Will Israel’s Fourth Consecutive Election bring down Benjamin Netanyahu?
By ARTHUR KLEINMAN
Last July, I published an article on this site arguing that it was too early to bet against Israel's ever controversial premier, Benjamin Netanyahu. Specifically, I argued that in spite of his poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic, looming corruption trials and being resented by politicians across the political spectrum - including those on his right flank, such as Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett - the crude underlying logic of Israeli coalition building would most likely leave him in the prime minister's office were another election to occur. Six months later, Israel is facing a scenario whose morbid inexorability was almost universally intuited: a fourth election within the space of two years.
Going into the campaign period, there were an array of factors causing pundits to speculate that the downfall of Israel's longest serving prime minister was finally imminent. Not only was the country severely beset by COVID-19, but Netanyahu faced both an external setback in the ejection of close ally Donald Trump from the White House and an internal insurrection in the form of Gideon Sa'ar's New Hope, a party constituted by ex-Likudniks (members of Netanyahu’s Likud party) and other centre-right figures disillusioned with the incumbent's paranoid and demagogic tendencies. Nevertheless, mere weeks out from the election, the political outlook is eerily similar to that presented in my prior article. "[I]f there is any iron law to be gleaned from the last two decades of Israeli politics, it is to never bet against the magician", was how I ended it. With the Likud maintaining considerable strength in opinion polls amidst a world-leading vaccination effort and a fragmented opposition, the law seems to be holding.
Firstly, it must be said that Israel remains mired in deep pandemic-induced health and economic crises. While not at the peak it reached last summer, the recent imposition of a third lockdown has led to a sharp rise in unemployment, with the jobless rate hitting an exceptionally high 13.7% in January. Furthermore, new variants of the virus have placed severe strain upon the country's healthcare infrastructure, and many more have consequently lost their lives; according to government data, a staggering 30% of Israel's COVID-19 deaths were recorded in January alone.
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel, for Israel's vaccination campaign has been among the world's most successful. At the time of writing, over a third of the population (3 million) have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and among them more than half - or nearly 20% of the broader populace - have received their second jab. Discerning with total accuracy what drives particular shifts in sentiment among voters is impossible, but it is probably safe to infer that the cutting-edge inoculation programme has boosted support for the government. This speculation is borne out in recent polls which show the Likud stabilising around 30 seats - lower than their current take, but an increase from the mid-20s the party was hovering around at the campaign's start, and a figure which would give them a quarter of the 120 seats in Israel's parliament (Knesset).
Furthermore, Netanyahu has the good fortune of running against a highly fragmented opposition. Unlike the previous three rounds, in which the centre-left had a clear figurehead to rally around – that being Benny Gantz, leader of Kahol Lavan, an alliance of centrist parties – this time there is nothing of the sort, and there are now three individuals angling for the premiership: Yamina’s Naftali Bennett, New Hope’s Gideon Sa'ar, and Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, previously part of Kahol Lavan. Only Lapid sits on the centre-left, with Sa'ar and Bennett heading centre-right and hard-right lists respectively.
For most of last year, the clear leader of the opposition was Bennett. After the emergence of New Hope, which appropriated a substantial proportion of Yamina's support, it was Sa'ar. However, the momentum originally exhibited by New Hope, which took from the Likud one of its most popular Knesset members in Yifat Shasha-Biton, has since subsided, and Yesh Atid has increasingly come to the fore. As such, if the anti-Netanyahu bloc were to win a decisive majority, it is difficult to imagine these three ambitious men putting aside their egos and coalescing behind a single candidate without acrimony, particularly as recent polls have Yesh Atid and New Hope neck-on-neck. Neither does the electorate have a clear preference; a new Channel 13 poll found Sa'ar, Bennett and Lapid being the favoured prime-ministerial candidates of 23%, 20%, and 19% of the electorate respectively in the instance of a government sans Netanyahu. The Likud campaign has eagerly seized upon this lack of consensus, releasing adverts depicting the incumbent juxtaposed against a mass of mediocre politicians. That said, there are rumours floating around that the three have already come to some agreement, along with Avigdor Lieberman (the staunchly anti-Netanyahu leader of the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party), to rotate the premiership if the opportunity arises. As always, such rumours should be taken with a pinch of salt; the scent of power has been known to make politicians act in perverse, self-damaging ways in the past.
Then there is the case of Israel's Arab sector. In recent years, the community – approximately constituting a fifth of Israel's population - has overwhelmingly voted for the Joint List, a diverse alliance of four political parties ranging from Hadash, a joint Arab-Jewish communist party, to the United Arab List (Ra'am), an Islamist grouping. Despite internal differences, the Joint List stuck together for the previous two elections, and was handsomely rewarded for doing so; last year the alliance garnered an unprecedented 15 seats and 90% of the Arab vote. However, holding together such an ideologically disparate grouping is no easy task under normal circumstances. Tensions are running especially high as of late due to the increasingly independent tack taken by Ra'am and its leader Mansour Abbas, who in particular differs from the other parties on LGBT+ rights and political tactics vis-à-vis the Likud.
