The early elections for the 21st Knesset were supposed to be a referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu. This, at least, was the purpose of the Prime Minister himself – along with winning a large personal consensus and a solid political majority recreating a more disciplined right-wing coalition under a stronger Likud, and catching the momentum of the positive mood among the Israelis on security and economic policy.
Such a ‘political fortress’ was the framework from which to confront the Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s draft indictment, expected to take place anytime between July and the end of 2019. It is indeed more complicated to incriminate a newly elected Prime Minister with a large popular consensus, (more so if elected for five times, four of them consecutively). This representsBibi’s gamble.
Unexpectedly, Avichai Mandelblit indicted Netanyahu for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust right in the middle of the campaign. It was the lowest point for the Likud. A few days earlier, the new centrist party of Kahol Lavan (Blue and White, the colours of the flag of Israel) was booming in the polls, outpacing Likud in terms of Knesset seats for the first time since the start of the campaign. Kahol Lavan is a promising alliance between the leader of Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid, and Hosen L’Yisrael, the new political force of the former IDF’s chief of staff Benny Gantz, the latest General in the ballot. Every election in Israel has its own General-miracle worker, promising to reconcile a muscular security with a new peace process.
The right-wing camp plunged in disarray for some daysuntil the dust settled, and Netanyahu re-established control. Despite the indictment, the Likud was still in the race and Bibi’s Plan-A in function. The national-religious parties (Hayamin Hehadash of Naftali Bennett and Zehut of Moshe Feiglin) and the ethnic-religious parties (Aryeh Deri’s Shas, United Torah Judaism of Yaacov Litzman) plus other minor organisations in the conservative camp, were showing some light moral concern regarding Netanyahu’s indictment. The Prime Minister’s explanation that “The charges against me are a house of cards that will collapse”, seemed enough for them to return to business as usual. In the end, realism prevailed, as these parties needed Likud – even better if a weakened one – to form a government and fulfil their ultra-conservative agenda.
The aim of the “broad coalition” that Netanyahu promised to form after the elections (part of his primary Plan) was to prevent his new government from falling in the hands of a single, strong ally. In addition, Bibi also wanted to limit the risk of blackmail from religious ultra-Orthodox parties, as often happened in his previous administrations. All of Netanyahu’s four premierships (1996-99, 2009-13, 2013-15, and 2015-18) ended before their natural term.
However, according to the polls, neither a single party nor a viable and coherent coalition have so far emerged stronger than the others. Bibi’s new possible coalition will be more redundant, and will tend to be more prone to political extortion than ever.
Somehow, in the middle of the campaign, the electoral map of Israel returned to its traditional organised chaos: about 14 parties, half of which hovering below the electoral threshold of 3,25%, are struggling to enter the Knesset. To this end, as usual, some small parties merged with others in unnatural and unstable alliances.
In his biography Bibi – The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu (Basic Books, New York, 2018), Ha’aretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer argues that “political Zionism has remained divided between those believing in cooperation with the international community and seeking an accommodation with the Arabs, on the one side, and, on the other, those who are convinced that the Jews must pursue their national interests forcefully and not be deterred by local opposition or international opinion”. The final result of the 2019 legislative elections will vindicate these historical national behaviours.
Over the years, the latter, the equivalent of “Israel First”, tended to prevail. Since 1977, the Labour party only won the elections twice and with two former Chiefs of Staff with undisputed security credentials: Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. As several socialist parties in Europe, the Israeli Labour today has marginal political strength: at the polls, it hardly reaches ten seats out of 120.
Meanwhile, the Likud retained most of the time a relative majority. But in the last ten years of Netanyahu’s rule, the party lost its moderate and centrist wing – tracing back to the radical and ethnic force it used to be at its inception: the original Herut movement of revisionist Zionism confronting Palestinians, the peace process, and any Arab citizens of Israel.
Today Israel is less tolerant and more inclined to a national-religious narrative. There are increasing signs of racism and attempts to modify and Judaize some basic pillars of Israeli democracy while chances to keep the modern society safe are decreasing. In the background, opportunities for a real negotiation on a Palestinian State are void.
Conversely, a victory of Kahol Lavan would be a turning point after ten consecutive years of Netanyahu in power. Kahol Lavan’s leader Benny Gantz is a sort of Yitzhak Rabin without Shimon Peres, the visionary leader who pushed the former general Rabin into the peace process with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). As Rabin before him, the pragmatist Gantz wants to protect the modern State of Israel from the national-religious tribe.
There is a chance that on the night of April 9th Kahol Lavan could actually win the elections, having the first chance to form a government. In 2009, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima, a centrist party in favour of a dialogue with the Palestinians, won the contest with 28 seats. However, the former Foreign Minister was not able to form a majority necessary to stay in power, and currently there is a large chance that Gantz and Lapid could have the same fate: while they may be able to reach 28/35 seats, they will not be able find partners strong enough to form a centre-left cabinet with a comfortable majority. Likud will have fewer seats (25/30), but the right-wing bloc would easily reach the qualified majority needed for coalition building.
If so, Bibi Netanyahu will stay in power longer than David Ben Gurion did. However, his coalition would be even more insubordinate than the previous ones. Last but not least, the Attorney General Mendelblit will soon finalise his indictment, making Bibi the first Prime Minister in office to be indicted. How politically strong and faithful to the rules of a democratic country would such a Premier be? In 2008, when Ehud Olmert was investigated, he stepped down from the premiership in order to defend himself.
“You have hurt the image of public service”, Mendelblit wrote in his indictment to Netanyahu. “You acted in a conflict of interests, you abused your authority. You corrupted public servants working under you”.