The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, was dissolved after the government failed to pass its national budget amid bitter coalition disputes between its two main actors: the Likud and Kachol-Lavan (Blue and White) parties. Israel is now preparing for what are its fourth national elections since March 2019 while facing a rampant coronavirus outbreak, economic crisis, and a prime minister on trial for corruption. It was announced that the new elections would take place on March 23. Moreover, given the negative experience in the United States, the idea of voting by mail, and electronic voting, was rejected. But separate polling stations will be created for patients infected with the coronavirus, and those located in quarantine.
After that, a complete change in the political landscape began to occur – a process to which the Israelis are very inclined. Amir Peretz, the head of the Labor Party that helped found Israel, and then governed it for its first three decades, announced that he would step down as party leader. Despite repeated campaign promises not to do this, Amir Peretz joined Benjamin Netanyahu’s national unity government in May, and started serving as the Minister of Economy. This move resulted in the party, already shaken up, losing many of its remaining supporters. Recent polls have shown that the Labor Party will not pass the electoral threshold required to win seats in the Knesset, a staggering drop for a once prominent party.
Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu’s biggest challenge seems to come from ideologically close right-wing rivals that split away from the Likud due to personal differences of opinion with the prime minister. On Wednesday, Likud junior deputy Sharren Haskel resigned from parliament to join the nascent party formed by Gideon Sa’ar, a former Netanyahu ally who backed him earlier this month to form his own party. It is worth mentioning that Sharren Haskel is just one of a growing number of breakaway Likud legislators that have now joined forces with Gideon Sa’ar as he seeks to remove the current prime minister from office, who has occupied his post for a long time.
But perhaps the greatest loss for the prime minister was when Ze’ev Elkin, the Minister of Water Resources and Higher Education, resigned from the government and joined Gideon Saar’s New Hope (Tikva Hadasha) party. He made a televised address, and explained that the reasons for this step had to do with concerns that Benjamin Netanyahu’s personality, and the whims of those in his closest entourage, are playing an ever-increasing role in the decision-making process. The importance of these decisions is critical for the state of Israel and its citizens. He also accused Benjamin Netanyahu of destroying the Likud, and turning the party into a Byzantine court – one with a cult of personality where people are afraid to express criticism. Ze’ev Elkin decided to join the Tikva Hadasha party and go to the elections on that party’s list – and its chairman, Gideon Sa’ar, welcomed that move.
Running up against the mushrooming coronavirus pandemic, Benny Gantz, the former IDF Chief of the General Staff who is the leader of the centrist bloc Kachol-Lavan, launched the struggle against the prime minister. According to their coalition agreement, they were supposed to share power with Benjamin Netanyahu, who has served as prime minister for 18 months, and Benny Gantz was supposed to take the helm in November 2021. However, Benjamin Netanyahu refused to adopt the national budget by the end of the year – a step that was required by law, but which also would have stabilized the government enough to give Benny Gantz the chance to occupy the post of prime minister. Both sides accused each other of violating the coalition agreement, and neither of them would agree to either the terms for approving the budget or passing emergency legislation to extend the deadline for their joint efforts.
However, dissolving the parliament does not mean that the government’s work stops, since it still functions as a “caretaker”. This means that it is working to try to bail out the country, but cannot pass new legislation, or set new policies. All the ministers will continue to lead their ministries. The Knesset committees will continue to meet and resolve various issues until the next government is sworn in after the March elections.
The elections are supervised by the multi-party Central Elections Commission (CEC) at the Knesset, chaired by a Supreme Court judge. The last day for political parties to submit their lists of candidates is expected to be February 4. Until then, new parties can register to vote, and existing parties can negotiate a merger to run as part of a larger list with a unified electoral platform.
The key factor in March may be the state of the pandemic in Israel. Although the process of giving vaccinations against the coronavirus has begun, and millions of doses are slated to be administered over the coming months, experts do not know how the pandemic will affect the country’s domestic situation and, consequently, the voting results in three months.
One of the central features in the current campaign is the weekly public opinion polls, which try to predict where Israeli public sentiment is heading. Each of Israel’s three main TV channels conducts its own polls, as do the major newspapers. In a poll published by Channel 12, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party won 29 places, which is two places more than in the previous poll. Since the election campaign officially began, the poll results have clearly shown that Benjamin Netanyahu does not have enough seats to form a right-wing coalition government from Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina, since these parties taken together only have 58 seats. On the other hand, the coalition led by Gideon Sa’ar, which could include Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Gantz, would also fall short of the 61 seats required for the majority. This means it can be assumed that various kinds of meetings and negotiations between the leaders of various political parties will soon begin to create a coalition that is capable of continuing to rule Israel. Despite his colossal experience and victories on the foreign policy front, when four Arab countries settled their relations with Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu will have a struggle for the post of prime minister that will be more difficult than ever before. And here the problems of his dishonesty and political underhandedness become decisive. After his unceremonious and barely concealed refusal to fulfill his responsibilities to Benny Gantz, most Israeli newspapers note that not one current politician would agree to enter into a deal with Benjamin Netanyahu.
But Israelis are completely sick and tired of all this petty intrigue, along with the disaster that has befallen the country in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the essence of this was clearly expressed by Wilfred Camilleri, who wrote: “What a sad state of affairs. There are too many small parties that hinder any chance for a stable government. Minority coalition governments are only good once, and not forever, and after elections other elections will follow. The Jewish people must gather itself up.”
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.