Israel is heading for another poll stalemate
One thing is certain about the March 23 Israeli election, the fourth in two years; like its three predecessors, it will produce an indecisive result and lead to further political instability.
In most countries where coalition governments are part of political life, negotiations to form them begin in the aftermath of the election. In Israel the horse trading often begins months in advance with an eye on the various scenarios that the voters’ verdict might produce. Though the last three general elections took place within the space of only two years, in no two of them were exactly the same parties, let alone candidates on their lists, presented to the electorate. This constant wheeling and dealing for reasons of personal political expediency rather than ideology creates chronic uncertainty and is fatal to good governance.
This next election is no different, and in the short time until the Feb. 4 deadline for party lists to be submitted to the Central Elections Committee we can expect the intensification of defections from parties and mergers of lists, without too much profound deliberation of competing national visions or policy debates.
The names chosen for new parties also reflect the dreary state of Israeli politics and the march to the right. Words such as new, hope, momentum, religious-Zionism and Israelis feature frequently, adding to the existing clutch of names like Blue and White, Rightwards, and Israel our Home; there is even a There Is a Future party, as if there were some doubt about that. Such tags reflect politicians’ view of the mood in the country, though they seem to protest too much, to the point that one wonders if they really believe in their own simplistic messages.
With the evidentiary stage of Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial scheduled to begin before the election, the main demarcation line (as in the three previous elections but with added zest) is between those who favor another Netanyahu government and the anti-Netanyahu camp. Early indications show a slight lead for the latter, especially while the prime minister faces a trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. With every election that goes by, Netanyahu’s credibility is shrinking, while the camp of politicians that he has deceived and fooled is growing.
With every election that goes by, Netanyahu’s credibility is shrinking, while the camp of politicians that he has deceived and fooled is growing.
Bringing an end to Netanyahu’s corrupt, divisive and damaging tenure is most definitely a necessity. For the past five years the need to address some of the country’s most significant challenges has been side-tracked, even hijacked, by the police investigations and the legal tribulations of the prime minister. By now, those who would like to oust Netanyahu through the ballot box represent a wide range of political opinions, from extreme-right hawks to liberal-left doves.
Gideon Sa’ar, a senior Likud member and long-time opponent of Netanyahu, delivered the opening gambit by forming the New Hope party with a group of other Likud defectors. Ideologically this party is as right-wing as Likud, and possibly more hawkish when it comes to the Palestinian issue. As a matter of fact, the right-leaning voters in Israel are almost spoilt for choice by an assortment of parties that ideologically have more in common than not, and whether it be Sa’ar’s New Hope, Naftali Bennet’s Yamina or Avigdor’s Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, it is not necessarily policy differences that keep them apart, or outside Likud, as all three were once part of Likud. Rather it’s all down to, first, their colossal falling-out with the Netanyahu family, who are afraid of anyone able to challenge their hold on power, and thus banished them from Likud and the inner circle of the prime minister; and second, to electoral considerations. Some of Likud’s natural allies are running on a platform that commits them to oppose any Netanyahu-led coalition. This pledge is not for the sole reason that it is ethically wrong for a defendant in corruption trial to serve as prime minister, but because his judgment on issues most crucial for the country has been hijacked by his court case and his attempts to avoid justice.
This election is very much about trust; not only in Netanyahu, for whom that commodity is already in very short supply, but also in the likes of Benny Gantz and Amir Peretz, who led Blue and White and Labour respectively, and who after the last election dragged their parties into government despite having promised not to do so, and are now rightly facing political oblivion. Regrettably, in the process they have seriously damaged the centrist and center-left cause, which in its desperate attempt to stay relevant is also entering into weeks of splits and mergers that will not necessarily result in a united front.
In the middle of a third, most severe wave of the coronavirus pandemic, Israelis are baffled once again by a political system that doesn’t rise to the occasion and repeats the same pattern of divisiveness and indecisiveness, one that puts personal interests above that of the collective good that is suffering directly or indirectly from the worst health crisis in the country’s history. Unless something out of the ordinary happens between now and March, the Israeli electorate will be offered a range of uninspiring options, and they will respond by splitting the vote, producing yet another weak government and setting up a possible fifth election later in the year.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg