Overnight on December 11 2019, the Israeli Knesset dissolved itself and scheduled new elections for March 2, 2020.
Israelis will now head to the polls for the third time in under a year. They will go as a deeply divided country, still mired in the personal politics and future of a single man: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Whether the third time is a charm and a government will emerge—or, to paraphrase the sitcom Seinfeld, the next election is a “show about nothing” leading to yet another deadlock—is impossible to say. But of all the actors in this recurring drama, new elections probably hold the greatest advantage for a beleaguered Netanyahu. They buy time, allowing him to remain prime minister as he struggles to survive in the face of indictments and repeated government formation failures.
Once perhaps the most well-run polity in the Middle East, Israel has of late become politically dysfunctional. Two previous elections, in April and September 2019, failed to produce a coalition: partly because Israel is a genuinely polarized country, but mainly the consequence of Netanyahu’s all-consuming determination to stay in power.
This is not just a question of political survival. Having been indicted by Israel’s attorney general in late November, it has become a matter of his personal freedom. Remaining prime minister for as long as he can puts him in the best possible position to avoid a conviction and, if necessary, cut some sort of deal. A sitting prime minister who is indicted must resign only if he is convicted.
Although nobody could imagine a third election, the odds were slim to none that anyone would help Netanyahu—from Benny Gantz heading the Blue and White Party, to Netanyahu’s longtime colleague turned bitter rival Avigdor Lieberman. As American journalist Peter Finley Dunne famously quipped about America’s rough and tumble political campaigns, “politics ain’t beanbag”. That is doubly true in Israel. And so Israel remains stuck in in its own Groundhog Day.
So what are the chances of a third impasse—a result that leaves Likud and Benny Gantz within one or two seats of one another, with little or no pathway for either to reach a sixty-one seat majority? Never say never. Still there are new factors at play. First, there are more than a few rumblings in the Likud Party about a challenge to Netanyahu. Former Cabinet Secretary Gideon Saar has already declared his intention to stand against Netanyahu, and a Likud party primary is set for December 26 2019. Saar has made the case that Netanyahu—having failed to create a government twice now—will be unable to do so again, which has weakened Likud’s credibility and prospects.
The other issues of course are whom the voting public will blame for the repeated elections, and how Netanyahu’s indictment will impact matters. There are legal challenges as to whether an indicted prime minister—even though he can serve until conviction—can form a government. Still, his trial is unlikely to begin until after the elections, and perhaps not for months.
What about the Americans? Do they factor into the current political equation? Trump clearly tried to help Netanyahu shortly before the April elections, when he pledged to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. And the recent U.S. statement that Israeli settlements are not inconsistent with international law will boost Netanyahu with his right wing base.
Still, Trump has become more distant and quieter on the subject of Netanyahu. His recent speech in Florida to the Israeli-American Council failed to mention him by name.
None of this has stopped Netanyahu from playing the Trump card, Indeed, he challenged Gantz to form a national unity government so that they could take advantage of Trump’s interest in a US-Israeli mutual defense pact.
Right now, whatever edge Netanyahu might have because of Trump is already baked into the cake. U.S. support for Netanyahu will not move him any closer to an election victory. Netanyahu—at least for the moment—remains a force, however weakened. Unless he is a victim of a Likud rebellion or cuts a plea deal to avoid a trial, Netanyahu could be around for a while.
He’s still very popular among the Likud base, and having had only four leaders since its inception in 1973, it is not in the party’s DNA to topple its leaders. So it is likely Netanyahu will win the scheduled Likud primary, his right- wing coalition won’t desert him, and as prime minister he will retain the image and power of the incumbent. Four months is an eternity in Israeli politics, let alone in a violent and unsettled Middle East. Some national security crisis that he escapes blame for creating or mishandling will play to his advantage and reputation as Mr. Security. As improbable as it may seem, a Netanyahu win in March cannot be ruled out.
More likely though, we’re watching the beginning of the end of the Netanyahu era. A recent poll shows Gantz with a four-seat lead, should elections be held today.
Indeed, two repeated failures to form a government, indictment for bribery, open discontent in Likud, and general voter fatigue and exhaustion with a decade of his antics will likely spell Netanyahu’s end. The only question that remains is how long and painful the goodbye.