Israel is on the precipice of yet another election with the formation of a new party altering the dynamic in Israeli politics and with it Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s prospects.
Seven months ago, Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White alliance formed a coalition – officially to ensure stability during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Netanyahu, the partnership came at a considerable price: he would have to hand over his office to Gantz in November 2021.
However, mutual dislike and lack of trust remained high. The deal’s fragility had Gantz take his oath of office as “alternate prime minister and future prime minister” – a unique occurrence in Israel’s history.
Instead of stability, the country has since witnessed an exhausting political struggle for power, with both sides increasingly conducting government affairs as adversaries, not as partners.
Netanyahu reportedly did not even inform Gantz about “normalisation” agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain or his trip to Saudi Arabia.
Gantz utilised the previous month to advance an initiative that launched a corruption investigation against Netanyahu, who is already on trial in three other cases over allegations of corruption.
The rift between both pinnacled when Gantz endorsed a bill that asks to dissolve parliament, which was advanced. If it passes three more Knesset readings, the coalition will end after only seven months.
“I had no illusions about Netanyahu,” Gantz said in announcing his party’s support for the no-confidence bill.
“I was well aware of his track record as a serial promise-breaker, but I thought that the people of Israel are more important than one leader and that Netanyahu would rise to the occasion. Much to my dismay that did not happen.”
However, the bill is not the only issue that puts the coalition in a precarious position. Gantz and Netanyahu have to concur upon the budget by December 23. Likud blocked the initial deadline in August.
Gantz insists on a budget for 2020 as well as 2021. Netanyahu, who argues that given the uncertain times one cannot plan for the upcoming year, seeks to approve a budget for 2020 only – a stance Gantz called an “economic terror attack”.
If both cannot reach consent, the government will dissolve and new elections held – the fourth time in two years.
What would be highly detrimental for the country might turn out beneficiary for Netanyahu. An election allows him to seek a new majority and to circumvent Gantz’s succession in November 2021. Ideally, his new coalition would permit him to pass legislation that provides him immunity from criminal prosecution. His previous attempt failed.
Boycotting the country’s stability amid crisis in favour of advancing one’s personal agenda is not unlike Netanyahu, Gayil Talshir, professor of political science at Hebrew University, argues.
“All of this is only about his trial,” she says. “You cannot be a serious politician and not pass a budget in such conditions unless you are worried about your own personal survival.”
However, what could have been a path forward for Netanyahu became rather inconceivable last week.
Longtime Knesset and Likud member Gideon Saar’s announcement to resign from the party and start his own, New Hope, has added a new dynamic to the situation and made life increasingly difficult for the prime minister.
Saar had long been considered an internal rival of Netanyahu. A year ago, he challenged him for the party leadership but lost decisively.
Likud had become a “tool for the personal interests of the person in charge, including matters relating to his criminal trial” and had fostered “a cult of personality” around Netanyahu, Saar stated during his news conference.
Far more pivotal than his departure is the formation of New Hope. It creates a conundrum for Netanyahu’s plan to maintain power via new elections. Polls indicate New Hope may have an immediate effect by becoming the third strongest party in the Knesset with 17 seats – two less than the Yamina Party and eight less than Likud.
The opposition parties, including Yamina as well as Blue and White, could, therefore, win 63 seats, while Netanyahu’s bloc – formed of ultraorthodox religious parties, Shas and UTJ – would obtain 41 mandates.
Saar’s move initiates a significant shift in Israel’s political landscape with a potentially perilous effect on Netanyahu’s prospects.
Saar made no secret about his ultimate intentions of unseating the incumbent. “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.”
To Netanyahu’s dismay, the movement he leads is not founded on the traditional right-left dynamic but on “anti-Netanyahunism”. It allows Saar to form almost any kind of coalition, including Yamina, the ultraorthodox, Blue and White, and Yesh Atid.
If the polls are accurate, no majority will be obtained in the bloc of right-wing and religious parties without Saar’s party. It puts Netanyahu in a vulnerable position.
“If Saar is able to draw a non-trivial number of seats for his New Hope party from Likud, Netanyahu will be down to a right-wing pro-Bibi group that will reliably include only Likud and the Haredi parties and fall well short of a Knesset majority without some major wrangling and manoeuvring,” says Michael J Koplow, director of the Israel Policy Forum.
Amid a calamitous pandemic that has devastated the Israeli economy, the timing for Netanyahu had already been suboptimal. With the additional uncertainty, Saar has added to an already complicated equation. His proclivity for triggering new elections via the budget issue has likely decreased.
The same arguably applies to Gantz, who would risk losing votes to Saar and potentially find his alliance fade into nullity – and with it his prospects of ever becoming Israel’s prime minister.