Israel’s political system is actively preparing for the general elections expected to take place on April 9th, 2019. The campaign for Parliament is underway, and the elections are in nearly all headlines and debates in the media. The Israeli political system is starting to look like a boxing arena, with large parties viciously attacking one another, and small parties struggling for political survival, since some of them may not pass the electoral threshold required to secure parliamentary representation.
The Israeli electoral system and its dynamics encourage new parties to enter politics every time there is an election. Israel is a parliamentary democracy headed by a Prime Minister. The Israeli parliament (the Knesset) is made up of political parties representing the entire political spectrum: left, right, center, religious, secular, and minorities. Currently, there are eleven parties in the Knesset; the right-wing Likud party is the largest among them with 30 Members of Knesset (MKs). Parliamentary democracies require the formation of coalitions after every round of elections, and since there are 120 members in the Knesset, a majority coalition of at least 61 MKs is needed to form a government. Israeli politics is therefore determined and driven by blocs of parties rather than being dominated by a single large party.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of Likud, has been Prime Minister since 2009. He and Likud have won the last three elections and managed to form a stable political majority bloc of right-wing, religious, and nationalist parties. To fend off attacks from the opposition and the media over corruption allegations, Netanyahu is leaning on demagogic populism to create a simplistic nationalist narrative that labels anyone who does not support him and his government as “leftist,” “un-patriotic,” “weak,” “surrendering to Palestinian terror,” and “dangerous to Israel’s security.” The Prime Minster has also accused the media and the Israeli Police of participating in a “left-wing conspiracy to overthrow the government,” Netanyahu’s tactics have succeed in dramatically influencing public opinion and establishing broad and consistent political support for him and his government over the last decade.
According to recent public opinion polls, no political rivals seemed capable of challenging Prime Minister Netanyahu’s hold on power. Polls also suggest that Netanyahu’s coalition remains stable. First, by asking the question “which party will you vote for in the upcoming elections”, the Likud party won in each poll more than 30 seats while the second largest party trails far behind with only 18 seats. Second, in answer to a question dealing with the candidate’s suitability to be Prime Minister : “who among the candidates is better suited in your eyes to be Prime Minister”, Netanyahu had a score of 35% in each poll while his political rivals won a score of only 18% and below. Third, and finally, right-wing parties seem to constitute a solid majority in the Knesset in the last few years, and, regardless no scenario would allow the center-left bloc to grow to at least 61 MKs, needed for a coalition.
On Wednesday, February 20th, however, a dramatic new development took place, with the potential to cause Netanyahu’s defeat after more than 10 years in power. Two parties from the political center – both medium in size, one that has been active for seven years and one that was just established – decided to merge into a single large united party. The more established of the two, Yesh-Atid, headed by Yair Lapid, has deep political roots in Israel, despite its brief seven years of existence.
Lapid is a charismatic and talented politician, who has succeeded in recent years of winning public support for the role of Prime Minister and solidifying his image as someone who can actually govern instead of Netanyahu. Lapid’s major handicap, when running alone against the Netanyahu-led Likud, is that he is not a former general, something that undermines the chances of any candidate to become Prime Minister given the security-military narrative dominant in Israeli society. The second centrist party in the new merger was founded only a few weeks ago, and it is headed by Benny Gantz, the 20th Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (2011 – 2015). Even before the merger, the polls showed that the public perceived Gantz to be as suitable to become Prime Minister as Netanyahu. Gantz and Lapid also enlisted two other former Chiefs of Staff in the top list of the new party to appeal to Israeli voters that may be growing tired of Netanyahu, but still concerned with electing a party with strong national security bonafides. This could transfer many votes from the moderate right to the center bloc, thus significantly changing the political equilibrium for the first time since Netanyahu came to power in 2009. Lapid and Gantz have agreed on a rotation in their role as Prime Minister in the event their new Blue-and-White party (referring to the colors of the Israeli flag) wins the elections.Polls published immediately after the highly publicized Lapid-Ganz merger showed that their new party could win 35 to 36 Knesset seats, while Likud would secure only about 30 seats.
Meanwhile, the political system is expected to continue experiencing turmoil. On February 21st, Netanyahu decided to form an alliance with an extremist right-wing party Otzma Yehudit, which is attempting to get into the Knesset; this is a part of his strategy to keep the power of the hard-right bloc ahead of the April 9th election. A day later, America’s largest Israel advocacy organizations responded to this move by issuing an extraordinarily rare rebuke of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government. “The views of Otzma Yehudit are reprehensible,” the AJC and AIPAC said in a joint statement, “They do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel.”
On February 28th,after many months of legal consultations about corruption allegations against Netanyahu, Israel’s Attorney General announced that he decided to indict him on corruption charges. It is the first time in the history of the state of Israel that there a decision is been made to indict an acting Prime-Minister. This dramatic decision is expected to shake the political system. In response to this decision, Netanyahu argues that the Attorney General has surrendered to a conspiracy to topple Netanyahu and his government; therefore embarking on a desperate campaign claiming even more intensely that this is an illegitimate unpatriotic coup attempt.
Netanyahu’s conspiracy theories could have significant implications: If he succeeds in convincing the public that he is being illegitimately persecuted, he might gain more political support that would help him win the upcoming elections and remain Prime Minister even if he is indicted for corruption. Alternatively, if in his response to the Attorney General’s decision, Netanyahu is seen as disrespectful of the judicial system and willing to trample the foundations of government to survive politically he may lose support and the votes of the moderate Israeli right. This bloc, traditionally represented by 3 to 4 small political parties, may now choose to vote for Gantz-Lapid recently formed centrist coalition. Provided that Gantz and Lapid can maintain their center-right image until election day, there is a good chance that they could gain appeal as an alternative to Netanyahu among Likud voters who supported the Prime Minister in the past, but who may now find it very difficult to continue to support him.
The Israelis will go to the polls on April 9th. More dramatic events may occur between now and then, but it is already clear that, for the first time since the beginning of the “Netanyahu era,” new political momentum has emerged and it poses a genuine challenge to Netanyahu and his right-wing government. JN
Dr. Ronen Hoffman, a 2018-2019 Robert A. Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East, is an academician and former member of Knesset 2013-2015. He served as a member of Israel’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee as well as the chairman of the sub-committee on Foreign Affairs and Public Diplomacy.