Israelis have gotten used over the years to governments that do not complete their full terms. But, they never experienced repeat elections prior to 2019. The current political deadlock is leading Israelis to the polls for the third time in one year. In the final days of the campaign, leading candidates are even referring to the option of a fourth round. Israelis are facing an unprecedented political situation that takes a heavy toll on governance and policymaking. They are also experiencing a reality that runs counter-intuitive to the Israeli state of mind of the past decade, which used to perceive Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as being bound to lead on and on.
Since 2009, Israeli politics has been largely shaped by one man. By winning consecutive elections and forming consecutive coalitions of various sorts, Netanyahu managed to dominate Israeli politics, prevent potential contenders from standing a chance against him, and be regarded by most Israelis (and by many in the international community) as invincible. It is not by chance that the term “King Bibi” was used on the covers of both Time and Newsweek, and was the title chosen for a documentary film that explored Netanyahu’s rise to power.
For years, Netanyahu had almost total control of his party, successfully maneuvered leaders and voters of other right-wing parties, effectively disempowered opposition from the center and left, shaped the public discourse to his advantage, delegitimized political rivals while polarizing the society, and overall – stirred Israel’s reality to his direction of interest. Time and time again, Israelis went to the polls with no real hope of leadership change. The main open question used to be which type of coalition will Netanyahu form after results are announced.
And then things changed. Corruption investigations that were initially dismissed and brushed off by Netanyahu, picked up pace. From one legal phase to the other, it became evident to Israelis that a major issue is brewing. Netanyahu’s repeated and increasingly harsh attacks on key personnel in the legal establishment, which were aimed at mobilizing his political base and rally his supporters, exemplified just how problematic his situation is. It was anti-corruption slogans that played a leading role in the downfall of the Likud government in 1992 and the victory of Yitzhak Rabin, and Netanyahu seems to have understood the political danger that his legal issues pose to him.
To try and counter that, Netanyahu hastened into early elections (April 2019). His goal was to quickly form a new coalition that will advance legislation protecting him from being indicted while in office. Election results initially indicated that he has succeeded in paving the way for that. His traditional right-wing bloc had the required majority. But a surprise was in the waiting. Former Minister of Defence, Avigdor Lieberman, a nationalist right-wing politician who has been part of Netanyahu’s camp since the 1990s (although episodes of political rivalry), broke ranks. Without Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, Netanyahu did not have a coalition. His efforts to attract centrist/leftist parties to join a “unity government” or even to bring on board a single defector from another party who will give him the necessary majority in parliament – all failed.
In the past, Netanyahu used to carry out such political moves easily. But, due to his corruption allegation, he became a persona non grata among his opponents. They were not willing to enable him to become prime minister again, given his potential downfall and the legislative reforms he sought to advance. Netanyahu was losing ground. As he failed to form a government and went to repeat elections, his image as invincible and as a “political magician” was shattered. Moreover, his image in Israel as “Mr Security” was now effectively challenged by the Blue and White Party leader, Benny Gantz, which featured three ex-IDF Chiefs of Staff on the top of its list.
Netanyahu sought remedy in diplomatic activism. He saw the realm of foreign policy as one in which he has an added value over his contenders. Billboards of him shaking hands with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin appeared all over Israel, portraying him as a mega-diplomat. International visits and meetings were orchestrated for him, and world leaders were willing to grant Netanyahu new diplomatic achievements that he can present as part of his campaign. However, this – like other elements of his campaign – did not prove to be effective. The September 2019 elections showed a decline in votes for the Likud party, and Netanyahu failed again in forming a government, despite the loyalty of his party and ideological bloc (excluding Lieberman).
Towards the March 2019 elections, that tone of the opposition was already more confident. “He just can’t” was the slogan of Blue and White against Netanyahu, referring to his inability to form a coalition. “Netanyahu only cares about himself”, their campaign said, referring to the court case against Netanyahu that will begin just two weeks after the elections, on March 17th. Even the announcement of the so-called Trump Plan, which was supposed to be the ultimate political gift to Netanyahu towards the elections, was handled by the opposition in a way that did not increase Netanyahu’s popularity in the polls.
It is still not clear which direction the upcoming elections will go. But, Netanyahu’s time in power should be up. His long tenure led him to develop a sense of entitlement to the position, that prevented him from doing – at least until now – what a prime minister accused of bribe should do: announce resignation. The damage to Israeli democracy, state institutions and governance caused by his political and personal conduct is mounting. Israel is paying a heavy price for this. It is a price that drives voters to the polls time and time again. It is also a price that drives many of them to seek a new prime minister.