The World

It’s Always Election Season in Israel

The country is trapped in a nonstop Bibi psychodrama.

Netanyahu waving, standing in front of the West Wing
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Sept. 15. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Israel is currently gearing up to hold national elections, but that’s not really surprising. There might be condiments in your fridge that you bought before the last Israeli elections. The phrase “permanent campaign” was coined in 1976 by a Democratic pollster to describe how, in the unrelenting cycle of modern U.S. politics, the line between governing and running for office has blurred. But Israel is now taking the concept to its logical extreme.

The next election, on March 23, will be Israel’s fourth in just two years. The last three—in April 2019, September 2019, and March 2020—all resulted in a stalemate between Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party and the center-right Blue and White coalition led by Benny Gantz. No party could pull together enough allies for a majority in the Knesset, which meant new elections had to be held. Gantz had long refused to share power with Netanyahu, who is facing criminal indictment for corruption, but in April, after the most recent vote, the two rivals reached an agreement under which Netanyahu would be prime minister for 18 months before switching with Gantz. Gantz justified his flip-flop as an effort to restore stability in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

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But that government collapsed in December after failing to pass a budget, automatically triggering new elections. Netanyahu’s party, which controls the finance portfolio, probably intentionally caused the collapse in hopes of bringing in a new coalition that can protect him from prosecution. The prime minister briefly appeared in court last week to formally respond to fraud and bribery charges related to his relationships with wealthy foreign donors as well as efforts to pressure media outlets into giving him and his family favorable coverage. His defense team is now arguing that the prosecution should not be allowed to present its case until after the election—yet another delay in a legal process that has dragged on for years.

So, why is Israel stuck in this cycle? While Israeli politics as a whole have drifted inexorably to the right, the right is divided on Netanyahu himself. It’s hard for Netanyahu to form a stable government, but impossible for any of his rivals to garner enough support to oust him.

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“It’s entirely a function of Netanyahu. If anyone else were prime minister or head of Likud, there wouldn’t be a problem at all. You could easily have five years of an 80- to 90-seat right-wing government, and then five years of another right-wing government,” says Michael Koplow, an expert on Israeli politics at the Israel Policy Forum.

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The most surprising thing about these upcoming elections is that they don’t feel like political Groundhog Day. March 2020 feels like a lifetime ago; the political landscape and the key players are dramatically different this time around.

Significantly, Gantz, once viewed as the great anti-Netanyahu hope, has lost most of his support after his ill-fated deal with the enemy. One recent poll showed what’s left of the Blue and White party is likely to win just four seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Many Gantz voters may now turn to the conservative Gideon Sa’ar, a former Likud minister who founded a new party last year after losing to Netanyahu in a party leadership vote. While Sa’ar and Netanyahu don’t have significant political differences—Sa’ar may actually be to Netanyahu’s right on Palestinian issues and settlements—he accuses the prime minister of turning Likud into nothing but a tool for his personal survival. Other Blue and White supporters may opt for the centrist Yesh Atid party, which never entered the Netanyahu government and which is currently in second place in the polls. The pro-settlement Yamina party is also running against Netanyahu from the right, but its leader, former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, has not ruled out serving with Netanyahu.

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There are also some changes among the smaller parties, which can play a key role in forming a new government if the election is close, which it always seems to be these days. In 2019, Netanyahu faced international backlash for orchestrating a merger between the terrorist-defending, neofascist Otzma Yehudit party and another right-wing faction, and eventually distanced himself from them. The party doesn’t have enough support to garner the 3.25 percent of the vote needed to enter the Knesset on its own, but on a joint ticket with other small parties it has a chance. This year, a new far-right alliance including Otzma Yehudit now has a good shot of entering the Knesset and potentially even being part of a governing coalition.

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One of the big stories in the last election was the unification of Israel’s long-squabbling Arab parties into the Joint List, which came in third with 12.6 percent in the March vote. Now that alliance has splintered, with the Ra’am party going off on its own. Ra’am is an Islamist party that takes a more conservative stance on issues including gay rights, but has also been more open to collaboration with Netanyahu than its Joint List counterparts.

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Labor, the center-left party that dominated Israeli politics for the country’s first three decades, looked all but dead last year, with only three seats in the Knesset. But it’s been showing some signs of life in the polls lately under the newly elected leadership of Merav Michaeli, a former journalist and longtime feminist activist who was the only one of the party’s MKs who refused to join the Gantz-Netanyahu government.

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The world itself is also, obviously, very different. Netanyahu might have hoped to run on his government’s successful handling of COVID-19. Israel is leading the world in vaccinations, with over 30 percent of the population now fully vaccinated. However, the virus—including more dangerous new variants—is still spreading rapidly in recent months, which has been blamed on lax travel restrictions and poor enforcement of COVID safety rules among the ultra-Orthodox. Netanyahu is politically bound to the ultra-Orthodox—the two parties representing them will be a key component of any coalition he could realistically form—and public frustration with the community could potentially drive support to rivals like the staunchly secular Yesh Atid.

The other big difference this time around is the loss of Donald Trump. The U.S. president was a more-than-willing campaign surrogate for Netanyahu over the past four years—and featured heavily in Likud’s campaign ads. Trump was unafraid of blatantly acting to boost the prime minister’s fortunes with gestures like recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights just weeks before an election. By contrast, Joe Biden has not even spoken with Netanyahu since becoming president, even after calls with numerous other world leaders, and didn’t mention Israel at all in his first foreign policy speech as president. [Update, Feb. 17: The two spoke on Wednesday.] The cold shoulder seems very intentional.

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Biden and Netanyahu have known each other for decades and often referred to themselves as friends, though the relationship has been more strained since the Obama years, when Netanyahu moved into ever closer alignment with U.S. Republicans. The U.S. is certainly not abandoning support for Israel, but Washington’s backing is no longer the asset for Netanyahu that it was last year.

Still, it would be foolish to bet against Netanyahu at this point. If the polls are accurate (they won’t be; Israeli polls are never accurate), an alliance of Likud, the ultra-Orthodox parties, Bennett’s Yamina, and the far-right should have enough seats for a majority. History has also shown that other leaders’ vows to never serve in a Netanyahu government should be taken as provisional at best. It’s a little surprising that politicians are still willing to throw their support behind Netanyahu given how rarely it works out for them, but he’s made an astoundingly long career of finding people who think they can beat the odds.

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All this means that Netanyahu, already the longest-serving leader in Israeli history, will probably hold on to power, but more than likely will still lead an unwieldy and barely functional coalition. This instability has serious tangible consequences: Interim governments can’t pass budgets, and Israel hasn’t passed a new one in two years, making planning difficult for government agencies.

The inescapable Bibi psychodrama also probably has long-term consequences that are harder to quantify. Israel is stuck with an accused criminal and opportunist, doing incalculable damage to the country’s international image. The country’s political class is divided between those who despise him, those who will support him no matter what, and those who aren’t fond of him but see him as a vehicle to advance their interests. As this drags on, much of the public only gets more cynical about politics, leaving extremist voices to dominate the agenda.

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