Israel’s parliament dissolved on December 22, 2020 after the previous coalition partners Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) and Benny Gantz (Blue and White) could not agree on budgets deadline for 2020 and 2021. For the long-considered fragile government, which took office in May of 2020 to fight the coronavirus pandemic, the collapse seemed inevitable.
Israel’s Complicated Political Landscape
As a result of the government’s discord, Israel’s political situation remains volatile, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s future in peril. The weekly anti-Netanyahu protests that have been held for over half a year due to the government’s initial COVID-19 response and the prime minister’s trial for corruption have persisted. The upcoming parliamentary elections on March 23, are hence also a referendum on Netanyahu’s political future.
The latter notwithstanding, Netanyahu enjoys a substantial approval rating, and his Likud party is likely to receive the most votes in the election. However, Likud will again be forced to form a coalition to achieve the necessary majority of 61 seats out of the Knesset’s 120. According to polls, Likud is likely to obtain 31 seats – a minus of five seats compared to the previous election result – which, in light of recent developments, makes forming a coalition that carries the necessary majority increasingly difficult for Netanyahu.
A New Dynamic
The primary reason for the projected shift in the parliament’s makeup is Gideon Saar’s New Hope, a new party which Israel’s already fractured political landscape will need to move forward.
Saar was Netanyahu’s Minister of Education from 2009 to 2013 and his Interior Minister from 2013 to 2014. Saar was known as one of the prime minister’s most loyal and vocal supporters. But in 2019, he challenged Netanyahu for the Likud leadership—officially, on the grounds that Netanyahu had been incapable of forming a stable coalition government. Unofficially, however, the move marked the unveiling of Saar’s ambition to eventually become Israel’s prime minister.
Saar can be considered to be on the right of Netanyahu’s policies. He is an opponent of a two-state solution and has called the idea an “illusion.” In the past, he had criticized the Palestinians for “never being able to agree to a compromise, despite very generous offers.” He supports building up West Bank settlements and annexing parts of the West Bank. Asked about his solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Saar stated there needed to be an autonomous Palestinian entity linked together in a federation with Jordan.
New Hope is now supposed to realize Saar’s vision, ideally by forming a coalition government without Netanyahu. “I have decided to establish and lead a new political movement in which I will run in the coming election against Netanyahu in order to replace him as prime minister,” Saar said during his press conference in December.
It marked the culmination of the relationship’s decline. Saar did not hold back with criticism either when he announced his plans to the public, accusing Netanyahu of having utilized Likud for his own personal gain.
Problems for Netanyahu
New Hope could indeed pose an issue for Netanyahu. Not only have four defectors turned their backs on Likud, in favor of New Hope – including former Netanyahu confidant Zeev Elkin – but polls have also forecasted 16 seats for Saar’s party, which would make it the Knesset’s second-largest.
Moreover, since New Hope has not positioned itself within the dogmatic frame of Israel’s traditional right-left dynamic, but primarily as the anti-Netanyahu movement, it opens itself up for several coalition options, including with the liberal and centrist Blue and White, the alliance of right-wing parties Yamina, the ultra-orthodox parties, and the centrist Yesh Atid.
It allows for a conceivable scenario in which no majority in the bloc of right-wing and religious parties is possible without Saar’s party.
Even with Shas and United Torah Judaism, Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc is unlikely to exceed 45 seats. If Yamina were to re-join the bloc, the Likud coalition would only carry 58 seats and thus still be three seats shy of a majority, the Times of Israel concluded in December.
The number of parties inclined to end Netanyahu’s reign is vast, and they have a viable path to a majority of 62 seats.
On the other hand, the number of parties inclined to end Netanyahu’s reign is vast, and they have a viable path to a majority of 62 seats. Although, it is doubted that a coalition, which would include diametrically opposed parties such as the alliance of the leading Arab political parties – Joint List, the center-left party The Israelis, founded by Ron Huldai – the long-time prominent mayor of Tel Aviv, and Saar’s right-wing New Hope, can provide the country with the much-needed stability.
Moreover, representatives of three of the four Arab parties that compose the Joint List stated on January 27 that negotiations to maintain the unity of the bloc, which had been shaken by its leader’s attempt to pursue closer ties with Netanyahu, had failed. As a result, Joint List seems unlikely to run in March. It adds yet another dynamic to the election campaigns, as Netanyahu has reportedly been aggressively seeking the Arab vote. A Joint List collapse could work in his favor.
The COVID-19 Vaccine Could Help Netanyahu’s Position
As Netanyahu finds his return to power in jeopardy, election campaigns will be all but normal in light of the COVID-19 pandemic as well. Israel is currently in a third lockdown and in the middle of a large-scale vaccination campaign against the coronavirus.
It is a situation Netanyahu aims to benefit from as, indeed, Israel vaccinates more people proportionally than any other nation. “Israel is world champion in vaccination,” wrote Netanyahu in a tweet. Three weeks after the start of the vaccination campaign, 20 percent of Israelis have already been vaccinated against the virus, approximately 1.8 million, according to Health Minister Juli Edelstein.
Netanyahu desperately needed this success as his earlier crisis management during the pandemic had come under intense scrutiny.
Netanyahu will attempt to utilize his foreign policy successes as a “peacemaker” with Arab states without making any meaningful concessions to the Palestinians.
Besides the vaccine rollout, Netanyahu will attempt to utilize his foreign policy successes as a “peacemaker” with Arab states without making any meaningful concessions to the Palestinians. With former President Donald Trump’s help, he quickly ratified normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco and announced a declaration of intent with Sudan.
Meanwhile, the court case against Netanyahu, including three corruption charges, which is to continue in February, is likely to have a detrimental impact on his election prospects.
It indicates that the upcoming election raises more than the question of whether or not Netanyahu will return to power, it may also determine whether the prime minister can find a path towards immunity – a remedy that is becoming increasingly necessary.
All in all, the situation in Israel remains complicated. With two months to go, all parties involved will continue to make a compelling case. So will Netanyahu. However, with New Hope’s arrival, one should not be surprised if the election outcome in March does not resemble previous results.