Israel votes again … and again, and again
When dictatorships come to an end they are shattered to pieces; democracies, on the other hand, are more inclined to melt slowly away. It is usually a protracted and excruciating metamorphosis, but nevertheless by the end of it the country has changed beyond recognition.
Sadly, this is the current state of the Israeli political system. One should not be deceived by the country’s constant elections, as if this indicated a vibrant and functioning democracy. The opposite is the truth. A fourth election in two years is a mark of weakness, a weakness that is being exploited by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and those who swear fealty to him, in order to rule by chaos and take the country down with them if necessary.
The opinion polls suggest that support for the liberal left has evaporated, and the parties battling to decide who will lead the country after the March 23 election range from the center-right all the way to the far-clerical and secular right. Moreover, there is a real possibility that representatives of the far-right messianic supremacists will win seats in the Knesset with the active help of Netanyahu, and may join his coalition or even land a Cabinet post.
This week’s election is dominated by a range of shades of right, and the real demarcation line is between those who are fully committed to form a government led only by Netanyahu and no one else, and those who have promised voters, like so many before them although with different levels of application, that as long as the prime minister is on trial for fraud, bribery and breach of trust, they won’t support him for the premiership. It is clear that had it not been for the controversial and divisive nature of the Netanyahus, we would have seen a broad right-wing coalition of free marketeers and hawks on international affairs in general and their approach to relations with the Palestinians in particular.
However, two caveats must be added. Surveys also suggest that there is a substantial number of voters who harbor a more left-leaning ideology, are more inclined to a historical compromise with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution, and generally support social-democratic values, who intend to vote for right-wing and centrist parties, as their main aim is to rid the country of Netanyahu’s corrupt and disruptive reign. Three of these parties, Yemina, New Hope and Israel Beitenu, are led by Nafatali Bennet, Gideon Saar and Avigdor Lieberman respectively, all former close allies of Netanyahu who either fell out with him or were jettisoned by the Netanyahu family when perceived as a threat to their hold on power. To vote for parties that are sure to cross the electoral threshold and stop Netanyahu, rather than for a commonality of ideas and values, is a peculiar but tactical move that derives from frustration and desperation.
Tuesday may prove to be a watershed for Israeli democracy. It may be the beginning of the end of the Netanyahu era, and the start of the long healing process...
A second caveat is the diametrically opposite election strategy employed by Netanyahu and his main rivals. Netanyahu is more interested in consolidating the bloc of parties who are personally committed to him, rather than maximising the number of seats for his own Likud party. With his vast experience of such situations, he is banking on those who see him as the only prime minister, ensuring that votes aren’t wasted on parties that won’t cross the threshold. Hence, he “tolerates” those of his supporters who don’t vote Likud but are nevertheless likely to join a coalition under his leadership. His rivals are not in this position as there are at least three who see themselves as contenders for the prime minister’s job, including Saar and Bennet, but Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid is most likely to become the second biggest party. The “anyone but Bibi” coalition is a looser affair with no agreed leader, hence for them the size of their parties, and not the bloc, will determine how successful their challenge is. The irony is that this subplot may end up with all of them occupying the opposition benches after Tuesday’s election.
The last election was held just before the full devastating impact of the coronavirus could have even been imagined. This time round it takes place after more than 820,000 confirmed cases, more than 6,000 dead of the virus and with unprecedented levels of unemployment. Netanyahu would like the electorate to erase all of these figures from their memory because they are the result of his government’s failure to manage this health crisis. It would be disingenuous to deny Netanyahu’s achievement of a rapid vaccination rollout, quicker by far than any other country, but more fitting to praise the unique structure of the health system in Israel and its ability to rapidly respond to a crisis — a health system that he has neglected throughout his time in office. For Netanyahu the aim was to end the lockdown, as he did, close enough to the election, seeing an end-of-pandemic atmosphere and a return to normal life as a vote winner; this was despite the advice of scientific experts who warned that this move would cost lives after the election.
An additional and somewhat unexpected development in Netanyahu’s desperate attempt to cling to power was his recent attempt to entice Israel’s Palestinian citizens to vote for Likud. This unlikely scenario has received some traction with one of the factions of the Arab Joint List, and led to its split, which will probably mean a substantial reduction in the representation of Israeli Arabs in the next Knesset. Once again a cynical Netanyahu has found a way to sow division among his rivals and thus weaken them, something that might just do the trick for him in reaching the coveted bloc of 61 Knesset members who will support him.
Tuesday may prove to be a watershed for Israeli democracy. It may be the beginning of the end of the Netanyahu era, and the start of the long healing process in the wake of his divisive, corrupt and directionless rule, or it may lead to the most right-wing government in the state’s history, led by Netanyahu. But don’t rule out other possible coalitions, or even another general election in a few months’ time.
- 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