The Joint List's 2020 election campaign (that being the third round) was centred around its diametric opposition to the Prime Minister, who at that point deployed anti-Arab dog-whistles as a key part of his political toolkit. Nevertheless, there is little evidence to suggest that Netanyahu is an ideological racist, but an overwhelming amount illustrating his congenital cynicism. Dog-whistles were useful when he needed to galvanise an increasingly non-committal right-wing base to turn out and support his party; in contrast, the current situation – principally characterised by his need to secure 61 Knesset votes in favour of granting him immunity from prosecution prior to a series of corruption trials - calls for a different approach. Abbas is aware of this, and one would suspect that this is the calculation he is making in running independently of the Joint List on a platform that doesn't rule out cooperation with Netanyahu. The Prime Minister is known for doling out reams of cash to his ultraorthodox allies in return for their undying support; who's to say he won't do the same for Ra'am – especially in a time of dire need for the Arab sector, which is suffering from an acute crime epidemic as a result of prolonged state neglect? It is no coincidence that Netanyahu took out time last November to attend a Knesset meeting hosted by Abbas addressing violence in Arab society. Combine this with the fact that the Premier kicked off his election campaign with an effusive appeal to Israeli-Arabs (an astounding about-face), and a clear picture emerges of a politician willing to tap every last potential avenue of support in his attempts to retain power, even at the expense of any remaining modicum of ideological consistency. It might even work.
Even considering all of the above, how can one account for the Prime Minister's miraculous political endurance – in particular, his capacity to weather a multiplicity of scandals and crises which would have destroyed the average career several times over? As self-aggrandising as it may seem, Netanyahu is widely understood to perceive himself as an indispensable leader, and not without some basis. While they are to some extent vacuous and theatrical, the array of normalisation agreements he has struck with Arab states (such as the UAE and Morocco) are nevertheless considerable diplomatic achievements, vindicating those on the Right who have long argued that a rapprochement with the Arab world is attainable without making meaningful concessions to the Palestinians. Achievements such as these, in conjunction with fairly robust economic outcomes for Israelis prior to the coronavirus crisis, are what have kept many loyal to the PM despite his shameless exuberance. Furthermore, amidst increasingly hostile mainstream sentiment toward ultraorthodox Jews, the sect's political leaders have come to appreciate Netanyahu's cynicism; as recompense for remaining stalwart allies of the Premier, the ultraorthodox parties have reaped substantial rewards, including continuing protection of their constituents from the military draft and relatively lax enforcement of lockdown measures against them.
However, it is also undeniable that Netanyahu is benefitting from - and aggressively cultivating - what American journalist Ross Douthat terms 'dreampolitik', a global phenomenon marked by the increasing prevalence of "partisan fantasy" within politics over concrete policy and ideological discourse. Many of Netanyahu's supporters have been drawn into a virtual reality whereby inconvenient ontological facts are systematically filtered out or construed in a manner most conducive to the sustenance of said virtual reality. Nothing perfectly exemplifies this post-ideological trend more than the Premier's aforementioned charm offensive toward the Arab sector.
Netanyahu had hitherto been one of the most vociferous agitators in the public discourse against Arab political participation, the most egregious example of which being his claim on the day of the 2015 election that "Arab voters are coming out in droves". One could argue that it was only because of the chilling effect that his relentless dog-whistling had on the centre-left parties, who might have otherwise been open to forming a government with the support of the Joint List following one of the previous three elections, that Netanyahu remains prime minister. Yet when he himself courts the Arab vote - in a manner much more overt than any party rightward of the leftist Meretz would have dreamed of doing prior to this cycle - there is barely any perceptible blowback from the Likud base. Only in virtual reality can such a blatant contradiction be subsumed under a single coherent narrative - that of Benjamin Netanyahu, the indispensable and virtuosic right-wing statesman, guardian of Israel and the Jews.
It should be said that Netanyahu's position is not remotely assured. He has certainly pulled off an impressive political recovery over the campaign's course so far, and there is little reason to rule out the Likud adding a few more seats to its projected tally come election day next month; yet there are various factors militating against him.
For one, some recent polls have forecasted that a non-Netanyahu government led by some assortment of Lapid, Sa'ar and Bennett is a mathematical possibility. The profound disdain these men (and the leftist parties) feel toward the Prime Minister cannot be understated; if there is an eminently feasible route to ejecting him from office, have little doubt they will take it. Avigdor Lieberman has also openly speculated about the formation of such a coalition. Furthermore, a key component of Netanyahu's bloc this cycle will be an alliance of the extreme-right, constituted by the parties National Union and Otzma Yehudit. The latter in particular espouses an ideology of virulent racism, rendering it exceedingly difficult to imagine it sitting in government with Abbas's Ra'am.
Nevertheless, the Prime Minister is labelled 'the magician' for a reason, and his grafting cynicism is without bounds. If anyone could get these strange bedfellows to govern together, it is him. Naftali Bennett, in spite of his deeply-felt animosity toward Netanyahu, still harbours ambitions to one day lead the Right – hence his refusal to emphatically rule out joining a Likud-led government, even if that is not his first preference. In other words, if all the right pieces fall into place, Israel's magician may yet again beat the odds and remain in power – more than justifying his namesake.
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Hudson Institute