The starting point and the sole reason that Israel faces a third election within a year is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s looming (and now happening) indictment due to several corruption cases. Since Netanyahu seems to put all his hopes on a law granting him legal immunity he is bound to coalesce only with right winged parties – all others parties from the center-left-Arab bloc have ruled this possibility out. And since secular nationalist Avigdor Lieberman with his Yisrael Beitenu party has dropped out of the right-winged block supporting Netanyahu, we see a stalemate since April 2019. It is clear that any other Likud leader would be able to form a coalition with the centre, as the indictment is the only reason hindering that. Yet so far, no one was able to form a coalition without Netanyahu nor oust him as Likud leader.
Nevertheless his challenger Benny Gantz has managed to establish himself as a formidable opponent: as the first challenger since long, he achieves similar support in polls regarding the ability of leading the country. Secondly, his party alliance, Kahol-Lavan (“Blue and White”), has become the strongest party in the Knesset.
The two candidates operate within very small margins. As the recent elections as well as current polls show: the overwhelming majority of voters will not change their political opinion and switch sides to the other blocks. The right-wing and the center-left-Arab blocs are rather stable. Thus, in the last weeks before the election, the respective campaigns focus on two aspects: first, to mobilize their core electorate and to counter a potential election fatigue among the voters. This seems to be the case especially with the Likud electorate. Sources from within the Likud speak of up to 300,000 potential Likud voters who did not vote for the party in the last elections. Secondly, there is a slim group, the so-called “soft right”, which is, according to polls, the only group of voters to potentially switch between the blocks from right to center-left.
Benny Gantz: appealing to the soft right
Benny Gantz and his party are bound to convince the small margin of moderate, soft right wing voters, who are critical of Netanyahu due to his corruption indictment. For Gantz tactics this translates on focussing on notions related Netanyahu’s looming trial: fighting corruption, re-establishing trust in state institutions, and general depicting himself as statesmanlike-leader (mamlachti) working for the whole of society, whereas Netanyahu is portrayed as utilizing the premiership for his own interests. Generally speaking, Gantz counters those voices that want to transform Israel into a more illiberal, majoritarian democracy.
As a further consequence, Gantz tries to avoid political stances which are associated with the left which could deter those soft right-wingers. He categorically rejects the possibility to include the Arab Joint List into any future coalition, since it is a party that is largely made up by Arab-Israelis. Furthermore, especially in this last election campaign, Gantz maintains moderate right-wing positions regarding the Palestinian Territories: e.g. that he would never return the Jordan Valley or that he would even annex the Jordan Valley – albeit in coordination with the international community (which effectively means not annexing it). Later on, he also stated that he would implement the “Trump Plan” after the election and thus implicitly annex all settlements. Nevertheless, over the last year Gantz was sending mixed signals regarding the West Bank and potential process with the Palestinians. Especially during the first election campaign in 2019 he also spoke of renewing the peace process.
Bottom line, Gantz positions himself as a moderately right wing politician, in a way not unsimilar to the pre-Oslo Labour party. Yet, since he is compelled to win this margin of soft-right Likud voters, it is hard to tell where he really stands on those issues. In addition, his party is extremely split: the bandwidth ranges from clear left-wingers like former Meretz member, Yael German, to outspoken pro-settlement activists as Zvi Hauser. Generally speaking, as many pundits observe, neither Gantz nor his party really formulate a concise vision of a future Israel. The main message and common denominator is to replace Netanyahu.
Netanyahu: acting prime minister in the ropes
Netanyahu’s election campaign relied much on the aspects it emphasized in the previous two campaigns, with a few updates in the respective fields. It featured Israel’s excellent economy (highlighting that Israel is a gas exporter), Netanyahu’s good relations with important foreign leaders and former foes (Netanyahu just attained overflight rights for Israeli planes over Sudan) and his capacity in keeping the enemies at bay, while at the same time portraying Gantz as a left-winger with whom the country would be endangered in all those fields.
Yet what certainly stood out in recent weeks and dominated the media was the so-called Trump Peace Plan – which was, not incidentally, published on the very day on which Netanyahu’s bid for immunity was scheduled to be discussed in the Knesset. The publishing of the plan is without any doubt a major political and PR achievement of Netanyahu. The plan is very close to Netanyahu’s own political positions (some ideas seem to be strikingly similar to those presented in Netanyahu’s “A Durable Peace”).
In addition, the impression of the strong bond between Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump was further strengthened by the image of the two, presenting the Peace Plan together to the public. Thus one of the successes was certainly to highlight during the election campaign Netanyahu’s potency and somewhat overshadowing the indictment.
Yet while it is generally welcomed in the Israeli society up, also by many who would see themselves as political centrist – the plan did, according to latest polls, not help to win any voters from the centre.
One of the consequences of that was that Netanyahu started a last minute effort and rolled out an economic vision for the next decade, promising cheaper housing, tax reductions and lowering the food prices.
Constellations and outlook
Thus, by the time of writing, the political constellation as well as the polls look very similar to the results of the September elections, which produced the stalemate between the right-wing and center-left-Arab bloc. The outcome of the election will be crucially influenced by the extent the parties can mobilize their electorates – of special importance will the turnout of the volatile Arab-Israeli vote. Additionally those soft right voters will also play an important role.
There are three principles scenarios for potential coalitions after the election: 1) Gantz can form a coalition without Netanyahu; 2) Netanyahu can form a coalition to pass an immunity law for him; or 3) leaders find some other creative way to allow Netanyahu protection from law enforcement. Some stipulated something like a “Nixon Law”, granting Netanyahu a pardon in exchange for him to step down. Albeit all of those possibilities seem unlikely. Yet, if this issues will not be solved, stalemate will prevail.
In this case, several factors will be worth watching: first, it needs to be seen to what extend the start of the trial against Netanyahu on March 17th will affect coalition negotiations and the standing of Netanyahu. Linked to this is, secondly, the question for how long the Likud will not rebel against Netanyahu as party leader. And thirdly, it is important to see if the minor parties will eventually switch blocks or put pressure on Gantz or Netanyahu to compromise. Especially the ultra-orthodox parties are worth watching here: their societies are heavily dependent on state subsidies for religious schools. They are in urgent need of the passing of a new budget – something a caretaker government without a Knesset majority, as is in office since 2019, cannot do.
For Netanyahu, on the other hand, the stalemate – or potentially a forth election, as some already speculate – seems to be a good option.