Netanyahu and Israel's NeverNetanyahu Right | Opinion

Next month, Israelis will go to the polls to elect a new 120-seat Knesset. It will be Israel's fourth general election in just under two years—an all-time record. To form a governing coalition, one member of Knesset—generally the head of the largest party—needs to form a coalition from several parties in the Knesset that together control at least 61 legislative seats.

On the face of things, Israel's elections merry-go-round makes no sense. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives high ratings from the public. Polls consistently show that Israelis prefer Netanyahu as prime minister over all of his possible rival combined. So why the deadlock?

Ironically, Israel's political instability is a function of Netanyahu's success.

Netanyahu is Israel's longest-serving prime minister, having surpassed Israel's founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, a year ago.

The secret of Netanyahu's success is that the center of Israeli politics has converged with his positions. Netanyahu now defines the center.

Despite Netanyahu's demonization at the hands of the media at home and abroad, his positions are not extreme. They involve standing up for Israel's rights and interests, developing the economy, fighting Israel's enemies when necessary and building alliances with foreign governments to achieve common goals when possible. These policies have brought Israel sustained prosperity, peace and security.

The fact that Netanyahu stands at the center of Israel's political map doesn't mean that he has abandoned the Right. He hasn't. And a large majority of Israelis have joined him there. Less than ten percent of Israelis define themselves today as leftists. In every Knesset election since 2009, center-right parties in Israel's multiparty parliamentary system have received nearly three-quarters of Knesset seats.

The Left's disappearance as a political force in Israel is the product of the lethal failure of its signature policies. The Left's messianic dream of peace with the Palestinians through the mid-1990s Oslo Accords' so-called "two-state solution" exploded with the Palestinian suicide bombings of the early 2000s.

Rather than reconsider its position, the Left simply repackaged its old one. "Peace" was replaced with "separation." The idea behind "separation" was that Israel could end its enemies' campaigns against it simply by running away. In 2000 and 2005, Israel implemented this new "strategy" in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, respectively. It removed its military forces from south Lebanon in 2000, and its civilians and military forces from Gaza in 2005. Like the "peace" fantasy before it, "separation" was exposed as lunacy with Hezbollah's war against Israel in 2006 and Hamas' near-continuous post-Gaza withdrawal missile attacks.

The disastrous failure of the Left's policies convinced the public that Netanyahu had it right all along. Since the 1990s, when he was first elected prime minister at the age of 46, Netanyahu has held fast to a very simple doctrine, devoid of messianic delusions: Peace comes from strength, not from empowering enemies that seek your destruction. Strength, in turn, comes from growing your economy and sticking to your guns—both literally and figuratively.

Today, there is no serious disagreement among the majority of Israelis over these basic principles. And there is also little dispute that Netanyahu has been wildly successful at implementing them.

This then brings us to the present political deadlock.

On the face of things, the race ought to be an easy one. Netanyahu's Likud is running a distant first, polling between 28–31 seats. Its closest rival, the center-left Yesh Atid Party, run by former finance minister and television personality Yair Lapid, is polling between 14–19 seats. Netanyahu's approval rating is more than twice Lapid's.

But all of the polls show that after three elections, the next Knesset will likely be as deadlocked as the previous three. Netanyahu's Likud-led multiparty right-religious bloc is polling between 58–61 seats. If Netanyahu fails to win 61 seats, either Lapid will become prime minister or Israel will remain politically paralyzed pending a fifth election sometime in the late summer.

If Lapid forms the next government, he will reinstate the Left's failed strategic appeasement policies toward Israel's enemies, as well as its failed populist economic policies that will stop Israel's economic rise in its tracks. The public doesn't want those policies—but all the same, the polls indicate that Lapid's chances of winning an opportunity to implement them are excellent.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Alex Wong/Getty Images

Lapid's prospects owe entirely to a largely ignored force in Israeli politics—disaffected politicians on the Right. Three parties: Israel Beitenu, Yamina and Tikvah Hadasha, which together are polling between 30–35 seats, are led by such politicians. They bear the chief responsibility for Israel's now-chronic political instability. And if Netanyahu lacks the requisite 61 seats to form a government, Israel Beitenu, led by Netanyahu's former chief of staff and former Defense and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, has pledged to join a Lapid-led government. Tikvah Hadasha, led by former Likud education minister and Netanyahu's defeated rival for Likud party leadership, Gideon Sa'ar, is likely to join as well. Although Yamina, led by Netanyahu's former chief of staff and former Defense and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, is now expected to join a Netanyahu-led coalition and Bennett belatedly announced that he will not join a Lapid-led government, Yamina's campaign is still directed solely against Netanyahu.

