Israel’s Fourth Election in Two Years: What’s Different Now?

Israel’s holding parliamentary elections for the fourth time in two years on March 23 -- yet while it seems we’ve seen this film before, the domestic and global landscapes have changed vastly since the last vote. In March 2020, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, dogged by corruption allegations, was facing his most serious challenger in years. Israel hadn’t even entered the first of its three coronavirus lockdowns. Netanyahu’s chum Donald Trump was in office, and no prospective prime minister wanted to be seen courting Israel’s Arab minority.

That was then. This is now:

The Pandemic

Netanyahu has claimed credit for the world’s most successful vaccination drive, with nearly half of Israel’s 9.3 million people fully inoculated against Covid-19. Polls suggest that hasn’t given him a bump after his initially strong leadership in the pandemic gave way to confusing and politicized health decisions.

Israel’s Fourth Election in Two Years: What’s Different Now?

The Trial

Netanyahu went on trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust two months after the last election. Proceedings have started slowly, but lives blighted by the virus outbreak have galvanized weekly protests demanding the ouster of a leader governing while under indictment. With joblessness a stubbornly high 18%, and thousands of businesses disappearing, he’s sunken deeper into trouble, not only with opponents, but onetime supporters, too.

Gantz Gone

Former military chief Benny Gantz dueled Netanyahu to a draw in the previous three elections but his Blue and White has been limping since he teamed up with Netanyahu in a short-lived government. The party has shrunken from a high of 35 of parliament’s 120 seats to as few as four, barely enough to enter parliament, polls show. No single party is putting up a similar challenge this time.

Fractured Right

Israel’s Fourth Election in Two Years: What’s Different Now?

Netanyahu’s Likud party splintered last year, giving loyalists another slate with a similar ideology, Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope. Sa’ar has vowed he won’t join a government headed by his former mentor, as has another nationalist party, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. Naftali Bennett, leader of the predominantly religious Yamina party, hasn’t committed either way and could become kingmaker.

Extreme Right

Netanyahu persuaded two hardline factions to run on a joint ticket to maximize their chances of entering parliament and joining the coalition he hopes to form. That means any Netanyahu-led coalition could include an admirer of the assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated expelling Arabs from Israel and territories it captured in wars with Arab states.

No More Donald Trump

Israel was thrilled with Trump, who recognized Jerusalem as its capital, and Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. His Middle East peace plan favored Israel, he cut off aid to the Palestinians, and he brokered agreements between Israel and former foes in the Persian Gulf and Africa. Most important, perhaps, Trump shared Netanyahu’s antipathy toward the Iranian nuclear deal. That honeymoon is over. U.S. President Joe Biden is trying to rejoin the nuclear accord, and has reset relations with the Palestinians, resuming contacts and restoring aid.

Divide and Conquer

If in the past, Netanyahu had vilified Israel’s Arab leaders, and warned about Arab voters going to the polls “in droves,” then this time he went on a charm offensive, visiting communities, courting Arab mayors and promising aid. Critics attribute his sudden change of heart to a desire to break up the Joint List of Arab parties and weaken the opposition. The Joint List did fracture and polls show a drop in support for Arab parliamentary factions that benefits the prime minister.

Still, Some Things Never Change

Likud is maintaining a comfortable lead over its nearest competitor, former Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, but Netanyahu won’t be able to easily form a coalition government, polls suggest. It’s unclear whether the anti-Netanyahu bloc would be able to put aside differences and ambitions to form a government if it musters enough support. Israel has had three inconclusive elections. This might be the fourth.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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