Israelis are reluctantly readying themselves for the fourth election campaign in less than two years. The date for the new elections is March 23, 2021. The “marriage” between Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party and Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s Likud party was a forced last resort arrangement. Ideologically, they were not that far apart on matters of national defense, and there was little difference on foreign policy. On social and economic issues, especially as it pertained to justice, and judicial appointments, there was a major gap. Netanyahu accused Gantz and his Blue and White party of being “an opposition within the coalition government.” For Gantz, it was the budget that the government did not pass, and Gantz wanted a two-year budget, while Likud argued for a one-year budget. For now, there is no budget at all, and Israel is on its third lockdown due to the Covid-19 epidemic. As a result of the repeated lockdowns, the Israel economy took a nosedive and many small businesses shut down permanently. Unemployment has risen, and the government’s aid packages have not ameliorated matters.
In the meantime, something like a wolfpack has formed, determined to end Netanyahu’s grip on power. These hungry wolves include Netanyahu’s major rival within the Likud, Gideon Saar. Saar did poorly in the last Likud primaries, and did not get close enough to the top Likud list to receive a ministry appointment. In the past he served as Interior Minister and Education Minister. In many ways, Saar is more ideologically defined than Netanyahu. He has been a solid right-winger on such issues as territorial compromise with the Palestinians, while Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech pointed to his willingness to compromise. Two weeks ago, Saar submitted his resignation from the Likud. Saar has simultaneously formed his own party, naming it the New Hope.
Moshe (Bogie) Yaalon, the former Chief-of-Staff (2002-2005), and Defense Minister in Netanyahu’s government (2013-2016) is another disgruntled “wolf.” To form his coalition government, Netanyahu needed the votes of Russian-born Avigdore Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party. Lieberman conditioned his entry on receiving the Defense Ministry. Netanyahu, forced to remove Yaalon from the Defense portfolio, offered him the Foreign Ministry. Yaalon declined, and chose to resign. On January 2, 2019, Yaalon formed his own party, Telem. At the end of January (January 29, 2019) Yaalon announced his political alliance with former Chief-of-Staff (2011-2015) Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience party. Then on February 21, 2019, Israel Resilience and Telem merged with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is Hope) to form the Blue and White party.
Among these “wolves” is the perennial Avigdore Lieberman. Netanyahu gave him his start in politics when he appointed him as director general of the Prime Minister’s office in 1996. In 1999, when Netanyahu lost the election to Ehud Barak’s Labor party that year, Lieberman had a falling out with Bibi and formed his own Israel Beitenu party, a party of mostly Russian immigrants. He is one of those who have proclaimed “anyone but Bibi.” Lieberman’s refusal to join the right-of-center coalition forced the last few elections. Lieberman declined to join Gantz’s coalition government that depended on the Arab Unity party for a majority.
Another contender to replace Netanyahu as Prime Minister is Naftali Bennett. Like Saar and Lieberman, he represents an ideological bent that is right-of-center, and even more to the right than Netanyahu’s Likud. Bennett’s Yemina (Rightward) party received only 6 seats in the last (March 2, 2020) election. A successful stint as Defense Minister in the previous Netanyahu government coalition (Yemina got 7 seats in the September 2019 election) gave Bennett a major lift as a qualifier to the Prime Ministership. A successful high-tech entrepreneur, he polled second after Netanyahu as the most qualified to serve as Prime Minister. While he is one of the “wolves,” he is not one of the “anyone but Bibi” crowd. He is ready to be Prime Minister, he declared, but he didn’t rule out serving in a future Netanyahu coalition government.
Then there is the other perennial contender to replace Netanyahu: Yair Lapid, chairman of the Yesh Atid party. He comes at Netanyahu from left-of-center. A former TV presenter and news anchor, Lapid entered politics in 2012. His centrist party scored high in the 2013 national elections, getting 19 seats, second only to Netanyahu’s Likud. He joined Netanyahu’s coalition government and served as Finance Minister (2013-2014). He was a major failure in the post, and in the subsequent March, 2015 elections, his party, Yesh Atid, fell to 11 seats. After leaving the coalition government in 2015, he has been moving to the left-of-center. His failure as Finance Minister and subsequent replacement by Moshe Kahlon of Kulanu party (merged with the Likud) left him bitter and resentful of Netanyahu.
Benny Gantz is the unfortunate and tragic figure in the unfolding events. As part of the agreement for the emergency government he and Netanyahu signed earlier this year, Gantz, as alternate Prime Minister, was to serve in a rotation with Netanyahu. Sometime in September next year he would have become officially the Prime Minister. The deal was, Netanyahu served the first 18 months, followed by Gantz’s 18 months. But this month, Gantz decided to throw in the towel, and voted to dissolve the Knesset, which forced new elections scheduled for March 23, 2021.
Just before closing the list of contenders, Ron Huldai, Tel Aviv’s Mayor, announced the formation of a new party on December 29, 2020, called The Israelis. Current Justice Minister and number three on the Blue and White list, Avi Nissenkorn, joined the newest party without informing Gantz of his move. This would become a purely leftist party.
What do the polls say?
A TV News Channel 12 (Israel) poll on December 27, 2020 shows that Gideon Saar’s New Hope is moving votes away from the Likud if elections were held now. Still, the Likud remains the largest party with 28 mandates in the 120 seat Knesset. Saar’s New Hope becomes the second largest party with 19 seats, followed by Yesh Atid 16, Yemina 13, the Arab Unity 11, the Sephardic Orthodox party Shas 8, United Torah Judaism (Ashkenazi Orthodox) 8, Avigdore Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu 7, Gantz’s Blue and White 5, and the leftist Meretz 5.
If this was the real outcome, the Likud-religious block would garner 44 seats, the Center-left bloc gets 52 seats. Neither bloc can form a government without Bennett’s Yemina. He would be the kingmaker this time around. While his agenda and constituents conflict with that of the center-left, his mistrust of Netanyahu could be overcome by an ironclad guarantee of a rotation. But, even so, Netanyahu would have to recruit one more party to get 61 seats and form a coalition government.
With former fighter-pilot and Mayor of Tel Aviv new party – The Israelis, the center-left reaches 56 mandates without Bennett. If, however, Bennett was inclined to join the center-left group, problem solved. They can form a large government with 69 seats. However, ideological differences would make it a short-lived government. The center-left with 56 votes could technically form a government with the backing of Arab Unity, but then, they are likely to lose Saar and Lieberman’s parties.
Three months is a lifetime in Israeli party politics. The center-left is splintered and squabbling over leadership could weaken it. On the other hand, Netanyahu enters this election enhanced by an effective Covid-19 vaccination campaign, and a spectacular display of peacemaking (helped by President Donald Trump). If the Israeli economy improves in the interim, I predict Likud would garner 36 votes, Yesh Atid 14, Arab Unity 13, New Hope 12, Huldai-Gantz-Meretz-Labor-Shelach 12, Yemina 11, Shas 8, UTJ 8, Israel Beitenu 6.
Under this scenario, the Likud, along with Yemina and the religious parties receive 63 seats, the center-left led by Lapid 44 seats. One thing is fairly safe to say: Don’t bet on the wolfpack devouring Netanyahu yet.