Both Sa'ar and Bennett are presenting themselves as prime ministerial candidates despite the fact that neither has any chance of forming a government. Liberman, Sa'ar and Bennett are not running anti-Netanyahu campaigns because they disagree with Netanyahu on the substantive issues. By and large, they agree with him. They are attacking him because, as they see it, Netanyahu's defeat is a necessary precondition for their own political advancements.

In other words, the reason the Left—despite it marginal public support—may form Israel's next government and the reason why the likeliest outcome of next month's "Take Four" elections is further deadlock is because Liberman, Sa'ar and Bennett are splitting the Right. They are so eager to remove Netanyahu from power that they are willing to risk electing a leftist government or forcing the country into a fifth election to achieve that goal.

Liberman was the first right-wing leader to break ranks. Following the April 2019 election, Liberman stunned the country when he refused to join a Netanyahu-led government, thus single-handedly forcing a second election. He repeated the process, to the astonishment of far fewer, after the second and third elections.

Bennett is now belatedly expected to join a Netanyahu-led government, but by running an anti-Netanyahu campaign and pretending that he is a viable candidate for prime minister himself, Bennett helps shields Lapid from scrutiny. That is, by making himself the story, Bennett prevents a substantive discussion of the differences between a Netanyahu-led government and a Lapid-led government. Bennett's sudden announcement (after weeks of refusal to answer) that he will not serve under Lapid was the consequence of massive pressure from his supporters. And it is possible that continued pressure from his voters or a deal with Netanyahu will cause him to end his negative campaign against Netanyahu, as well.

But that still leaves the great spoiler of this election—Gideon Sa'ar. Sa'ar's party is now polling between 11–14 seats. Pollsters assess that around 30 percent of Saar's voters come from Likud's base. By pledging not to join a Netanyahu-led government, Sa'ar's party is the only one moving votes away from the right-wing bloc to the left-wing bloc. Sa'ar hired NeverTrump political consultants from the Lincoln Project to run his campaign. While he was forced to suspend the Lincoln Project's consultancy following embarrassing disclosures about the group's decision to suppress criticism of their colleague John Weaver despite his well-known online sexual harassment of young men, Sa'ar is following the group's NeverTrump playbook. His campaign is based on personal attacks against Netanyahu, whom Sa'ar insists is destroying the moral fabric of Israeli politics.

Lapid, for his part, is re-running President Joe Biden's campaign. He is keeping a low profile and largely relying on Liberman, Sa'ar and Bennett, along with the media, to ignore and thus shield him while they all attack Netanyahu. As Israel's top political commentator Amit Segal pointed out recently, Lapid isn't even openly discussing the fact that he is a candidate for prime minister. At the same time, while remaining outside the fray, Lapid is adopting increasingly radical positions. Whereas a year ago he said he wouldn't form a coalition with the Arab nationalist-Islamist bloc due to its members' rejection of Israel's right to exist and support for Palestinian jihadism, now Lapid openly supports bringing them into a governing coalition with leftist parties and Liberman (and Sa'ar).

The elections are a month away, and a month is an eternity in Israeli electoral politics. But if nothing fundamental changes in the balance of forces, despite the conservatism of the voting public, impatient and ambitious right-wing politicians may facilitate the rise of the most radical government Israel has ever seen.

Caroline B. Glick is a senior columnist at Israel Hayom and the author of The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East, (Crown Forum, 2014). From 1994 to 1996, she served as a core member of Israel's negotiating team with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

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