Is Israel on its way to fourth election?

Voting for the disbandment of the Knesset, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and his Blue and White party put themselves on a collision course with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) sits next to Benny Gantz, the defense minister and alternate prime minister, at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on July 5, 2020. Photo by GALI TIBBON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.

Dec 3, 2020

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz spent over an hour sitting next to each other in the Knesset on Dec. 2. Throughout that entire time, they didn’t exchange a single word. The requisite social distancing between them and the masks they wore because of the coronavirus could not hide their mutual loathing.

The Knesset had convened for a preliminary reading of an opposition bill to dissolve itself. Already on a collision course with Netanyahu, Gantz decided that his Blue and White party would support the motion. It was his way of protesting Netanyahu’s refusal to bring the 2021 budget to the Knesset for approval. The reading passed, as Gantz promised, thanks to the support of members of his party, including its senior ministers. It was an absurd spectacle, reflecting the enduring political chaos: Members of the coalition, including senior ministers, voted against the government of which they are members.

This was just a preliminary reading. The bill still has a lengthy process ahead of it before it can be adopted. Nevertheless, it signaled the end of the coronavirus government, seven months after it was formed to heal the rift in Israeli society and fight back against the ravages of the virus, both medically and economically. The government will hit the end of the road over the next few weeks, leaving an even more divided society in its wake, while COVID-19 continues to rage across the country. The most likely timetable is that elections will take place sometime between March and May 2021. It will be the fourth election in just two years.

It is almost inevitable that efforts will be made to find a compromise in the time remaining before the Knesset is dissolved. Nevertheless, the chance of something dramatic happening to prevent new elections is meager. Both sides are already trapped in a political pileup. Both sides are already blaming each other for the current situation and the overwhelming amount of rot in the system.

Ever the cunning political fox, Netanyahu is playing the role of the scoundrel who brought down a naive and innocent Benny Gantz, a man driven by values and a deep desire for peace, who wants to heal divisions in the country and bring about peace. This description, coached in theatrical terms, actually corresponds with the series of events that have occurred until now. As it turns out, Netanyahu left himself a loophole in the coalition agreement. Apparently, he is not obligated to go through with the rotation agreement with Gantz if the 2021 budget does not pass. It is not clear how the pricey legal consultants hired by Gantz didn’t pick up on this earlier, but Netanyahu has now pulled approval of the budget off the table so as not to go through with the rotation. Gantz was late in realizing this, but he is now trying to pressure Netanyahu to go through with the agreement anyway.

All in all, it is too little too late. And that is not the only problem either. Gantz fell into a trap. After Wednesday’s vote, he gave Netanyahu an excuse to blame him for breaking apart the partnership between them. That was exactly what the prime minister did at a press conference he convened after the bill to dissolve the Knesset passed its preliminary reading. He took advantage of the occasion to say, “Benny Gantz must pull the handbrake. He must stop the downhill spin to elections. … The country can't be dragged into election politics while we need to focus on the battle with the coronavirus.”

As if on cue, the Blue and White party responded with a scathing attack. “Netanyahu, the time for games is over. This campaign of contradictions and lies must end. It is time for the real test, based on deeds. Because of the enormous challenges before us, the economic damage that you are causing Israelis during an economic, medical, and social pandemic shows that you have lost it. We all know the truth. So do you. Only if there is no trial will we get a budget, or at least it seems that way,” Gantz tweeted.

To be fair, the Blue and White party is also guilty of violating the unity agreement. It has been jabbing incessantly at Netanyahu with a series of defiant moves. For example, it proposed legislation that the ultra-Orthodox parties consider offensive, such as a law to ban conversion therapy. Steps like this make it difficult for parties with very different worldviews to work together as a coalition. Then there was a decision by Gantz to create a committee of inquiry within the Defense Ministry to investigate the submarine affair. Netanyahu regarded this as being intended to hurt him personally since the entire scandal is problematic for him.

Given all this, it can be said that campaigning for the next election began this week with an ugly game of mutual recriminations. These will end up being the catchline that the parties adopt in their campaigns. However, a broader overview of events, especially from the perspective of time, shows that this fourth round of elections will be just another pit stop in the struggle by Netanyahu and his supporters to remain in power despite the criminal proceedings facing the prime minister.

Netanyahu remains at the top of the pyramid. The only difference is that the challengers for his position keep changing. Benny Gantz burned his bridges by partnering with Netanyahu. He can no longer present himself as an alternative leader of the country. Netanyahu, a master of political scheming, actually faces the upcoming election from an improved starting point. The center-left has no favorite candidate to run against him. The opposition bloc is a nest of rivalries, with new players attempting to enter the fray. One of these is former Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, who has been trying to create a new centrist party. But that would mean facing Netanyahu, whose support, both political and public, remains considerable.

Netanyahu’s demise has been predicted countless times. In the past, there was even talk of him being deposed from within the Likud. Nevertheless, he remains the unchallenged leader of the party and the man with the best chance of being elected again, even after this fourth round of voting. A poll released by Channel 13 on Dec. 2 predicts that the Likud will win 29 seats while Gantz will only win 10. Netanyahu also has a significant lead against all the other candidates in terms of suitability to be prime minister.

This is not just another political battle. It is a full-fledged social war between two distinct groups of Israelis: supporters of Netanyahu, which includes the ultra-Orthodox, and his opponents and enemies on the center-left. The COVID-19 pandemic may have hurt Netanyahu, but he believes that one or more vaccines will enter the market in the next few months, the virus will abate and its political impact will fade away.

Anyone who saw Netanyahu on Wednesday realized that he has no plans to give up his seat. He is at war, and he has the backing of a large swathe of the population, which believes that he is an outstanding prime minister who happened to be treated unfairly. His opponents will not be able to change that, even with a fourth election right around the corner. Netanyahu’s supporters are like football fans. They will fight for him no matter what. That is why the chances are slim that the next election will be decisive. Israel will face a rolling political crisis as long as Netanyahu remains such a strong player.

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