Israelis go to the polls on Tuesday for a second general election in six months. If opinion polls are any guide, the vote may fail to break the deadlock that has left the country’s politics in limbo for much of the year.
The last election, in April, produced an inconclusive result. A potential coalition between security hawks and religious groups had a slim majority in the Knesset, but former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, refused to join unless the government agreed to enact a law to make it harder for ultraorthodox Jews to avoid military service. That put Binyamin Netanyahu in a bind: although religious voters have long viewed the four-term prime minister with suspicion, they remain a core part of his electoral base. Removing the de facto exemption from conscription would accelerate the leaking of votes from Netanyahu's Likud party to smaller and more radical right-wing parties.
If he wins the election, he is expected to try to push through a Bill granting immunity for a sitting prime minister
Netanyahu, who this summer overtook David Ben Gurion as Israel's longest-serving leader, had every incentive to cling to power. His legal troubles have been mounting. Several cases involving allegations of corruption, fraud and breach of trust are expected to come to a head in the autumn, and while Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing, those legal battles would be harder to fight from the opposition benches. If he wins the election, he is expected to try to push through a Bill granting immunity for a sitting prime minister.
A low-key campaign for this week's rerun has done little to shift the parties' standing. The one exception is Lieberman's party, which polls suggest is on course to increase its seat tally from five to the nine-to-11 range. That would make a kingmaker of Lieberman, an opportunist right-winger who carved a niche as a secularist hawk who favours high social spending. He has said he wants a unity government comprising Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Blue and White, the centre-left alliance led by former military chief Benny Gantz. But Blue and White leaders are adamant they would not join a Netanyahu-led coalition.
That leaves the sitting prime minister looking vulnerable. And so, Netanyahu, in the closing stages of the campaign, has sought to shore up his support with what has become his grimly traditional closing message: trampling on Palestinian rights and pandering to the worst inclinations of the settler movement. Whereas in 2015 he made baseless claims that Arab voters were “coming to the polls in droves”, this time he has accused Arab citizens of trying to “steal the election” – again without evidence. He has also pledged to annex the occupied Jordan Valley in the West Bank – an alarming claim that would cause international uproar and deal a fatal blow to the already remote prospects for peace. But, as Netanyahu constantly reminds the world, his great political ambition is the retention of his power for its own sake.