The elections of April 9 to the 21st Knesset, originally due for November 2019, are among the most contested, uncertain, and possibly crucial in the 70 years of Israel's democracy and political history. The fact Premier Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu called an early vote was emblematic of the contradictory circumstances facing Israel's leading politician, the national party system, and indeed the entire nation. Netanyahu had to maneuver between anticipating or postponing elections – each of the solutions carrying serious costs and benefits. What would normally be the product of decisions grounded on the nature, urgency, and governability of the issues at stake, came instead to be determined by the particular personal interests of Mr. Netanyahu.
Completing the Knesset full term would ensure the Premier several more months of power, enabling his ruling coalition to complete a number of momentous legal acts aimed at reforming the nature of Israeli democracy in Netanyahu's spirit. On the other hand, calling an early vote would plausibly let the attorney general, Avichay Mendelblit, too little time to make a decision on several cases involving the Prime Minister and under investigation by the police. April rather than November was Netanyahu's final choice, whose initial explanation to the public was on grounds of alleged serious deterioration of the security situation in the country. But then, a month and a half before the vote, nevertheless came Mr. Netanyahu's indictment by the police and the attorney general over three different accusations of breach of trust including one case of bribery – subject to hearings of the indicted to be held after the elections, with a fourth case looming high on the horizon (the purchase of three submarines from Germany overruling the staunch opposition of both the Minister of Defense and the Chief of Staff of Israel Defense Forces – IDF known in Israel as Tzàhal). Netanyahu quickly reacted claiming total innocence and accusing the Israeli police, the judiciary and the press of unfairly picking up a timing just before the elections, thus preventing him from defending himself before the vote, in his words "as part of an electoral blood libel mounted by the left". Netanyahu evidently omitted that it was he himself who had called the early election thus losing the benefit of more time to counter argue the allegations.
Netanyahu's political position was unique as he also held the posts of Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defense (besides also technically serving as Minister of Health). Not unheard of in totalitarian regimes but unprecedented in Israel's history, such personal accumulation of power constituted disquieting evidence of the transformation of the Israeli parliamentary democracy into a sort of presidential regime since Netanyahu's victory in the 2015 elections. Other worrying elements were the Prime Minister's campaign to erode and jeopardize the independent authority of the judiciary, especially Israel's strong and prestigious Supreme Court, and his active efforts to control or at least influence the contents of the printed press, TV channels, and social media – particularly in the days when he also held the Communications portfolio, and major gas resources in the depths of the Mediterranean – especially when he also held the Economy portfolio. Under these circumstances, the elections unavoidably become a referendum in favor or against Benjamin Netanyahu. The Premier's strong connection with US President Donald Trump surely had a role in the presidential decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem and to recognize Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights. But it also entailed disquieting questions about the mingling of foreign powers into the national elections.
The quite fluid outcome could not be fully evaluated without considering Israel's unique voting system. High party fractioning is enhanced by a proportional method with one single national electoral district, voting for lists without candidate preferences, and a 3.25% admission threshold. Each party submits a slate of candidates ranked through primary elections or by party secretariats, and those candidates placed higher enter the 120 members' Knesset according to each party's returns. High democratic representativeness prevails over governability, and indeed all Israeli governments were based on majority coalitions of several parties. In recent years often the largest party controlled less than half the seats within the coalition, making the government highly vulnerable to blackmail by the smaller associates. Therefore to win an election it was not only necessary to be the leader of the largest party but also to be able to garner a viable coalition.
