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Next March, Israelis will head to the polls for the third time in less than a year, and, once again, the vote will amount to a referendum on the rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu may now be in the final act of his political career: the Magician, as Israelis used to call their longest-serving prime minister, has lost his erstwhile grip on the political system, having failed twice to form a coalition following last year’s elections. But that Netanyahu is holding on at all, even as he faces indictment on several corruption charges, is remarkable—and a testament to just how much he has transformed Israel’s democracy.
The vote in March will be the country’s third attempt in a row to form a stable government after two consecutive elections in April and September ended in deadlock. Netanyahu’s centrist challenger, Benny Gantz, came close to forming a majority last time around, and next time he may be in a stronger position still. Even so, Netanyahu is using his endless supply of spins and tricks to lead the news cycle, rally his right-wing base, and keep his opponents nervous. If he does fall—by indictment, through a primary challenge, or at the hands of Gantz—Israel will need some time to recover from his divisive tenure.
For now, Netanyahu remains in power as the head of a caretaker government supported by a right-wing bloc of conservative and religious parties. His indictment on several counts of bribery and breach of trust, formally unveiled in November after months of speculation, spells trouble, as Netanyahu currently lacks enough votes in parliament to secure immunity from prosecution. Still, any potential trial is several months out and may turn into a protracted legal battle.
If Netanyahu looks weaker today than he did a year ago, it is also because he is facing, in Gantz, his first serious opponent in a decade. The former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces lacks Bibi’s charisma, oratory, and political experience, but he has assembled a makeshift centrist party (Blue and White) and established himself as a credible candidate in under a year, all the while withstanding vicious character assassination attempts. The core of Gantz’s appeal, and his central campaign promise, is that he is not Netanyahu—he is running as a clean candidate who will get an accused white-collar criminal off the country’s back. Policy issues have mostly been a sideshow.
In Benny Gantz, Netanyahu faces his first serious opponent in a decade.
Another fly in Netanyahu’s ointment is Avigdor Lieberman, an old buddy and sometimes political ally who shares the prime minister’s hard-line views on the Palestinians and Israel’s Arab minority but hates his condescending demeanor and objects to his political alliance with several ultra-Orthodox parties. It was Lieberman who got the current electoral roller coaster started when he withdrew his support for Netanyahu’s coalition government in November 2018. The defection was a lesson in modesty for the prime minister, who has found that he cannot govern without Lieberman, and for Israel’s class of pundits and political junkies, who initially predicted that Netanyahu would cruise to reelection atop an unstoppable right-wing bloc.
Netanyahu and his supporters deny all allegations of corruption, blaming a deep-state conspiracy by power-hungry prosecutors and vindictive journalists. If this sounds familiar to Americans, it should: Netanyahu may have been campaigning against supposedly out-of-touch elites long before Donald Trump ran for office, but the U.S. president’s example has inspired him and his allies to double down on their populist rhetoric. And for most Israeli voters, once the psychological barrier of endless campaign and seasonal vote was broken, the public paid little attention to the politicians’ blame game over preventing a new government. Israelis enjoy a day off from work and school on elections, the shops have sales, and the weather in March is great. If politicians cannot agree with each other, Israelis will vote again until a new majority is formed.
Gantz and Netanyahu represent different parts of Israeli society—Blue and White leads the pack in the more affluent areas, whereas Netanyahu’s Likud is popular among middle-class voters. In theory, the two parties have enough seats in the Knesset to form a governing coalition, and theirs would be the first government in three decades not to depend on the support of multiple smaller parties. But as long as Netanyahu heads the Likud and his criminal cases make their slow but steady way to Jerusalem’s District Court, such a partnership will remain elusive.
If Netanyahu does fall, Israel will need some time to recover from his divisive tenure.
Instead, each side is seeking alliances with smaller parties and minority groups. The religious and ultra-Orthodox right remains loyal to Netanyahu, who relies on its support and never reaches out to the political center. Accordingly, Netanyahu has promised to deliver on the right’s core ideological demands, especially in his pledge to formally annex parts of the West Bank. Gideon Saar, Netanyahu’s sole primary challenger, walks the same path, vowing to be even truer to the annexation catechism and to “reform the legal system” (read: weaken the supreme court and curtail the independence of Israel’s attorney general)—another right-wing battle cry. Saar also argues that he could bring Lieberman back into the fold or form a unity government with Gantz. But his chances in the December 26 primary are slim, as Netanyahu controls the party machine. Saar probably hopes to lose narrowly in order to improve his heir-apparent image for a future, post-Bibi race.
For Gantz, the wild card will be the Arab vote. The outgoing government’s most important legacy was the passing, in July 2018, of the so-called nation-state law, which declared Israel the “nation-state of the Jewish people” without any reference to equality for non-Jewish citizens. The unintended consequence of the controversial vote was to galvanize the country’s Arab minority: Arab Israeli parties reunited to form a Joint List before the September election, and turnout among Arab voters rose from 49 percent in April to 59 percent in September. More important still, the leaders of the Joint List focused their campaign on questions of law enforcement and housing, choosing to downplay thornier issues such as the suffering of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and offered to support a future government led by Gantz. Although even a tacit alliance would be controversial among both Arab politicians and Blue and White leaders, Gantz met the Joint List leadership publicly, shrugging off Netanyahu and Lieberman’s criticism of the Arab parties as a treacherous “fifth column”—and hinting at a potential future partnership.
Given the polarization over the fate of Netanyahu, there is virtually no crossover between Likud’s and Blue and White’s electorates, and each side must draw on its separate pool of voters. Likud’s main challenge in March will be to get its supporters to turn out rather than stay at home, fatigued by Netanyahu’s endless legal and political battles. Netanyahu will also need to win over at least some of Lieberman’s voters. For Gantz to win a majority in the Knesset, he needs high Arab voter turnout and unity among smaller left-wing parties, some of which must join forces to clear the 3.25 percent parliamentary threshold.
Given this complicated electoral map, and given that Netanyahu’s back is against the wall of indictment, the coming campaign stands to be the nastiest playing-for-keeps contest in Israel’s history. Netanyahu may well manage to muddle through once more, but even if he does not, his constant attempts to govern by dividing and conquering will have changed Israeli politics for the worse. It is somewhat ironic that beyond this record of political division, Netanyahu’s legacy is surprisingly thin, marked above all by an aversion to reform and risk in domestic and foreign policy alike. His successor will have an opportunity to enact more meaningful change—but only after a process of national healing.