Even by its standards, Israel’s ongoing electoral uncertainties are getting bizarre, unpredictable and even expensive. Elections that are publicly funded are becoming costly. The forthcoming March 23 Knesset elections became necessary when the government could not pass the budget as stipulated by the law. This would cost the exchequer close to NIS500 million or over US$150 million. This comes over and above similar expenses for the three recent elections within the last two years. There are fears that even this one will not break the impasse, and Israel will go for another round shortly after the Jewish new year, which falls in September.
In July 2019, Netanyahu surpassed David Ben-Gurion and became the longest-serving prime minister of Israel, but this feat came at a price. Since January 2013, Netanyahu has had to face five Knesset elections, including the forthcoming one. His electoral successes largely rest on his ability to forge a post-electoral alliance with the religious parties. The defection of the religious parties partly to the Right ended the Labour party’s monopoly in 1977, and since then, it has been on the decline. Some polls suggest that the Labour may not cross the threshold margin of 3.25% of votes necessary to enter the next Knesset.
This time around, Netanyahu faces a host of challenges. US President Joe Biden took nearly a month to call the Israeli leader and this was in contrast to the Trump administration. In addition to being the most pro-Israeli American leader since 1948, some of Trump’s measures aimed to boost Netanyahu’s electoral prospects. For example, days before the April 2019 Knesset polls, the Trump administration declared the Golan Heights to be an Israeli territory; and before the March 2020 elections, he unveiled the peace plan that worked towards Israel’s normalisation with the Gulf Arab countries. Over and above these, the Trump administration recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and shifted its embassy there, and declared the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories as not ‘illegal’.
While he is not prepared to undo any of these measures of the Trump administration, the current US President will likely not forget Netanyahu’s rebuke of the previous Obama-Biden administration and his efforts to undermine President Obama’s re-election bid in 2012. Moreover, Washington would not ignore the ongoing Israeli noises against American re-engagement with Iran. Given the history, it is fair to suggest that ‘anyone but Netanyahu’ would be a preferred option of the Biden administration. Tired of their inability to defeat him at the polls, many in the Israeli Left are hoping for a helping hand from the Biden administration to oust Netanyahu.
Immediately after Biden’s inauguration, the Israeli media identified the Jewish members who would be holding senior positions in his Cabinet—and some are known as friends of Israel. Thus, President Biden conveyed a subtle message through his delayed but warm telephonic conversation: His administration is pro-Israeli without being pro-Netanyahu. Any overt moves by the Biden administration at the polls will compel Netanyahu to whip up nationalist sentiments of defying Washington’s diktats over Israel’s democratic electoral process.
Domestically, Netanyahu faces three main challenges. One, the final outcome of the ongoing corruption cases remains uncertain. While denting his image, they have not damaged his electability. A vast majority of the Israelis see them as an elite-media conspiracy or are unmoved by the allegations of improper public conduct. Moreover, the prolongation of these charges and their widespread coverage have weakened the public clamour for his removal.
Two, until now, threats to Netanyahu mainly came from the Centre-Left forces, but this time the challenge is coming from within the rightist camp. Gideon Saar, a former protégé and Naftali Bennett, a former Cabinet colleague, have emerged as challengers who could wean away some of the hardcore supporters of the Likud. This could undermine Netanyahu’s post-election calculations. Three, Netanyahu’s Covid policies, especially on the lockdown, have angered the religious segments. Should their leaders signal any last-minute neutrality, if not open criticism, Netanyahu’s chances of victory will diminish.
At the same time, Netanyahu has his advantages. Normalisation of relations with the Gulf Arab countries is an important achievement, especially when it indicated that some Arab countries could move closer to Israel without the Palestinian problem being resolved. Moreover, Netanyahu has managed to divide the Arab parties inside the country by enticing the Islamic Movement even while forging closer ties with far-right groups known for their racist overtones.
Hence, it is still early to write Netanyahu’s political obituary. His decade-long tenure largely reflects the country’s deep-seated political divisions, priorities and approaches. Though its diplomatic influence and military strengths are on the ascendance, the Israeli public continues to be sceptical about peace with the Palestinians. Beyond flagging the Likud leader’s authoritarian traits, the Left has been unable to present a credible alternative leader or plan.
According to opinion polls, Likud would emerge as the largest party. Will this be sufficient for Netanyahu to stay in office? Most probably, the elections might not end the political stalemate and present a stable government, but Netanyahu did not survive for over a decade without his uncanny political skills and electability. The Israel opposition still needs a miracle to unseat him in March.
P R Kumaraswamy
Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East there