The field of candidates vying for victory in the Israeli elections of this April is quickly shaping up. April 9th, 2019 is the official date set by current Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when Israel’s roughly 6 million registered voters will head to the polls to elect the country’s 21st Knesset. Originally scheduled for November, the elections were moved to April by Netanyahu for a few key reasons.
What led to the snap elections?
Chief among Netanyahu’s motives is the ongoing investigations into corruption charges against the PM. Israeli police have recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for bribery and breach of trust due to his attempts to manipulate news coverage of himself and his family, as well as his receipt of lavish gifts from wealthy donors in exchange for advancing their political interests. While the Attorney General weighs the possibility of indicting Netanyahu, the highly-charged atmosphere of frantic campaigning for the snap elections and the ensuing possibility for Netanyahu to strengthen his mandate in April may deter the Attorney General from proceeding with the indictment.
A further calculation for the long-serving Israeli prime minister in calling for early elections is his coalition’s wafer-thin majority in the Knesset. When hundreds of rockets were fired into Israeli territory by Hamas fighters after a botched intelligence operation in Gaza in November 2018, Netanyahu’s decision to agree to a ceasefire with Hamas prompted then-Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to resign from his post and pull his Yisrael Beiteinu party out of the governing coalition. As a result, the coalition was left with the minimum number of seats required for majority rule of the Knesset: 61 out of 120 seats. Following Liberman’s resignation, another key member of Netanyahu’s coalition government, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, threatened to bring down the government and force elections by withdrawing his Jewish Home party from the coalition unless Netanyahu appointed him Defense Minister. This political stunt ultimately backfired, with Netanyahu refusing Bennett’s demand and Bennett consenting to keep the coalition afloat.
Nevertheless, governing with a majority of just one seat has led to an increasing paralysis of the governing coalition. Due to the numerous and variegated parties that have historically made up Israeli coalition governments (five in the current administration), a healthy majority is often needed for passing bills in a parliamentary system rife with infighting. With a majority of a single seat, the current ruling coalition has not only struggled to pass bills of its own, but has also been vulnerable to external lobbying. As recently as December 2018, the Israeli security services successfully pressured the government into increasing their funding by some 22 billion shekels ($5.8 billion). Amidst all of these political events, the straw that broke the camel’s back may well have been arguments among the ruling coalition’s own members over the notorious issue of whether legislation should be passed to extend compulsory military service to Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jews. Historically exempt from the three years of compulsory military service applicable to all other Israeli Jews, religious parties such as those in Netanyahu’s current coalition have sought to block all attempts to force the ultra-orthodox to enlist on the grounds that they must study Torah full-time to help bring about the coming of the Messiah.
At this moment, the road that led to the announcement of these early elections is somewhat dizzying to follow. Even so, a health warning is in order: the road leading to election day itself promises to be equally plagued with political vicissitudes. Observers of Israel’s parliamentary democratic system will note that representatives are elected by proportional representation, which affords numerous small parties the opportunity of inclusion in governing a country that has only ever known coalition governments. The real prize of Israeli elections, therefore, is the largest party’s right before any other to attempt to form a coalition of at least 61 out of 120 seats. With a low threshold for entering the Knesset, a mere 3.25% of votes, the various parties frequently appear as more of a series of interest groups (for the ultra-orthodox, Russian immigrants, West Bank settlers etc.) than parties vying for electoral victory. This means that voters can choose their candidates according to highly niche interests, and that complex alliances between distinct interest groups can carry the day against single parties aiming for mass appeal.
Who are the 2019 candidates?
In recent years, none have been more successful at the ballot box than Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu and his Likud party. 2019 looks no different, with Netanyahu the clear favorite in the polls. Vying for a fourth consecutive term as Israeli prime minister, and a fifth term overall (an unprecedented feat in Israeli politics) in a country with no term limits, the Netanyahu era looks on course to be extended once again. The Likud leader seems to have successfully painted the corruption investigations into his conduct as no more than a left-wing media witch hunt and deep-state attempted coup. For in light of the investigations, his support levels have not waned, and his close relationship with US President Donald Trump has further buoyed his popularity. The significance of President Trump’s December 2017 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem cannot be understated as a major victory for Netanyahu. Equally significant are the pledges of other countries, such as Brazil and Guatemala, to follow suit. Given this series of political victories and the resilience of the Israeli PM’s popularity in the polls despite corruption investigations, many believe that the lengthy Netanyahu era is more likely to end through his eventual imprisonment than defeat at the ballot box. It has long appeared that there is no one who can challenge this seemingly untouchable politician.
However, history tells us that Benjamin Netanyahu is not untouchable. He has been beaten before, his first term in office ending after just three years when former Israeli military Chief of Staff Ehud Barak decisively defeated him in the 1999 elections. The key to Barak’s 1999 victory remains just as relevant some twenty years later in 2019: to defeat Netanyahu, rather than allow their vote to be divided among a number of smaller parties (as has been the case in recent years), the centre-left must unite as a single bloc behind a candidate with perceived security credentials.
