Will Israel’s third election in a year produce a government?
Some polls have Netanyahu edging ahead despite corruption charges, but most expect yet another stalemate
Israelis will head to the polls for the third election in under a year on Monday, amid pessimism that this new vote will do anything to shift the deadlock.
The country is exhausted by a politics that has been running in almost constant campaign mode since December 2018, when the first election of April last year was announced.
That election was a dead heat, and was followed by a second in September, but that too ended without a clear winner between the incumbent leader of Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s longest serving prime minister, and the retired general Benny Gantz, who fronts the new centrist party Blue and White.
Israelis now look with dread at polls that say the same indecisive result is likely again.
Last year’s electoral ties saw both candidates given a chance to form a ruling coalition, but neither could muster the necessary parliamentary support. The parties that want to see Netanyahu gone amount to a majority in the Knesset - Israel’s parliament - but they are too divided on other issues to unite against him.
Will charged against Netanyahu make a difference?
For this election, however, there is one substantial difference. In November, Netanyahu was indicted for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, becoming the first Israeli prime minister to be charged with a crime while in office, and the trial is due to take place in three week’s time.
The possibility that Netanyahu might be charged hung over him in the previous two contests, but now the charges against his rival are real, Gantz has made them a cornerstone of his campaign, “as if all he needs to say is 'Netanyahu' and 'indictment' to win support,” says The New York Times.
Citing the charges on Wednesday, Gantz announced Blue and White would refuse to join in government with Likud, dashing hopes a coalition could be formed if, as the polls suggest, there is another electoral tie.
“Because of your obsession with evading trial, you’re lying, attacking, dividing, mudslinging, spreading malicious rumours and inciting,” said Gantz. “You’ve lost it, and you’re unworthy of being prime minister for even a single day longer. I, with you, will not sit.”
Why is Netanyahu edging ahead?
Blue and White became the larger of the two parties in September, with 33 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, but polls say this time, despite Netanyahu’s impending trial, they have actually slipped behind Likud.
Their strategy had been to move to the right to capture Likud voters disaffected with Netanyahu’s indictment, but the move seems to have backfired and lost them voters on the left, while Netanyahu’s base has been fired up by his hawkish promises to build settlements in the Palestinian-occupied West Bank.
Blue and White’s “attempt to shift rightward isn’t really working,” a source told Israeli publication Haaretz. “This could still be reversible, but the party is now preparing to cut its losses, garner as many seats as possible and readies for a fourth election round.”
The Jerusalem Post cites recent polls that say a large contingent of voters may vote for Likud simply to end the deadlock, calling these people “stability voters.” This, plus Likud’s impressive organisation on the ground, they say, could push the party to the 61 seats it needs to obtain a blocking majority in the Knesset.
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What will happen next?
Even so, a fourth election seems the most likely outcome at this point, but it remains hard to see how that will shift anything or result in a functioning government. No amount of political manoeuvering by either party seems to change the locked-in positions of a divided electorate.
“The main issue is still Mr Netanyahu himself,” says The Economist. “Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is a polarising figure. He has kept Israel safe, forged closer ties to Arab states and overseen a flourishing economy,” while Gantz, the man who would need to unite the anti-Netanyahu parties, is “a bland campaigner, [who] has struggled to fire up voters - or bring the opposition together.”
Some argue the issue is structural. “Rather than political parties playing a role in mediating the conflicts between the groups, our electoral system instead creates an incentive to amplify those differences,” said Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “There are some inherent weaknesses in our democracy and election system that have been brought to the fore and need to be remedied.”
However, others disagree, saying the electoral system is simply reflecting the polarised politics of a divided nation.
“If there are chickens coming home to roost, it’s not that there’s a political system that’s broken. It’s a society that’s fractured,” said writer and Israel analyst Bernard Avishai, who has written three books on Israel.