For the past two years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s detractors have claimed that if he would only get out of the way – resign, retire or expire – the problem of electoral impasse would instantly be solved. The bulk of the media and left-wing public began chanting the mantra after elections for the 21th Knesset on April 9, 2019. Yet it was actually Yisrael Beytenu Party leader Avigdor Liberman who created the first deadlock.
A member of the Right, Liberman had vowed to support Likud. As soon as the votes were in, however – and Netanyahu needed Yisrael Beytenu to secure a victory over the “anybody-but-Bibi” bloc led by Benny Gantz – Liberman suddenly reneged. Nor did he jump on Gantz’s Blue and White bandwagon.
With neither side able to form a government, a second round of Knesset elections was scheduled and subsequently held on September 17 of that year. This time, Blue and White garnered one seat more than Likud, but with no chance of cobbling together a coalition. Again, had Liberman joined his political camp, Netanyahu would have been able to form a government.
Three months later, on December 26, the Netanyahu naysayers claiming that his popularity had run its course were left with egg on their faces when he won the Likud primary by a landslide. This democratic reaffirmation of his party leadership took place just over two months before the third round of Knesset elections on March 2, 2020, which coincided with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
THIS TIME, voters (some of whom had contracted COVID-19 and were provided special polling stations in protective tents) gave Likud a greater number of mandates than Blue and White, but still not enough for Netanyahu or Gantz to form a coalition. After weeks of wrangling, Gantz finally agreed to enter into a national-unity government with Netanyahu.
The arrangement greatly angered the anybody-but-Bibi crew that he was selected to represent. Those most livid were not really his champions per se; they were a diverse bunch with different political affiliations who had come together for the sole purpose of defeating Netanyahu.
The minute that Gantz sealed the deal with their nemesis, the small parties that made up Blue and White splintered off into their original factions. The move returned Likud to its legitimate status as the largest party in the Knesset, and crowned Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid as king of the opposition.
The trouble didn’t end there, of course. In exchange for consenting to join the coalition, Gantz had demanded and received a huge number of important portfolios, including the defense and foreign ministries. The incredibly bloated government, courtesy of the public’s tax shekels, was particularly enraging under the circumstances, with lockdown-spurred layoffs already beginning to take their toll.
To make matters worse, after Lapid and the others ditched Gantz for what they considered to be his “betrayal” of the sole mission that they had anointed him to accomplish – “kicking Bibi out of Balfour” (the street name of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem) – Blue and White’s small size certainly didn’t warrant so many ministries. More importantly, Gantz and his team simply weren’t in Netanyahu’s league.
The sigh of relief heaved by most Israelis when the national-unity coalition was formed to stave off a fourth election quickly turned into a groan of disgust. Ironically, the “unity” coalition emerged as far less stable than the interim government that Netanyahu had been leading alone up until that point.
THIS BRINGS us to the current apparent stalemate, which the final vote count might break. Still, the so-called “tie” between the blocs, with question marks about Naftali Bennett’s Yamina Party and Ra’am, headed by Mansour Abbas, is a fallacy. Unlike in past elections, pollsters have not been scanning the political map from Left to Right. Instead, their charts divide the pie into pro-Netanyahu vs. anti-Netanyahu slices.
In other words, the parties’ stances on the crucial issues (i.e. vaccines, the Abraham Accords, the Iranian threat or Jerusalem-Washington relations) have taken a back seat to their view of Netanyahu personally. And since members of the anybody-but-Bibi side have nothing in common other than a shared hostility to Netanyahu, it can’t be considered a camp in any sense of the word.
The pro-Netanyahu bloc is a different story. In the first place, Likud is still far larger than other party, including Yesh Atid, the second in line. Beyond that, those nearly certain to stick by Netanyahu – United Torah Judaism, Shas and Religious Zionism – share certain fundamentals.
If an impasse follows the final tally, it will be due not to an ideological split in the country, but to those on the Right who wish to get Netanyahu out of the way. Liberman remains so steadfast in his antipathy that his party is no longer considered any sort of potential coalition partner with Likud.
In his place is Gideon Sa’ar, a longtime Likud member who ran and lost against Netanyahu in the party primaries. Sa’ar, who formed the New Hope Party and took a few other disgruntled Likud politicians with him, says that there is no way he’ll support Netanyahu. Though Bennett has been clear that he wishes to replace Netanyahu rather than serve as a minister in a Likud-led government, it’s possible that he’ll be persuaded to change his mind.
In the event that he doesn’t, and if Netanyahu is unable to garner outside support from Ra’am or obtain defectors from other parties, the most likely scenario is a fifth election. The chances of an anybody-but-Bibi coalition being forged seem slim to nil at this juncture. Calling it a “government of change” doesn’t alter that reality.
WHETHER ONE accepts the premise that Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is at fault for the electoral deadlock, the assertion that his absence would make all the difference is revealing. For one thing, it is an acknowledgment of his formidability.
Even his worst enemies don’t deny that he’s a force to be reckoned with, not only politically but diplomatically and ideologically, as well. Their way of belittling his political mastery is to call it “magic.” Indeed, whenever he’s confronted with a complex Knesset puzzle to assemble in order to remain at the helm, critics snidely wonder what rabbit he’ll pull out of his hat.
To minimize his grand stature on the world stage, his haters on the Left claim that he has “isolated” Israel internationally and turned the Jewish state into a “wedge issue” between Democrats and Republicans in the United States. They also dismiss his domestic policies and highlight his lack of interest in working toward peace with the Palestinians.
Cynics on the Right accuse him of not eradicating Hamas, not fostering the settlement enterprise, not eliminating illegal Palestinian construction, and not extending sovereignty to Judea and Samaria and the Jordan Valley.
Noting that none of this has led to Netanyahu’s defeat at the ballot box, the former group points to his indictments as proof that he’s corrupt. The latter claims that though the charges may be trumped up, the distraction of his trial will prevent him from governing properly.
The former group of scoffers have always loathed Netanyahu and his party. In this respect, they shouldn’t be placed in the anybody-but-Bibi category; they would denounce any other Likudnik who took his place.
It’s the latter who have begun to present a problem for him.
There’s no doubt that he’s responsible for much of the resentment on the part of Liberman, Bennett and Sa’ar, each of whom at one point was in his inner circle. Netanyahu’s biggest flaws are his mistreatment of loyalists and refusal to cultivate an heir.
Nevertheless, he’s still standing, thanks to the public who gave the party he heads the most votes. To expect him to bow out “for the good” of the very country whose populace handed him more mandates than any of his contenders is ludicrous.
Israel’s parliamentary democracy is not based on the direct election of the prime minister; it requires the creation of a coalition. If no party is successful at the endeavor, a new election has to be held. Perhaps it’s time to start reforming the system, rather than blaming Bibi for working it to his advantage