Election Déjà Vu for Israelis

A move to dissolve parliament could mean a fourth ballot in less than two years.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and alternative Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and alternative Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv on July 20. TAL SHAHAR/AFP

TEL AVIV, Israel—Israeli lawmakers on Wednesday took a large step toward calling another national election, which would be the fourth in the past two years, by giving preliminary approval to a bill to dissolve the parliament. Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party joined with the opposition, a milestone in the steady unraveling of the coalition government formed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just seven months ago.

If the bill, put forward by parliamentary opposition leader Yair Lapid, is passed into law, it would exacerbate Israel’s long-standing political instability, spurred largely by the fact that Netanyahu faces multiple corruption indictments and seems bent on evading trial.

It would also compound the public health problems in Israel, which is on the cusp of a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and still has some virus-related restrictions in place from a lockdown started in September.

“We can now assert that Israel’s two-year political crisis is expected to continue,” said Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, speaking to journalists.

Gantz explained his decision to support the bill Tuesday night, saying that even though he knew Netanyahu to be a “serial promise-breaker” when he first joined the government, he had hoped the prime minister would turn over a new leaf given the pandemic crisis. “That didn’t happen—Netanyahu is on a trail of personal survival from his trial,” Gantz said.

After Israel’s most recent election in March, Gantz shocked his supporters by concluding a coalition agreement with Netanyahu that involved a rotating premiership. Gantz was supposed to get his turn as prime minister in another 11 months, but Netanyahu has signaled with his political maneuverings in recent months that he does not intend to give up power.

After the vote, Netanyahu urged Gantz to reconsider, arguing that a new campaign is not in the national interest. “I’ve said for a long time, this is not the time for elections. It’s time for unity,” Netanyahu said in a video on his Twitter account.

To help readers make sense of the confusing state of Israeli politics, Foreign Policy answers five questions about this latest unfolding.

Did the government collapse?

Not yet. The bill to dissolve parliament is now referred to a parliamentary committee controlled by Gantz’s party. Once it gets back to the plenum, the bill must pass three more votes before it becomes law, at which point lawmakers will set a date for a new election and the government will become a caretaker administration.

That gives Netanyahu and Gantz a few weeks to mend fences, preserve the unity government, and put off elections. There is, however, a deadline for the political maneuvering: The parliament must pass a national budget by Dec. 23, or the government automatically collapses and elections are held after 90 days.

Why would Gantz want to dissolve the government before getting his turn as prime minister?

It’s true that Gantz’s main political interest has been preserving the coalition until late 2021, when it’s his turn to lead the government. But he has concluded that Netanyahu has no plan to honor the rotation agreement.

What’s more, the political marriage between Blue and White and Netanyahu’s Likud party has been rocky from the start. The coalition partners have clashed on issues ranging from how to handle the pandemic to Netanyahu’s push to annex swaths of the West Bank.

“The reason why he went in the government was to stabilize things: to deal with COVID, to deal with the economy, and to protect the rule of law,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. “Gantz is thinking, ‘If he’s not going to hand it over to me, if he’s not prepared to pass a budget to stabilize the country, if all of this is to keep him out of prison,’ he’s thinking that ‘I got nothing to lose here.’”

Where does Netanyahu’s corruption case figure in all this?

Most observers believe that Netanyahu’s maneuvers are motivated by his desire to evade his trial and possible jail time. The prime minister faces charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of the public trust in several cases tried concurrently. The proceedings began over the summer with one preliminary hearing, but state prosecutors and the prime minister’s team are scheduled to start calling witnesses in February 2021.

On Monday, Netanyahu’s legal team called on the court to dismiss the charges, alleging criminal misconduct by police officers conducting the investigation. If that gambit fails—which is likely—and there’s an election early in 2021, Netanyahu could try again to delay the proceedings, citing the vote as his reasoning, according to Plesner, of the Israel Democracy Institute.

If Netanyahu does win another election, many observers believe that he’ll try to push again for a law to grant him immunity from prosecution.

Will Netanyahu ever leave office?

Most of the political system believes that Netanyahu would be the favorite to form the next government. Opinion polls suggest that his Likud party would finish first in the upcoming elections, albeit with fewer seats than in the current parliament. Gantz’s center-left alliance has fractured since the last election, and his poll numbers have dropped precipitously.

That said, Netanyahu’s fate might be left in the hands of a longtime rival. Polls suggest that Naftali Bennett, the leader of the far-right Yamina party, would finish a strong second, with Lapid a close third. That might give them enough seats between them to cobble together a parliamentary majority without Likud.

Is Israel’s democracy broken?

Netanyahu has been exploiting his political power to head off corruption charges for years now. The abuse has taken a public toll. Already, Israelis went to the polls three times in less than a year’s span. A fourth election is likely to further erode public confidence in the democratic system.

Though a plurality of voters continue to see Netanyahu as the most qualified candidate, his governing has been held back by the legal and political ordeals. Until earlier this year, Netanyahu led a caretaker government for some 18 months—with a limited mandate to make high-level government appointments. The last time the parliament passed a budget was in early 2018.

The price of a fourth election since the start of 2019 is likely a lower voter turnout, as the public tires of the campaigns.

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick

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