Israel Is Going to the Polls, Again. Will Third Time Be the Unlucky One for Netanyahu? | Opinon

They say, "you can never have too much of a good thing". If you define democracy as "a good thing" and given that elections constitute the very essence of democracy, then this week most Israelis might disagree with you.

For the third time in less than one year, Israelis will once again head to the polls—and for the next three months, Israel will continue to be governed by a transitional, caretaker government, and has been operating as such for over a year.

While many said it was impossible to believe a third election would be called, in retrospect, it is clear Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had already decided on election night that he would roll the dice again, and work to ensure no government could be formed. As soon as it was clear that Netanyahu's party lost to the Blue and White Party, led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Netanyahu appears to have locked onto a strategy that would likely lead to a third election.

To understand the state of Israeli politics right now, one must look at the context of the first two elections. In an unanticipated move, Netanyahu called for an early election in December 2018 (prematurely ending the term of the Knesset scheduled to govern until the following November.) The Prime Minister acted because the State Prosecutor worked faster than expected and had announced his office would send Netanyahu's corruption cases (in which Netanyahu would be charged with allegedly committing bribery and breach of trust) to the State Attorney General for final disposition. Netanyahu forced an early election because he hoped to receive an overwhelming mandate that would allow him to pass laws to protect himself from prosecution.

At least on paper, Netanyahu won that election in April 2019, not overwhelmingly, but with enough support to form a government. However, that was not to be. Avigdor Lieberman, who had been Netanyahu's Defense Minister and who heads a small right-wing party, refused to join Netanyahu's coalition. Lieberman's stated reason for dissent (which people discounted at the time) was the need he felt to draw a line in the sand regarding the power of the ultra-Orthodox. This dispute was symbolized by a law regulating the military draft that Netanyahu had been forced to shelf, due to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox.

When Netanyahu failed to form the coalition he desired, he used a never before attempted parliamentary maneuver and had the Knesset dissolve itself—without following the normal procedure, in which if the first person who is given the mandate to form a coalition (in this case Netanyahu) is unsuccessful, the mandate is returned to the President and given to another Knesset member (in this case, it would have been Gantz.)

As a result, Israelis were sent back to the polls for a second election — which Netanyahu lost. His bloc of supporters went from 60 in the first election (one seat less than the 61 required to form a government) to 55 in the rerun. Netanyahu would not be deterred. The night the results of the repeat election were announced, Netanyahu immediately negotiated an agreement with all of his natural partners—i.e., the three religious parties: United Torah Judaism, Shas, and Bayit HaYehudi—establishing that none of the parties would negotiate separately.

At the time, it was merely considered a tactical move by Netanyahu to gain some momentum after a loss. However, that bloc of 55 made it impossible to form a government. Both Blue and White and Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party wanted a unity government—one made up of just the Likud and Blue and White, in order to provide a solid basis to tackle issues of state and religion. Therefore, both were uninterested in being part of a larger government that would include the religious parties. Members of the bloc soon found themselves playing parts in a prisoner's dilemma. None of them could afford to attempt to negotiate alone, for fear Netanyahu might then reach a deal without them; and Netanyahu could not afford to reach a deal without the rest of bloc, for fear that if he started such negotiations, bloc members might make deals directly with Gantz.

In the midst of this tumult, the Attorney General (a former Netanyahu confidant, whom Netanyahu had appointed) announced he would indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery, criminal misconduct, and breach of trust, in three separate cases. There was some brief hope that the AG's announcement would cause a shift of allegiances either within Netanyahu's bloc, or within the Likud itself. But the reality of the indictment had no real impact.

Ultimately, Blue and White held several unproductive meetings with Likud, who under Netanyahu's direction refused to budge from either setting aside the bloc or demanding that Netanyahu serve as the first Prime Minister in a rotation.

For a brief moment, the Likud floated the idea that Netanyahu would remain Prime Minister for only six months. However, Blue and White were unwilling to serve under a Prime Minister under indictment. Moreover, they did not believe Netanyahu would resign after six months. Therefore, that plan went nowhere. There was a short period when there was talk of creating a minority government supported by the Joint Arab List, but both Lieberman and some of the hawks in the Blue and White party vetoed that idea.

After neither Netanyahu and Gantz succeeded to form a government, Israel entered into a period it has never been in before — 21 days when any Knesset member can attempt to form a government. All sorts of promises were made to Lieberman, and even to Labor's leader Amir Peretz, to try to persuade them to join the Netanyahu government, but nothing worked. Netanyahu continued to demand immunity from prosecution. So, at 12AM, December 12, 2019, when the aforementioned 21-day period expired new election became a legally mandated , the Knesset dissolved and new elections were set for March 2.

What can we expect from the third election? The first question being asked by an angry electorate is — who is responsible for forcing a third election? As of now, the plurality of Israelis consider Netanyahu responsible. While some blame Lieberman, almost none blame Gantz.

The second question is — will Netanyahu continue to lead the Likud? For the first time in a decade Netanyahu is being challenged in a Likud primary. His challenger, Gideon Saar, has a simple message — despite the support Netanyahu continues to receive from within the Likud, a Prime Minister under indictment will not be able to form a government. Saar's chances are considered slim, but he has received significant support from mayors, and from a number of current Likud Knesset members. Suddenly, Netanyahu does not seem nearly as formidable as he had been a few short months ago.

A third topic of discussion surrounds whether Netanyahu will take an immunity deal. Many favor offering Netanyahu immunity from prosecution, in return for him stepping down and admitting his crimes. Leaders of the opposition parties have indicated they would support some form of such a deal. It is impossible to know whether or not Netanyahu is seriously considering this option.

Assuming Netanyahu wins his primary battle and does not negotiate an immunity deal, what can Israel expect? While Israeli voters do not readily change their opinions or political affiliations, the real variable in this election will come down to intensity of voter turnout. In the last election 200,000, Likud voters stayed home and did not vote. What will happen this time? Among Netanyahu supporters, there is a hope that Likud supporters will come out to support their embattled leader.

Others think that many Likud voters are tired of having Netanyahu, an indicted leader, at the top of their list, and as such, even more will stay home. On the other side of the equation, Benny Gantz, who was a novice politician in the first election, has grown on the Israeli people. The latest poll shows that a greater percentage of Israelis believe Gantz is suited to be Prime Minister than those who think Netanyahu should continue to serve. This marks the first time in a decade that anyone has beaten Netanyahu in a poll for suitability as Prime Minister.

The initial polls released since the scheduling of the new election show Blue and White opening a significant lead over the Likud — with the Center-Left gaining enough seats to possibly form a government. However, with two and half months to go before the election, anything can yet happen.

Though no one truly believed a third election would take place, the third election is scheduled to be held on March 2nd. Despite what I wrote earlier — i.e. that this was the outcome Netanyahu desired from the beginning — everyone predicted some deal would be reached at the 11th hour to avoid another election. Alas, the 11th hour has passed, and Israelis fear that the democracy of which they have been so proud is now the laughingstock of the democratic world — with three elections in one year and nothing but an acting government for even longer. Even those who have been most loyal to Netanyahu, admit in private, that history will not be kind in their judgement of them.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

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