Middle East

Can Benjamin Netanyahu survive Israel’s next election?

Far fewer protesters have gathered outside the residence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu on this mild January evening than they did in summer. For more than six months now, anti-Netanyahu demonstrators and the prime minister’s supporters have rallied here every week. Many see the snap election scheduled for March as yet another referendum on Netanyahu, who has been prime minister since 2009 and led the Likud party since 2005.

“It is time for him to go,” said Einav Shoshani. The 24-year-old tends a small food stand with self-made hummus on the edge of the protests. “I think we can bring about a change.”

Others see the elections more pragmatically. “The fact is that the right-wing camp has begun to doubt Bibi. That will be interesting,” said Nofar Shamir, who comes from from the small southern town of Mitzpe Ramon. But, she said, she does not expect big things from the elections. “I would like to see politicians who are honest and who can remember what it means to be an ordinary citizen,” she said.

Netanyahu still has a good standing in the polls — even ahead of the fourth election in two years and after almost 12 consecutive years as prime minister. His party, Likud, is still the strongest force. But to be able to secure a majority of at least 61 of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, Netanyahu is reliant on finding coalition partners.

‘Government being dysfunctional’

After Netanyahu  was unable to agree on a budget for 2020 with his coalition partner, Benny Gantz , of the Blue and White alliance, the Knesset was dissolved automatically on December 22. The government, which took office eight months ago pledging to fight the coronavirus pandemic, has long been regarded as shaky. According to the coalition agreement, Gantz was meant to take over as premier in November 2021. But few Israelis believed that the government would last that long.

“I don’t think people see great value in it,” the pollster Dahlia Scheindlin said. “I think that they feel like each option was a terrible option: the government being dysfunctional and going for the elections. They generally feel like every move the politicians make is much more a matter of their own political fortunes rather than meeting the voter’s concerns.”

Currently, the country is shut down once again as the large-scale vaccination campaign against COVID-19 continues. In recent weeks, infection figures had been rising again. Nevertheless, the election campaign is underway. Parties will have to register their candidate lists by February 4, and there is no shortage of new parties and alliances that split — more or less clearly — into pro- or anti-Netanyahu camps.

The political landscape looks different than it did in the previous elections, and that could make things difficult for Netanyahu. “One of the main threats is from the right,” said Gideon Rahat, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “I think that one of the main issues is that Netanyahu will have to deal with several competitors.” The result, Rahat said, could be a stalemate, and, as in the preceding elections, that would make forming a coalition difficult.

Netanyahu’s many rivals

The former Likud politician Gideon Sa’ar is currently regarded as Netanyahu’s strongest competitor. He founded the party New Hope at the beginning of December, and it is his goal to form a coalition without Netanyahu.

The 54-year-old Sa’ar, who served as the education minister under Netanyahu from 2009 to 2013 and then interior minister until 2014, rejects a two-state solution with the Palestinians. After a brief break from politics, he unsuccessfully stood against Netanyahu for the job of Likud party leader in 2019. The fact that other Likud politicians, such as former Netanyahu confidant Ze’ev Elkin, have followed him into the new party is giving him political momentum as — at least according to current polls — the second strongest force.

Scheindlin said the fundamental question was what being anti-Netanyahu would do for the right-wing parties. ”What does it really mean to have a right-wing agenda for a government that is not led by Netanyahu and the Likud?” Scheindlin said. “You know, that’s a question that voters will be asking themselves.”

In other words: Is the slogan “Anyone but Bibi” enough to convince the voters and really give Netanyahu a run for his money? It paid off for Gantz’s center-right Blue and White alliance in the three most recent elections. At the moment, however, it is not clear whether Blue-White will even make it back into parliament after the coalition breakdown.

The so-called center-left camp, which is made up of a multitude of different parties, is also having difficulty finding a common voice. The Israelis, a new party set up by Ron Huldai, the longstanding and high-profile mayor of Tel Aviv, promises to provide a new home for center-left voters. But only the next few weeks will show who is likely to going into coalition with whom.

Netanyahu instrumentalizes pandemic

Netanyahu is calling himself a “peacemaker” in the region, citing diplomacy successes achieved without notable concessions to the Palestinians. In recent months, Israel’s government has formally normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco and signed a declaration of intent with Sudan — thanks in part to the intervention of US President Donald Trump.

Domestically, Netanyahu is hoping that the COVID-19 vaccination campaign will help keep him in office. Netanyahu recently tweeted that Israel was becoming “a world champion in vaccination.” The country’s rapid and widespread rollout of its vaccination program is, indeed, reaping praise. But the question remains what will stick in voters minds: the government’s much-criticized pandemic policies or the vaccination campaign. And the court proceedings against Netanyahu in three corruption cases, which are due to resume in February, could create dark clouds over the government camp.

But a lot can happen before the election on March 23. Although Netanyahu has been dubbed the “magician” by his supporters, he will still have to forge stronger political alliances, for example, with the ultra-Orthodox parties. In the elections in April and September 2019, Netanyahu did not manage to form a stable governing coalition — and he is going to need that if he is to remain in power.

By Tania Krämer

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