After three elections in less than a year changed neither Israel’s prime minister or the generally conservative and religious makeup of its government, Israeli voters head back to the ballot box on Tuesday for yet another referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership.
This time, Netanyahu’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic will be a central issue, and the campaign’s final polls, published on Friday, suggest the results of this unprecedented fourth election may well be the same: Netanyahu eking out a razor-thin margin to form a weak coalition.
According to recent polls, the percentage of those who still haven’t made up their mind is higher than in previous elections. A channel 12 poll showed 10% of Israelis remain undecided, which translates into 12 seats. Another poll indicated that at least 36% will make their preferred choice on Election Day.
Join the conversation: Jacob Kornbluh, the Forward’s senior politics reporter, Yossi Klein Halevi of the Shalom Hartman Institute, Tamar Hermann of the Israeli Democracy Institute and Jay Ruderman of the Ruderman Foundation talk about these and other political scenarios. Monday, March 22 at 2 p.m. ET. Sign up here.
For those wondering why after becoming Israel’s longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history in 2019, Netanyahu is gambling again with his fate, the answer is: It’s personal.
Netanyahu signed a power-sharing deal last spring with his chief rival, Gen. Benny Gantz in the early weeks of coronavirus outbreak. From that moment, he has taken every possible step to push off his departure date, which was agreed upon for November of 2021. It wasn’t his dream government — the justice ministry was headed by a member of Gantz’s Blue and White Partywho stood firm against Netanyahu’s attempts to stall his corruption trial and curtail the power of the attorney general and Israel’s Supreme Court.
Netanyahu did not want to break the deal, which provided for the leader of the other party to immediately become prime minister. So he found a loophole — the scenario in which the Knesset would dissolve itself due to the failure of passing a budget.
That allowed Netanyahu to remain as the incumbent prime minister during the elections.
Infighting over the government’s agenda and a dispute over the budget led to the collapse of the national unity government last December. In the months since, Israel has become the world’s leader in vaccinating its citizens against COVID-19, a prime plank of Netanyahu’s campaign for reelection.
Now the question is whether the prime minister’s gamble to gain a more solid hold on the government will pay off. Here are four possible scenarios for Tuesday’s election:
1. Netanyahu wins a sixth term
The best case scenario for Netanyahu is for the right-wing bloc — which includes his Likud Party along with ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist factions— to receive at least 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. That would require Naftali Bennett, a former Netanyahu aide who has become one of his chief antagonists, to recommend Netanyahu for prime minister in the coalition-negotiating phase that follows each Israeli election.
Bennett, head of the Yamina Party and a fierce opponent of the government over its handling of the pandemic, has remained vague about whether he would join a Netanyahu-led government as polls have shown him gaining ground, with the latest ones predicting nine to 10 seats for his party. In recent weeks, Bennett promoted his own candidacy for prime minister, insisting that he is the only rival from the right who could form a stable government.
The last polls indicate that Likud could win 30 to 32 seats, and the party has in the last few rounds outperformed the polls. If that happens, Netanyahu could get to the required 61-seat majority if Bennett agrees to be part of his government.
Netanyahu has campaigned aggressively on his success in leading Israel out of the COVID-19 crisis with a successful vaccination drive faster than virtually any other nation. He has also aggressively courted Israeli Arab citizens, in a sharp turnabout from prior elections when he targeted them with racist rhetoric, and some experts believe that could help put him over the top.
Netanyahu’s drive for Arab support has driven a wedge between the factions that made up a united list of Arab parties. One Arab Knesset leader, Mansour Abbas, has indicated that working with Netanyahu to secure funds and reforms for his constituents is more important than an ideologically-driven opposition. Abbas’s party is set to win about four Knesset seats, recent polls show, while the other Arab parties together are polling at eight seats.
In addition, four parties — Gantz’s centrist Blue and White, the right-wing Religious Zionist, the left-wing Meretz and Labor — are each polling barely above the four-seat threshold needed to enter the Knesset. If one of the parties on the center-left falls below the threshold, their votes are nullified, and Likud is likely to pick up at least two additional seats.
The conventional wisdom says that Netanyahu will get Bennett on board if Yamina is the remaining piece of the puzzle. And the prime minister can also court the Islamist Arab party in exchange for funds that would improve the quality of life in the Arab sector.
2. End of an era
Unlike previous elections, Netanyahu is not facing one chief rival, so he has been less able to rally his base against what he describes as an attempt by the left to topple a right-wing government.
This time, Netanyahu is being challenged by two conservative rivals, Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar, who have formally declared their intentions to replace him. Sa’ar, another former Likud leader, now heads the New Hope Party, and has declared that he wouldn’t sit under Netanyahu at all cost. (Then again, so did Gantz in last year’s election.)
The votes on the center-left, too, are split between four parties. Plus there is Avigdor Liberman, whose secular, nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party is running with an anti-Orthodox sentiment — and has proved a spoiler in prior rounds.
Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid Party, has refused to state clearly that he is running for prime minister. Despite leading the largest party of the anti-Netanyahu camp, Lapid’s appeal is limited, according to polls, and he lacks diplomatic and security experience. But while he has largely avoided the media spotlight by refusing to grant Netanyahu the head-to-head matchup he wants, Lapid has been steadily gaining in the polls, with Friday’s showing Yesh Atid winning 18 to 19 seats.
That below-the-radar strategy may prove effective on election night if all the parties that have declared they won’t sit under Netanyahu — including the three fighting to meet the four-seat threshold — deny Netanyahu the 61 seats needed for a majority.
If that happens, Lapid, Sa’ar and possibly Bennett may unite with the goal of swearing in a government to oust Netanyahu. They would likely need to either convince the Arab parties to abstain during a Knesset confidence vote, or the Orthodox parties to bolt the pro-Netanyahu bloc.
Netanyahu would then have to leave the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street and face the prosecutors at his corruption trial as an average citizen. A nightmare scenario for him — and a history-making one for whichever of the three men, Lapid, Bennett or Sa’ar, wins enough seats to have the most leverage in the coalition negotiations and become Israel’s next prime minister.
3. A fifth round
In the event Netanyahu fails to cobble together a Knesset majority, there is no guarantee that any of his rivals will be able to do so. Whether it ends up with a 60-60 deadlock or the parties fail to agree on a consensus candidate for prime minister, Israeli could head towards yet another election, likely this summer.
Netanyahu would then remain in office as head of an interim government until a new government is sworn in some time in the fall — or stick around for election No. 6 in the winter.
4. Expect the unexpected
Bennett, the charismatic son of American immigrants who served in an elite military unit and worked in the high-tech industry before entering politics in 2012, has consistently underperformed at the ballot box compared to pre-election polls. He has served as Netanyahu’s minister of education, economics, diaspora affairs, religious services and, most recently, defense, while remaining a steady critic with his eye on becoming the leader of Israel’s right-wing post-Netanyahu.
If he emerges Tuesday night with enough votes to make or break Netanyahu’s coalition, Bennett could very well make a bold move and abandon the conservative camp in a deal with the center-left that would grant him the premiership. Or, he may try to force Netanyahu to agree to a last-minute rotation deal.
It may seem like a pipe dream, but Sa’ar could also outmaneuver Netanyahu and become prime minister by targeting some Likud members, whom he served alongside for many years, and convince them to break away from Netanyahu if political stalemate is the only alternative.
And yes, Gantz could still replace Netanyahu on Nov. 17, as the current coalition agreement outlines, if his Blue and White party manages to pass the threshold and remain in the Knesset. Last May, Gantz was simultaneously sworn in as alternate prime minister, so he would not need to wait for Netanyahu to resign once the date of the rotation deal arrives and the stalemate is still in place. It may face some legal challenge and he would lack the mandate, but as long as a new government is not sworn in, Gantz could claim the premiership.
Here’s a few other things to keep your eye on
Turnout: Experts expect turnout to be lower than in the last three rounds of balloting simply because of election fatigue. In the April, 2019, election, 68% of eligible voters cast ballots. That increased to almost 70% in the second round, in September, 2019, and more than 71% in the March, 2020 election.
This time, the Israeli Arab vote is splintered, the left-wing camp is demoralized, and we’re still in a pandemic, after all. Higher turnout could benefit Netanyahu, while an even or lower turnout amongst the Israeli public could help the smaller parties pass the threshold and deny Netanyahu a majority.
A last-minute turnaround: The high percentages of undecided voters a few days before election day is unusual in Israel. Last time, only eight percent of voters indicated they would make their preferred choice in the last minute. This year, indecision is highest among centrist voters, who have yet to recover from the shattering of the hopes they placed in Gantz. On the right, 14% remain undecided. Experts say it has to do with the fact that voters who are willing to see Netanyahu replaced have quite a few alternatives to choose from.
The American consultants: All four contenders for prime minister are employing leading political consultants from the United States.
Netanyahu is continuing to rely on data from his chief pollster John McLaughlin, and his campaign manager is Aaron Klein, a former Brietbart journalist and a Steve Bannon protege.
Lapid’s chief pollster is Mark Mellman, a veteran Democratic Party strategist and president and CEO of the Democratic Majority for Israel. Sa’ar is working with four political strategists affiliated with the Lincoln Project, a Never Trump group that recently came under fire for a cover-up of sexual harassment allegations against one of the co-founders
On Sunday, Bennett published a photo of himself consulting with George Birnbaum, who worked with the late Arthur Finkelstein, a conservative campaign strategist who helped elect Republican presidents and Israeli leaders. (Birnbaum, like Bennett, also once served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff).
How will this influence the U.S.-Israel relationship? It’s still early to assess how Tuesday’s outcome might affect Israel’s relations with the Biden administration and with Jews in the diaspora.
If Netanyahu forms a government, Biden will likely seek to work with it to advance Middle East peace and attempt to patch up disagreements over the Iran nuclear deal. If Bennett, Sa’ar or Lapid become prime minister, personal relations with Biden and the Democratic Party will likely improve, though none promise a dramatic change in policy.
Four scenarios for Israel’s unprecedented 4th election