Why Israel Faces a Fourth Election in Simply Two Years

JERUSALEM – With Israel facing its fourth election two years after its government collapsed, many in the country are wondering if it is too much democracy.

The last three votes were inconclusive, and not a single candidate was able to raise the parliamentary majority required to form a government. The stalemate enabled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the conservative Likud party to convince his main rival Benny Gantz of the centrist blue-white party to form a troubled coalition.

It only took seven months.

Mr Netanyahu is now fighting for political survival again while on trial, charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and amid the coronavirus pandemic that has devastated the Israeli economy.

Here’s what to look for as Israel prepares for another election, this time on March 23rd.

The main reason, analysts say, is Mr. Netanyahu’s legal and political calculation that he can best fight his criminal case from the Prime Minister’s office. They say he is ready to put the country up for election after the elections in order to hold onto power.

Reportedly, the latest government fell over Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal to approve a 2020 state budget by midnight Tuesday, in violation of his coalition agreement with Mr. Gantz.

Mr. Netanyahu is hoping to build a more sympathetic government that could grant him immunity from prosecution, analysts say. His corruption process is expected to enter an intensive phase of evidence early next year, during which the country will see the spectacle of his appearance in court.

Mr Netanyahu blamed Mr Gantz for the collapse of the coalition government, saying that he and his blue and white party had refused to give the prime minister a say on a number of pending government and judicial appointments. However, opinion polls show that most Israelis blame Mr. Netanyahu.

“There are a lot of smoke barriers, but I think we have to be fair and fairly explicit,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan research group.

“This will not end until either Mr Netanyahu is replaced or if he finds a way through legislation or political maneuvers to either put his trial on hold or suspend it altogether,” said Mr Plesner.

The last three ballots were essentially a clash between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz, a former army chief who had entered politics two years ago.

Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, had a strong Likud base and experience. The centrist blue and white under Mr. Gantz promised national unity and the rule of law.

The two blocs merged with smaller parties that were vaguely divided into right-religious and left-liberal lines, and ended in a chronic bond. After two elections failed to produce a stable government, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz joined forces.

Maybe. A few weeks ago, opinion polls showed that Mr. Netanyahu would be well positioned to form a new government made up of right-wing loyalists and his ultra-Orthodox allies. But a new conservative challenger, Gideon Saar, has since stepped into the ring and restarted the voting card, including for Mr Netanyahu’s base voters.

Mr Saar, who lost to Mr Netanyahu in a Likud leadership race a year ago, recently resigned from the party and formed a rival called New Hope who took away some coalition members. Osnat Mark, a Likud lawmaker and Netanyahu loyalist, called New Hope “a party of traitors and deserters”.

Mr. Gantz lost most of his public support after teaming up with Mr. Netanyahu after previously making an election promise not to do so. With his blue-white party now disintegrating into battle, the main battle for leadership of the right will likely take place this time.

However, numerous polls since Mr Saar’s move indicate that there is still no party leader who has an easy way to form a government.

Since no single party ever manages to achieve a full majority in parliament with 120 seats, larger parties have to join forces with smaller ones to form a viable coalition. This often gives smaller coalition partners a disproportionate influence.

If no candidate gets a majority of 61 this time, the political crisis in Israel could continue. And further.

An election in March poses a significant risk to Mr Netanyahu, who tried unsuccessfully to postpone Parliament’s budget deadline after Mr Saar was canceled.

Israel’s coronavirus vaccination campaign has only just begun, so a vote in late spring or summer might have been more beneficial for him as an economic recovery may have started by then.

Instead, the campaign will take place when Israel grapples with a third wave of the virus.

In another handicap for Mr Netanyahu, this time around, without the support and election gifts of his closest international ally, President Trump, he will face the electorate and instead deal with the Biden administration after his takeover in January.

But Mr. Netanyahu, popularly known as Bibi, also has much to boast about. With the help of the Trump administration, he has concluded diplomatic relations with four formerly hostile Arab countries over the past four months.

Its administrations have run the country through years of relative security stability, and the country has now received millions of coronavirus vaccine doses.

“Israel could definitely be one of the first countries to emerge from the crisis,” he said in a televised address on Tuesday evening.

Election promises by his most determined political opponents, including Mr Gantz, never to sit in a coalition led by a prime minister on criminal charges have proven worthless in the past.

With politicians arguing over fundamental issues like equality and the powers of the courts, Israelis now have to decide what kind of democracy they want and which candidate is best equipped to face the challenges of the coronavirus and regional threats from Iran and to meet his deputies.

Be that as it may, this next election, like the three before, will largely be a competition between the “Only Bibi” and “Anyone but Bibi” camps.

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