File photo: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photograph:( AFP )
The changing landscape of coalition politics in Israel can produce an ambiguous election result.
The pendulum of the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) elections seems to be swinging precariously between the incumbent Likud Party led by PM, Benjamin Netanyahu and a new centrist coalition, Blue and White. For the four-times PM Netanyahu, this is panning out to be one of the toughest electoral battles of his career. Firstly, charges of corruption and the breach of trust levied by Israel’s Attorney General Mandelbilt against the PM and his family can erode his legitimacy. Secondly, a centrist Blue and White coalition party, led by a former head of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), is challenging the fortunes of Netanyahu’s Likud party. While Netanyahu’s voter base remains strong, these charges can put pressure on his coalition partners to take a stand. So, are we witnessing the run-up to a post-Netanyahu era in Israeli politics?
In late February 2019, the Attorney General had announced that PM Netanyahu would be indicted on bribery and corruption charges from three separate corruption investigations that are still pending a hearing. Even though in Israeli politics, the PM is not expected to step down until a conviction is upheld through the appeals process, these developments can have a significant impact on the elections. For one, it gives ammunition to the centrist coalition Blue and White party to target the PM. The Blue and White party has been formed by the merger of three parties – Israel Resistance Party, Yesh Atid Party and the Telem party. It is being led by Benny Gantz, ex-Chief of Staff of the IDF, who led the Israeli military through two wars in Gaza in 2012 and 2014. Some voters are likely to perceive him and his party as untainted by Israeli politics, at the same time representing continuity and strength in military and security affairs.
However, in politics, there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip’. Netanyahu is a crafty politician who is not going to go down without a fight. In this regard, three factors need to be closely watched – the nature of the coalition politics, the ‘nationalist’ landscape and the future of allegations against Netanyahu’s.
The changing landscape of coalition politics in Israel can produce an ambiguous election result. Likud and Blue White are likely to emerge as the biggest parties, but with not enough majority to form the government, without the support of smaller parties. And here, it is advantage Netanyahu. The smaller right-wing parties have currently pledged their support to Netanyahu, partly to avoid upsetting their joint right-wing support base. Notably, around 40 political parties are competing for seats in the 120-seat parliament. However, given the minimum threshold of qualification of 3.25 per cent of votes, only 10-14 are expected to finally reach the parliament.
Netanyahu still has an upper edge in the ‘nationalist’ narrative. The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, containing Iran’s presence in Syria and the shifting of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem are perceived as Netanyahu’s policy successes. The recent US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Golan heights is likely to add to this narrative. Domestically, Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious bloc has more potential voters. The current PM has tried to brand his rival Gantz, as a ‘weak left’ candidate, forcing the latter to prove his credentials by taking a hard stance towards foreign and security policy.
From now on much will depend on how the perception related to the investigation will pan out. The announcement of Mandelbilt’s intention to indict the PM after a year-long investigation had caused a sharp drop in the polls for Likud, with the party trailing behind the main opposition for the first time. However, the situation has somewhat stabilised since then. The recent decision by Madelblit to withhold evidence until after the elections is being seen as a victory for Netanyahu and may boost the perception that the investigations are politically motivated.
With the two main parties – Likud and Blue White - neck to neck in the upcoming elections, it looks difficult that either of them will be able to form a governing coalition with any likely combination of minor parties. A major antithesis to this is that the Arab parties are unlikely to join any coalition government. One of the post-election scenarios can be a ‘national unity’ government made up of Likud and Blue and White Party. The main point here will be who ends up leading this government or who is chosen by the coalition partners to be the next PM – Netanyahu or Gantz. With so many variables at play, the pendulum can sway in either direction. However, no matter who becomes the PM, fundamentals of Israeli politics are unlikely to change.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)