On Tuesday 23 March, Israelis will go to the polls for an unprecedented fourth time in two years. Much has changed since the last election in March 2020, with the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic now dominating domestic Israeli politics. But one thing has stayed more or less the same: the question of whether Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will cling to power.
For many, this election is a referendum on Netanyahu’s coronavirus record, which includes a heady mix of a world-leading vaccine roll-out, economic crisis, and chaotic implementation of lockdown measures. There are other, longer-running issues with Netanyahu’s leadership, too. Chief among these is his ongoing trial on three criminal corruption charges. The evidentiary stage starts on 5 April and hearings will be held three times a week.
In the past three elections, held between April 2019 and March 2020, Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party failed to win a majority, but the parties opposing him also failed to form a coalition. After the third round of elections, with the coronavirus crisis brewing, Netanyahu finally managed to convince Benny Gantz, the former army chief-of-staff campaigning on a “Just not Bibi [Netanyahu’s nickname]” ticket, to join him in coalition for the sake of the nation.
Throughout these recent elections, a groundswell of dissatisfaction with Netanyahu found expression in votes for Gantz’s centre-right Blue and White party, a newcomer in 2019. Yet today, Gantz – currently Israel’s defence minister and alternate prime minister under the coalition deal – has seen his political position disintegrate.
Poll after poll now puts Gantz uncomfortably close to the electoral threshold of just four seats, the minimum vote share a party needs to get seats in Israel’s Knesset parliament. This is a sharp drop from the 33 he won last March. In February, 130 former defence officials signed an open letter urging him to pull out of the race, lest he waste anti-Netanyahu votes by not clearing the threshold. Gantz responded that they were “shooting me in the back”.
In the two years since he entered politics, Gantz’s status as Netanyahu’s main challenger has evaporated. His public image has shifted from one of decency in the face of the prime minister’s alleged corruption, to one of failure and betrayal. Campaigning ahead of next week’s vote, Gantz has said Netanyahu deceived him in negotiating the coalition deal and later in government, and that Netanyahu is more interested in escaping “his day in court” than serving the country. The tone is a world away from the past three elections, where he presented himself as a statesman rising above Netanyahu’s divisive leadership.
What went so wrong? And what does Gantz’s fate mean for voters who want to see an end to the Netanyahu era?
Part of the explanation for Gantz’s failure is that he committed the one mistake no politician can afford to make: betraying his base. “He didn’t understand the value of the base,” veteran political commentator Tal Schneider tells me. While Netanyahu considers his core voters in every political move, Gantz did not appreciate that his voters abandoned their previous political homes, including parties on the left, because “they believed him that he wouldn’t collaborate with Netanyahu”. Entering the coalition government not only lost him public support, but political allies, she says.
Another problem, says leading Israeli pundit Ben Caspit, was that Gantz listened to advisers who had moved with him from the military, rather than veterans steeped in Israeli politics. Caspit is one of the commentators who thought Gantz did the right thing by entering the coalition – “I know it was [his] only option” – but the unity government was plagued by bad faith from the negotiating phase: a loophole that not passing a national budget would trigger elections gave Netanyahu a way out of the deal, Caspit explains. By December, the government had collapsed due to a missed budget deadline.
A further explanation is that Gantz’s lack of political experience helped Netanyahu gain the upper hand. “His toolkit doesn’t come with a knife,” says Caspit, also likening Gantz to a “goldfish in a pool of piranhas”.
Ronen Tzur, Gantz’s strategic adviser during those three elections, describes Gantz as a “good man” with “his heart in the right place”. One of Gantz’s main problems, he says, was that key people in his circle pushed him to agree to Netanyahu’s terms, rather than driving a harder bargain.
When Gantz entered the coalition, he gave up his political power ostensibly in the name of “unity”. The move split Blue and White in two. His former allies: the centrist Yesh Atid, and Telem, led by another ex-army chief Moshe Ya’alon (formerly of Netanyahu’s Likud party), went into opposition alongside other parties, including the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu and Yamina; the Arab-majority Joint List; and the leftist Meretz. Under the coalition deal, Gantz would have become prime minister in November this year. But few believed this would ever actually happen, Caspit says.
Netanyahu is also seen as having trumped Gantz in how he ran the government, excluding Gantz and his ministers from key decisions, such as normalisation agreements with Arab states. Gantz has consequently been left in a far weaker position than when he started: after the fourth elections were announced, a line of ministers resigned from his party.
But despite sinking in the polls, Gantz’s career is not over yet, says Tzur. His test will come the day after the election, when both the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps will try to secure the 61 recommendations from Knesset members they need to form a coalition. Netanyahu will pressure him to enter his government. “If he doesn’t go in, even at the cost of a fifth election, I think the public will forgive him,” says Tzur. “If he goes in it will be the end of his career.”
Gantz clearly no longer leads the anti-Bibi camp. Today, the opposition to Netanyahu, with parties on the left, right and centre, is fragmented in a way that it wasn’t in the previous three election rounds – and even then it wasn’t united enough to shift Netanyahu.
On the right, the key players against Netanyahu are Gideon Saar, formerly of Likud, and his New Hope party, which has positioned itself as the right-wing alternative to Netanyahu’s rule. It is joined by Naftali Bennett’s Yamina and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Bennett is seen as someone who would enter government with Netanyahu. The other two are not.
Gantz’s story partly supports the myth that Netanyahu, as an Israeli politician, is unbeatable. But, even though Netanyahu can still rely on stalwart allies in the two ultra-Orthodox parties, according to most polls he doesn’t have the numbers for a majority: only one poll this week so far gives him a majority, with 62 seats, but only if he can count on Yamina’s support.
There are still plenty of undecided voters, with potentially as many as ten Knesset seats up for grabs, but the experience of the past two years has left its mark on the electorate. A recent poll found that only 29 per cent of Israelis think the election will have a decisive outcome.
Current polls mostly show a stalemate. The centre left can’t form a coalition without some of Netanyahu’s opponents on the right, and Jewish-Arab political cooperation is still taboo across the political spectrum.
Netanyahu himself has recently broken the ice on this latter point, however, with overtures to Mansour Abbas, leader of the Islamic party the United Arab List. Abbas broke away from the Arab-majority Joint List in February, partly over his openness to working with the prime minister. One recent poll found that opposition to having Arab parties in coalition has declined among right-wing and centrist voters as a result.
Whichever way the numbers add up, however, a fifth election is definitely not impossible. And in Israeli politics, as Gantz found out, it is never just about the maths, it is about the politics and horse-trading of building a coalition.
[See also: Can the Israeli left reinvent itself?]