Dispatch

The End of the Road for Bibi?

Another Israeli election and a rebellion in the ruling Likud party spell trouble for Netanyahu.

By , a journalist covering Middle East politics.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu votes in Jerusalem during Israel's parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019. ARIEL SCHALIT/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—The country is heading to a fourth general election in two years as parliament dissolved itself on Tuesday, triggering the collapse of a seven-month-old right-center government helmed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival, Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

The proximate cause was the government’s failure to pass a state budget, which by law triggers new elections; an eleventh-hour extension was voted down in parliament late Monday with help from renegade members of Netanyahu’s own right-wing Likud party and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White faction. Election Day is tentatively scheduled for late March.

TEL AVIV, Israel—The country is heading to a fourth general election in two years as parliament dissolved itself on Tuesday, triggering the collapse of a seven-month-old right-center government helmed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival, Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

The proximate cause was the government’s failure to pass a state budget, which by law triggers new elections; an eleventh-hour extension was voted down in parliament late Monday with help from renegade members of Netanyahu’s own right-wing Likud party and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White faction. Election Day is tentatively scheduled for late March.

The real reason the government fell, according to analysts, was Netanyahu’s unwillingness to relinquish the premiership to Gantz in November 2021, as stipulated in their coalition deal reached earlier this year. Per the details of the agreement, the only path for Netanyahu to dissolve his partnership with Gantz and not forfeit the prime minister post was via non-passage of a budget.

Netanyahu is also widely believed to be seeking a new parliamentary majority that will postpone, or altogether halt, the criminal proceedings against him in a slew of bribery and corruption charges. The evidentiary phase of his trial is set to start in February.

“Netanyahu’s goal is to remain in power throughout his trial,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, told Foreign Policy. “The political crisis won’t end until Netanyahu is replaced or he succeeds [in his bid to stop the trial].”

With the maneuver, Netanyahu appeared to backtrack on promises made earlier this year when forming the “emergency government” with Gantz, ostensibly to tackle the economic and health fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

“There won’t be tricks and there won’t be shticks,” Netanyahu pledged last March during a televised plea to Gantz urging unity after a third inconclusive election in the space of 15 months. “I say the opposite: Millions of citizens are waiting on us, Benny. They expect us to work together to save the State of Israel from the biggest global crisis, possibly greater than all of our wars’ casualties. … I say this from the depth of my heart.”

Gantz accepted the offer, reneging on his core election promise not to join a government with Netanyahu. But their partnership began unraveling quickly, with Netanyahu violating both the spirit and letter of the deal.

Senior Likud ministers discredited Gantz publicly and made clear he would not rotate into the prime minister’s office at the halfway point of the government’s term, no matter what was agreed. Netanyahu kept Gantz and his chief deputy, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, in the dark about key developments, including the normalization agreements concluded with several Arab states in recent months. A coalition crisis over budget approval was narrowly averted—and with it early elections—in late summer only through a compromise that pushed off a decision for three months.

In remarks on Monday while meeting with U.S. presidential advisor Jared Kushner, Netanyahu blamed Gantz for undermining the government from within and leading Israel into “needless elections” in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Netanyahu also accused Blue and White of imposing a “bureaucratic revolution” on the country, a reference to the party’s defense of judicial authorities now prosecuting the prime minister. “We can’t allow leftist elements to trample our democracy,” Netanyahu said, in what appeared to be a foreshadowing of his campaign message.

Netanyahu faces several challenges ahead of this fourth election since April 2019, including his legal troubles, a less supportive president in the White House as of next month, and a deep recession due to ongoing coronavirus restrictions. Yet the Israeli leader seemed to be projecting confidence.

In recent days he has touted the COVID-19 vaccines that Israel has begun administering and the “four peace agreements in four months” that the Trump administration shepherded. Netanyahu has also portrayed himself as the only Israeli leader who can cope with the threat of Iran’s nuclear program. His Likud party is leading in the polls, and he personally is still viewed as the most suitable candidate for prime minister.

But a rebellion in his own Likud party will make it much harder for Netanyahu to win this time, raising the possibility of an alternative governing coalition forming without him.

Gideon Saar, a popular politician and Netanyahu critic, broke off from Likud earlier this month and formed his own faction, New Hope, prompting several other defections. Other erstwhile Netanyahu allies such as Naftali Bennett (Yamina) and Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beiteinu), both former defense ministers, are also set to snipe at Likud from the right.

“The right is fractured like never before, there’s complete chaos in the system, and the Netanyahu ‘bloc’ of parties [except for the ultra-Orthodox] doesn’t exist anymore,” one senior opposition source told Foreign Policy.

Left and center voters are expected to punish Gantz’s Blue and White and the Labor Party for violating election promises and joining Netanyahu’s coalition. But opposition leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party remains sturdy, leading the center-left camp, and could potentially join with right-wing factions to unseat Netanyahu.

“The government that most people would want to see is Lapid, Saar, Liberman, and Bennett,” the opposition source added. “They get along and work well together, they agree on many things and even on the things they don’t agree on they find ways to work around it.” On the tricky question of who would lead such a government, the source indicated that the premiership would go to the head of the biggest party—contingent on there being a genuine gap in seats.

It will, however, take several weeks until the real alignments and orders of battle shake out.

New figures entering the scene have been suggested, such as longtime Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai or Gadi Eisenkot, the recently retired army chief of staff. The Joint List, an amalgamation of four Arab Israeli political factions, may split apart again after winning the third-largest number of seats in the outgoing Knesset. It’s an open question whether Blue and White survives, and whether Gantz even continues in political life.

“The map we see today will be very different than the one at the end of the election,” Walla News political correspondent Tal Shalev told Foreign Policy. This is especially true regarding the center-left, she added. “It’s too early for depression on their part—the votes showing up in polls that are now parked with right-wing parties could come back [to the left] if it creates the right platforms.”

And of course, Netanyahu cannot be ruled out.

“The common wisdom is that Netanyahu is in trouble because of the current [poll] numbers and because of Saar,” Shalev said. “But as prime minister he has complete control over the campaign agenda. And what happened this past year [with Gantz breaking his vow to never sit with Netanyahu] should be a warning light” regarding the promises made by Israeli politicians.

“Here we go again,” Netanyahu said jokingly at the start of his remarks on Monday with Kushner, referring to the prospect of yet another election.

The Israeli public has found the dysfunction and turmoil of the last two years less amusing, according to nearly every measure of trust in government. Pundits and opposition politicians have charged Israel’s longest-serving prime minister with, effectively, holding an entire country hostage to his political and personal whims. As Plesner, from the Israel Democracy Institute, put it: “No political imagination is enough to describe political reality.”

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the co-author of State with No Army, Army with No State: Evolution of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, 1994-2018. Twitter: @NeriZilber