After Coalition Collapse, Israel faces its Fourth Election in Two Years

After Coalition Collapse, Israel faces its Fourth Election in Two Years

On Tuesday 22 December 2020, the Knesset failed to pass an annual budget, automatically triggering an election. Israelis will head to the polls on 23 March 2021, facing an election during a pandemic for the second time. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had a string of electoral successes over the past decade, his path to retaining power does not look smooth. The Prime Minister has frequently referred to his opponents in previous elections as ‘weak leftists’ however his rivals in this election share his conservative beliefs.

A Blow to Blue and White

Benny Gantz leads Israel’s Blue and White party, which was the state’s second largest party until only months ago.  Now Gantz and his party look set to face electoral annihilation in 2021.  Gantz previously posed the biggest rival to Netanyahu, facing him in three elections, before agreeing to form a coalition with the Prime Minister.  However, Gantz was met with disapproval when he formed a coalition with Netanyahu’s centre-right Likud party in April 2020. Many had voted for Blue and White as an alternative to Netanyahu, not to prop up his government. Further, the compromise meant that positions had to be found for Blue and White members and the cabinet increased to 34. This expansion of bureaucracy came at a large cost, with whole departments being founded at a time when the pandemic made a million Israelis unemployed.

Indeed, a poll conducted earlier this month for the Jerusalem Post and Ma’ariv predicted the Blue and White party would only win four seats if the election was held in December and was edging towards the electoral threshold with only 3.25%. Blue and White candidates have dwindled from 33 in March 2020 to now only 9. This fleeing from the sinking ship suggests there is little optimism internally about how the party can build back support.

‘New Hope’

Disapproval of Gantz and the resignation of Blue and White party members suggests Netanyahu’s greatest threat may, this time, come from elsewhere. Former Likud education minister, Gideon Saar, announced his shock resignation from the Knesset on the 8th of December and followed this up by creating his own party named New Hope. Saar’s party attracted Likud representatives such as Michal Shir, who endorsed Saar’s mission to overthrow Netanyahu.

Indeed, the presence of a new and competitive centre-right party may present the biggest challenge to Netanyahu. A survey has predicted 21 seats for Saar’s new party, only five less than Likud. Further, Kan public TV’s survey carried out on the 22 Dec showed Saar polling evenly with the incumbent Prime Minister. If New Hope partnered with other anti-Netanyahu groups such as Yesh Atid, Yamina, Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu, an anti-Netanyahu coalition is likely to outnumber Likud and its allies.

Bennett’s Boost

Naftali Bennett built up a following throughout the pandemic by advocating for small businesses during the lockdown period and demonstrating resourcefulness in his position as defence minister. Bennett had the Israeli Defence Force provide healthcare organisations with research and technology, opened up hotels for coronavirus patients and sought the formation of a national diagnosis centre. This has rendered Bennett popular amongst the electorate, while Bennett’s conservative party, Yamina, has only six legislators in the Knesset as of 2020.  Bennett’s party is predicted to achieve 21 seats in the March 2021 elections.

However, Bennett’s right-wing positions will struggle to win over centrist voters, despite his secular position, due to his militancy on foreign affairs. The former Likud minister previously stated that Israeli’s ‘must give [their] lives’ to the annexation of the West Bank and has been critical of a two-state solution.

Netanyahu’s Path to Power

The coming election will coincide with Netanyahu’s corruption trial, which could require him to make a series of court appearances.  Netanyahu’s charges of bribery and breach of trust will be central in his opponent’s anti-Netanyahu rhetoric — on top of this an electoral candidate facing a jury sends a negative message to the electorate.

However, Netanyahu does have some successes from the past two years which he can play on in an attempt to drum up support. The Abraham Accords, which were signed in 2020 and may lead to further normalisation agreements in 2021, point to his diplomatic efforts bringing economic and security benefits to the state. Netanyahu also aims to roll out 60,000 vaccines a day which — if successful — could reduce the public’s disapproval over his government’s handling of the pandemic.

Likelihood of a Netanyahu victory?

Despite policy concerns over Israeli relations with the U.S., security in the region, economic recovery and health policy, the real issue on the ballot for many Israelis will be — do we want Netanyahu to remain Prime Minister? Popular adversaries on the right present a threat to Likud’s hegemony on Israeli conservatism and will be likely to pull votes away from the party. Both Bennett and Saar have stated they will not enter a government with Likud, if both parties hold this line it would likely deny Netanyahu the ability to form a government.

While Netanyahu may not be able to form a government post-election, Bennett and Saar — the most likely candidates for Prime Minister — also share the same pro-settlement, conservative policies. The Prime Minister may change; however the policies of the new government would likely remain similar.

It will be difficult for either Netanyahu, Saar or Bennnet to achieve a coalition without gaining the support of one of these other prime ministerial candidates. Whatever the outcome of this election, the political instability in the nation is likely to continue. While the elections are still weeks away, it looks to be a slim majority for either Netanyau, or an anti-Netanyahu alliance. This could result in difficulty passing policy and a continuation of the political uncertainty Israel has endured over the past several years.

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