Enter Benny Gantz. The political newcomer and former Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff is the only candidate with a chance of defeating Netanyahu. This is primarily thanks to his long and decorated military career, joining the paratroopers in 1977 and gradually climbing the ranks of the Israeli military. As IDF Chief of Staff between 2011-2015, Gantz is best known for having overseen two wars in Gaza: Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014. While there appears to be limited interest in Israel in the effectiveness of Gantz’s leadership as IDF Chief of Staff, the prestigious title itself carries with it the security credentials necessary to equal, if not challenge, Netanyahu’s reputation as the ‘Bibi-sitter’- the reliable father figure who knows how to keep the nation safe. And in a country where security is the issue on which elections are won and lost, it comes as no surprise that Gantz’s security credentials have his new Hosen Le-yisrael (Resilience for Israel) party at second in the polls before Gantz has uttered a single political view.
The former IDF chief’s bursting onto the Israeli political scene with his new ‘centrist’ party has sent severe shockwaves throughout the Israeli center-left. No more strongly has the ‘Gantz effect’ been felt than in Israel’s second largest party, the Zionist Union, a party that has existed since 2015 as a merger between the Israeli Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s smaller Hatnuah party. A range of polls showed the Zionist Union’s current 24 Knesset seats would be sliced in half in the April elections, should Gantz be involved. While Zionist Union leader, Avi Gabbay, initially continued to insist – in spite of poll numbers to the contrary – that the coming elections were between him and Netanyahu, his own political house has fallen out of order. That is because, in light of sagging poll numbers after Gantz’s entrance onto the political scene, Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni went behind the back of Gabbay – her main political ally in the Zionist Union – and tried to court an alliance with Benny Gantz. This pushed the already uneasy relationship between Gabbay and Livni to a breaking point. Meanwhile, Gantz had rejected Livni’s advances, reluctant to be associated with her dovish image. In turn, this setback prompted Gabbay to dissolve the Zionist Union, citing a breakdown in trust with Livni. Rather than warn her in advance of his decision, Gabbay unceremoniously ditched Livni at a party meeting before the media in what Israeli journalists are calling an ‘ISIS-style farewell.’
With the Zionist Union no more, Livni at sea, and Gabbay struggling in the polls, the door may now be open for a merger between Gabbay’s Labor Party and Gantz’s new Hosen Le-yisrael, but only if one of the two can set their ego aside and accept the other’s leadership. Ironically, given the mishmash of smaller parties in the Israeli center-left political bloc, putting egos aside to unite behind one leader is precisely what Livni has been calling for. It is, she rightly claims, the one clear path to defeating Netanyahu.
Another key player dividing the Israeli centre-left vote is Yair Lapid, a former TV anchor and current leader of the centrist party Yesh Atid. Lapid rose to political prominence in the 2013 elections, finishing an impressive second behind Netanyahu in his first foray into politics. However, the charismatic challenger (and simultaneous Netanyahu ‘wannabe’) may also represent the biggest obstacle for the Israeli centre-left in defeating the prime minister. Surely, there is no one else whose ego is less likely to be put aside for the cause of victory against Netanyahu. Lapid at once abounds in showmanship and painfully lacks in substance. Take, for example, his position on resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians: “I am saying what we need to do is something.” Likewise, his campaign rallies resemble Nobel Prize-winning acceptance speeches more closely than those of political campaigns. Peppered with quotes (and misquotes) from the likes of Churchill and Gandhi about how to change the world, Lapid’s speeches attest to both his wellspring of charisma and lack of discernible political ideology. Nevertheless, with his Yesh Atid party predicted to keep its 11 seats in the coming elections, Lapid remains an important factor in the upcoming elections.
The only other hope the Israeli center-left bloc has of unseating Netanyahu is if Likud voters ditch the prime minister in favor of parties further to the right. Former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party are likely to pick up a few seats for Liberman’s perceived tougher stance on Hamas. Meanwhile, a more recent development has been the departure of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked from their Jewish Home party to form Hayamin Hehadash (The New Right). Seeking to diversify the Jewish Home party base from its established position as a political interest group for West Bank settlers, Bennett and Shaked now hope to capture the hearts of secular Israelis, for whom the Likud is excessively socially liberal and dovish. In this vein, Bennett has promised to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state and to continue to push for Israeli annexation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Snap to it
There are still three months to go until the elections on April 9th, and a lot can happen in a day of Israeli politics. Nevertheless, with the current panoply of centre-left parties divided across different tickets, the mood in Israel seems to be one of resignation among Netanyahu’s opponents, and confidence among his supporters. There remains a possibility for former IDF Chiefs of Staff Ehud Barak and Moshe Ya’alon to throw their hat in with Gantz to try and offer Israeli voters an altogether stronger option on security than the Likud. Even so, such a move alone is highly unlikely to bridge the current chasm between Gantz’s predicted 15 seats versus Netanyahu’s 30, if we are to believe the polls. As in 1999, it appears the path to a Netanyahu defeat can only be paved by a united centre-left bloc, with the likes of Gabbay and Lapid putting their egos aside for what they see as the good of the country. Yet, to ask politicians to put egos aside sounds like a logic-defying request. The only other hope for those who do not wish to see another four years of Netanyahu is that the day after elections will be the Yom Kippur of the pollsters.