In Depth

Will Netanyahu win another term as Israel’s PM?

Polls have him tied with the opposition party in the second election in six months

Israelis will head to the polls for the second time in six months next Tuesday to choose between parties whose differences hold huge significance for regional and international peace and stability.

The country’s beleaguered prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, faces a hard-campaigning opposition, three possible indictments, and a setback on the international stage after the US administration signalled - through the firing of John Bolton - that its hard line on Iran may be softening.

Standing in the way of a nationalist majority is the Blue and White coalition led by former Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff Benny Gantz.

Gantz, a career army officer, is no radical, nor is he a pacifist - Israel’s electorate is unlikely to tolerate anything short of a full-throated commitment to national security - but, among other subtle differences, his campaign messaging has signalled a more cooperative attitude to Palestinian authorities in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and in Gaza.

In April’s election, both Gantz’s Blue and White party and Netanyahu’s Likud won 35 seats in parliament.

There are 120 seats in the Knesset, and seats are awarded proportionally to all parties who exceed 3.25% of the total vote - equivalent to four seats. In the nation’s 71-year history, no party has ever won an outright majority, and polls indicate next week will be no different - much like the first Israel election of 2019, Likud and Blue and White are neck-and-neck.

“Right now, the situation looks like a complete repeat of last time, and all we can do is hope that if this second election does not produce a clear winner, Israeli politicians will be extremely fearful of going back for a third time,” said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

If this analysis is correct, and Tuesday’s election has the same outcome as April’s, political dynamics will have to shift to allow the deadlock to break. “Someone will have to give up,” said Tal Shalev, diplomatic and political correspondent for the news website Walla. “Either Netanyahu will have to leave or Blue and White will have to give up on not wanting to sit with him.”

Steven A. Cook for the Council on Foreign Relations says Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party and a former minister, could be “the kingmaker”.

Cook explains: “He has stated that he will support a unity government between Likud and Blue and White and remains resolute on requiring the military draft of ultra-Orthodox men and ending the chief rabbinate’s requirement that Russian immigrants prove their Jewishness through DNA tests. If Yisrael Beiteinu does at least as well as it did in April, earning five seats, Lieberman will likely be a central figure in determining the governing coalition.”

Annexation of the West Bank

Yesterday and on Sunday, in separate locations in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Netanyahu made a clear appeal to right-wing, nationalist voters and potential coalition partners, pledging to apply “Israeli sovereignty” over the West Bank areas of the Jordan Valley and northern end of the Dead Sea.

It’s a big gamble, but a calculated one. As The Jerusalem Post argues, “Netanyahu has now pegged his election performance to this vow to annex a swath of the West Bank.”

“Whatever an Israeli politician promises in the week before an election has to be seen through a political prism, especially in Bibi’s case,” said Anshel Pfeffer, author of a biography of Netanyahu, using the prime minister’s nickname. “His election strategy is to maximise turnout among his rightwing base, and he is throwing his base as much red meat as possible.”

The day before election day four years ago, Netanyahu infamously warned that Arab-Israelis were heading to the polls “in droves”. Since his failure to form a coalition after April 2019’s electioral stalemate Netanyahu “has spent the summer warning that Arab-Israelis were poised to commit large-scale election fraud, on the nuclear threat from Iran, and accusing the Israeli media of not just being against him but, in one case, anti-Semitic”, reports the Financial Times.

However, there are signs that Netanyahu’s tried-and-tested campaign strategy may be wearing thin.

“Voters on the right and the left are taking Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign promises with a large pinch of skepticism,” The New York Times reports. “He has pledged in the past to build in… the West Bank… but has apparently backed down under international pressure. Days before the last election… he vowed to annex all of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including the most isolated, in an effort to rally right-wing voters. That has rightists asking why he has not annexed an inch of West Bank territory over his last decade in office, or 13 years over all.”

Support from Trump

Touting his relationship with Donald Trump as an example of his diplomatic nous and influence on the global stage has long been a preferred campaign tactic of Netanyahu’s. He attempted the same tactic this week.

“Mr Netanyahu hinted that Donald Trump had given him the green light for the sweeping annexation but did not say so explicitly,” writes Raf Sanchez in The Telegraph. “He said merely that ‘diplomatic conditions have ripened’ for announcing the move. “

Six months ago, Trump made a number of gestures that will have shored up domestic support for Netanyahu. In the days and weeks before the election in April the US president sent his secretary of state to Israel, declared Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organisation, and recognised Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, as well as, in a hugely controversial move, allowing the US consulate in Jerusalem to officially become the nation’s embassy.

While similar efforts could be made as election day approaches next Tuesday, this time Trump’s attention seems to be elsewhere. This week’s firing of John Bolton potentially marks a shift for Washington away from Netanyahu’s preferred position of zero-tolerance bellicosity towards Iran.

According to a report by Bloomberg, Bolton’s firing came in the wake of a confrontation with Trump after the president raised the possibility of easing sanctions on Tehran in the buildup to talks between the nations.

What are some potential outcomes?
  • Likud perform well in the polls, and Netanyahu is chosen by President Reuven Rivlin to negotiate a coalition. He succeeds, forming a government with the right-wing party Yamina and the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, alongside whom Likud commands 61 or more seats in the Knesset.
  • Again, Likud performs well enough that Netanyahu is asked to form a coalition. Talks break down along similar lines as they did in April, but this time, rather than call yet another election, the prime minister seeks a pragmatic government of national unity across ideological divides. “We will not join a corrupt government with Netanyahu,” said Gantz at a forum on Monday, but in a time of constitutional crisis, this may change.
  • Blue and White perform well in the election, and Gantz is asked to form a coalition. He succeeds, creating a government comprising The Democratic Union and Labor-Gesher, two non-Arab left, center-left parties. The union of four disparate Arab-Israeli parties, known as the Joint List, has vowed to never form a coalition in government. Gantz has indicated he would be willing to “form a national unity government with other parties on the basis of shared principles.”
  • Netanyahu is granted the chance to form a government, but fails, after which the president asks Gantz to try. Likewise Gantz could be given the first attempt, and if he fails Netanyahu could come in to sweep up the pieces.
  • If all negotiations fail, there could simply be another election. At this point, whomever voters blame for the talks’ failure could suffer.

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