Netanyahu was the undisputed leader of the large right-wing Likud party and national-religious coalition. A primary question facing his opponents was who among them would lead the campaign, given the fragmented polity and the lack of a central figure capable and willing to spearhead the challenge and commanding large political consensus. A major turning point in the campaign was the foundation of a new centrist party lead by Benjamin (Benny) Gantz, a former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff, with the support of two other former Chiefs of Staff, Moshe Yaelón (who also had served as minister of Defense) and Gaby Ashkenazi. After weeks of negotiations the new group merged with Yesh Atíd (There is a future), the centrist party led by former TV anchor and Minister of Treasury Yair Lapid. The new formation labeled Kahol Lavan (Blue White, the national colors) comprised a mix of experienced politicians especially on Lapid's side and, on Gantz's side, several new faces, some well-known and even coming straight from Likud and Labor ranks. Gantz was appointed leader of the new party and first candidate to Netanyahu's succession, with the proviso of a rotation with Lapid after two and a half years.
The early polls were favorable to the new formation and gave it variable edges over Likud. However, the problem of coalition formation was not easily solvable because no Jewish leader was ready to take on board the Arab parties (10-12% of the Knesset seats). Labor, once the leading force in Israeli politics, was stagnating in the polls at 5-8% of the seats. To its left, the radical Mèretz was barely holding its head above the minimum 3.25% threshold. The Haredí (very religiously traditionalist) parties were overall quite stable thanks to the strong natural increase of their constituency. They steadily supported Netanyahu but would not refuse to preserve government benefits and financial support for their institutions by whoever else the winner would be. The more interesting changes appeared on the right and national religious front where several political splits and mergers created no less than six smaller parties, some ostentatiously to the right of the dominant Likud. One of them, Ihúd Hayamín (Union of the Right) catered to ultranationalist and racist Jewish groups partly outlawed by the Court. Others included influential politicians like Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked (Hayamín Hehadàsh, the New right), Moshe Cahlun (Cullànu, We all), Avigdor Liberman (Israel Beiténu, Israel our home), Orly Levy (Gesher, Bridge), and populist libertarian maverick Moshe Feiglin (Zehút, Identity). The problem was that some of these smaller parties risked missing the admission threshold.
The main axes of the electoral campaign were more than ever influenced by the all-reaching and quite unrestrained presence of the social media and the rising tide of fake news. Netanyahu run a one-man campaign versus Gantz's "four musketeers". Carefully avoided were the major themes of peace, security and borders, or economic development and equality. Instead, the main items became Netanyahu's character and integrity and a story about the Iranians breaking into Gantz's mobile phone, but also the liberalization of cannabis. But there were two decisive issues on the road to premiership. One obviously was the volatile battle between the two major parties, Likud and Kahol Lavan, namely whether Gantz would be able to open such a gap against Netanyahu that would allow President Ruvi Rivlin to call him and not the outgoing Premier to form the new government. The other issue, within the right itself, was whether or not the smaller parties would make the 3.25% threshold: those who did would get a minimum of four Knesset seats, versus none for those who did not. In the arithmetic of coalition formation Netanyahu faced a crucial dilemma: if he did well at the expense of the small rightist parties, Likud could get a few more seats but he would lose the coalition support of any party who did not make the threshold. If Likud did less well, the small parties could make it, but Gantz might turn out the winner. As long as the polls predicted a relatively balanced split between the two major blocks, it was clearly impossible to predict the final outcome.
A medium-range rocket fired from Gaza, which destroyed a house in a rural locality in Israel's central region, re-ignited the conflict and for a few tense days even raised the possibility that the elections could be postponed. But the Israeli leadership, after initial retaliation, broadcasted clear signals that it was not interested at a war escalation that might endanger the outgoing government's message that this was Israel's best time ever.
Beyond April 9, many felt that if Netanyahu – by far the best campaigner – after possibly being appointed were brought to court, he would not be able to carry on his normal premiership's duties and sooner or later would have to resign. The incoming Knesset is likely to become one of the shortest-lived in history. However, as Likud did not have a designated successor, new elections might cause a significant loss of support for the party. The possibility was also raised of a large national coalition between the two major parties (both of which officially denied it), but in this case a precondition by Kahol Lavan would be Likud without Netanyahu – which might mean an unsolvable impasse. Given the many imponderables, the incoming Knesset could not be expected to solve any or all of the many problems of Israel's deeply divided nation.