Israel’s political system is actively preparing for the general elections expected to take place on April 9, 2019. The campaign for Parliament is underway, and 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.
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. Currently, there are 11 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 narrative that labels anyone who does not support him and his government as “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.
Until relatively recently, no political rivals seemed capable of challenging Prime Minister Netanyahu’s hold on power. Polls have also suggested that Netanyahu’s coalition remains stable.
On Feb. 20, 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. Lapid is a charismatic and talented politician, who has succeeded in 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 is that he is not a former general, which undermines the chances of any candidate to become prime minister given the security-military narrative dominant in Israeli society.
The second party in the new merger is headed by Benny Gantz, the 20th Chief of General Staff of the IDF. Even before the merger, the polls showed that the public perceived Gantz to be as suitable for 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 who may be growing tired of Netanyahu, but still want a party with strong national security bonafides. This could transfer many votes from the moderate right to the center bloc, changing the political equilibrium for the first time since 2009. Lapid and Gantz have agreed on a rotation in their role as prime minister in the event their new Blue-and-White party wins the elections.
Meanwhile, the political system is expected to continue experiencing turmoil. On Feb. 21, Netanyahu decided to form an alliance with extremist right-wing party Otzma Yehudit, which is attempting to get into the Knesset; this was part of his strategy to keep the power of the hard-right bloc ahead of the 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 Feb. 28, Israel’s Attorney General announced that he decided to indict him on corruption charges. In response, Netanyahu argued that the attorney general has surrendered to a conspiracy to topple his government in an illegitimate 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 to help him win the elections and remain prime minister even if he is indicted.
Alternately, if he is seen as disrespectful of the judicial system and willing to trample the foundations of government to survive politically, he may lose support of the moderate Israeli right. Provided that Gantz and Lapid can maintain their center-right image until election day, they could gain appeal as an alternative to Netanyahu among Likud voters who supported Netanyahu in the past.
More dramatic events may occur between now and election day, but it is already clear that, for the first time since the beginning of the “Netanyahu era,” new political momentum poses a genuine challenge to him. JN
Ronen Hoffman, a 2018-2019 Robert A. Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East, is a former member of the Knesset. He served as a member of Israel’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee as well as the chairman of the subcommittee on Foreign Affairs and Public Diplomacy.