as well, has still to decide whether or not he wants to enter politics. The mandatory cooling-off period for high-ranking IDF retirees would prevent Eisenkot from being assigned a ministerial portfolio when the new government is formed.
Netanyahu blamed Blue and White for the collapse of the government, accusing Gantz of failing to get his faction to support the deal to extend the budget deadline.
“I’m not afraid of elections. We’re ready for them, we’ll win,” he declared. “The Israeli public knows who has delivered millions of vaccines, four peace agreements, who is stopping Iran, who has delivered security and who is going to rehabilitate the economy with greater momentum.”
But the polls paint a different story.
A Jerusalem Post poll the weekend after Elkin’s defection showed Likud dropping to 26, compared to 21 for New Hope. Yesh Atid-Telem is projected to receive 15, Yamina 14 and the Joint List 11, followed by Shas – 8, UTJ – 7, Yisrael Beytenu – 7, Meretz – 7 and Blue and White – 4.
Ofer Shelah, who left Yesh Atid to launch his own party, failed to cross the electoral threshold.
A post-election coalition of New Hope, Yamina, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beyteinu based on this poll would garner 57 seats – close enough to the magic figure of 61 to raise the alarm bells on Balfour Street, the Prime Minister’s Residence.
Counting together the votes of the lists opposed to Netanyahu, the “anyone-but-Bibi” bloc – which includes New Hope, Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beytenu, Blue and White and Meretz – totals 54 seats. The Joint List, which at least in part is also opposed to Netanyahu, could, under certain circumstances, bring the bloc to around 65 seats, without Yamina.
Yamina leader Naftali Bennett declared his candidacy for prime minister saying the party was “not in anyone’s pocket,” opening the possibility that Yamina could emerge as this round’s kingmaker when the process of coalition building gets underway.
The March election will not be the usual Netanyahu vs the centre-left. This time, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister will have to focus his efforts against right-wing rivals.
While the political chessboard on the right was coming into focus the options on the centre-left remained anyone’s guess.
Labor leader Amir Peretz confirmed that he was stepping down, leaving the future of the party, which consistently polls under the threshold, in doubt.
Popular Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai is expected to enter the political fray as well and  Blue and White’s Justice Minister  Avi Nissenkorn is reportedly looking for an alternative while Gabi Ashkenazi may leave politics altogether.
With Blue and White plummeting to only four seats in the polls Benny Gantz was pondering his political future and it is entirely possible that the party has reached the end of its shelf life.
It is clear that mergers and alliances are required on the Left, possibly involving Meretz and Labor as well the remnants of Blue and White, Ofer Shelah and Ron Huldai.
A question mark also hangs over the future of the predominantly Arab Joint List. After garnering a historic 15 seats in the last round, the party is now beset by factional disputes.
Mansour Abbas, who heads Ra’am (the United Arab List), one of the four parties making up the Joint List, has in recent weeks made overtures to Netanyahu, indicating that he may support granting him parliamentary immunity in his his graft charges in return for funds and laws benefiting the Arab community.
The overtures angered the other factions, raising speculation that the list may be heading for a breakup ahead of the election.
Final party lists must be presented by the first week of February and the jockeying for position is now well and truly underway.
Two factors likely to have a significant impact on the election are the coronavirus pandemic and Netanyahu’s corruption trial.
A few days after the government fell, Israel’s third lockdown kicked in, crippling the economy again after many businesses, shops and restaurants had struggled to stay afloat during the previous months of lockdowns and restrictions.
The lockdown came in response to a worrying surge in COVID -19infection rates but, at the same time, there was also positive news. On December 20, Israel began a mass vaccination program with medical staff followed by the over-60s and those at high risk. The ambitious plan is to reach 150,000 people receiving the vaccine each day in order to achieve herd immunity before the Passover holiday at the end of March.
Will Netanyahu be able during the election campaign to declare that Israel has defeated the pandemic due to the fact that he was able to bring enough vaccines to the country in record time? Such an achievement could be an election game-changer but even under this optimistic scenario the devastating economic impact of the corona crisis felt in hundreds of thousands of households will still be with us when Israelis head to the polls.
In February, the prime minister’s graft trial is set to begin where he will face charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies all the charges, claiming he is the victim of a left-wing witch hunt and it remains to be seen what impact Israel’s trial of the century will have on the vote. But the prospect of images of a prime minister in the dock just weeks before the election does not bode well for the Likud campaign strategists.
Netanyahu entered the last three elections as head of a solid right wing-Haredi bloc. This time that  alliance no longer exists. Gideon Sa’ar managed to throw a political spanner in the works and succeed in attracting at least six other Knesset members to his list, including a Likud minister considered one of the prime minister’s most loyal associates.
Netanyahu has lost his ability to dictate events and is facing an election at a timing not of his own choosing. Everything is up for grabs. ■