Israel will hold its fifth election in under four years in the autumn, and opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, already the country’s longest-serving prime minister, is confident he can return for an unprecedented sixth term as head of a coalition of right-wing and religious parties.
For the last few years the historical right-left divide in Israel has been replaced by a new fault line: the pro- and anti-Bibi camps, to use Netanyahu’s popular nickname.
The outgoing government led by Naftali Bennett, who will be replaced next week by Yair Lapid as interim prime minister until the next government is formed, contains three right-wing parties – including Bennett’s Yamina – as well as centre and left parties and an Arab Islamist party.
There is a clear majority of right-wing and religious lawmakers in the current Knesset and the only thing that has prevented the formation of a stable Likud-led government is the refusal of the smaller right-wing parties to join a Netanyahu–led coalition. Netanyahu has earned a reputation as a politician who cannot be trusted to honour a deal struck with another party.
The latest polls show neither the pro- nor anti-Bibi blocs can win an overall majority in the upcoming election, but the Netanyahu bloc is extremely close and is currently projected to win between 57-60 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
A seasoned campaigner and Israel’s shrewdest politician, the 72-year-old is relishing yet another political fight believing he can take his bloc over the winning line during the four-month campaign. The outlines of his campaign are already clear: incitement against the “terror-supporting” Arab parties that the Bennett-Lapid coalition relied on.
Not only is his Likud the most popular party (projected to win 35 seats, compared to 20 for its nearest rival, Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid), but the polls also show Netanyahu to be the most popular candidate for prime minister (47 per cent to 31 per cent for Lapid).
Much may depend on how Lapid fares in the next four months in his role as interim prime minister and whether he can create a public image as a credible alternative to Netanyahu despite the former premier’s vast experience.
These are do-or-die elections for Netanyahu. For four elections in a row he failed to cobble together a parliamentary majority, eventually allowing a bizarre coalition of the anti-Bibi bloc into power. If he fails again there could well be a backlash both within Likud and amongst his bloc to anoint a new leader for the right-wing/religious camp. If this happens it should be relatively easy to form a Likud-led, right-wing government.
Netanyahu’s corruption trial, which started before last year’s election ended his run as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, continues for three days each week at the Jerusalem district court.
He claims that the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate corruption scandals are nothing more than a witch hunt by the left, supported by the judiciary, law enforcement agencies and the media, in an effort to keep him from power.
The court begins its summer recess on July 23rd and the trial is set to resume on September 5th, when the election campaign should be at its height.
A key witness, Hadas Klein, is expected to testify in the coming weeks. Klein was an aide to tycoon Arnon Milchan and she is the main prosecution witness in one of the cases, in which Netanyahu is charged with accepting gifts worth about €192,000 from Milchan and another billionaire in return for favours.
Her testimony could prove embarrassing for Netanyahu but so far the trial has had little impact on his public support and, if anything, has served to boost his standing among his loyal base.
Radical reforms to reduce the power of the judicial branch are a top priority for Likud and other parties in the pro-Bibi bloc if they return to power. Opponents fear he will move to end the independence of the judicial branch and either cancel the trial altogether or appoint a new attorney general who will agree to a favourable plea bargain deal that doesn’t include a prison term or a moral turpitude clause that would stop Netanyahu from serving in public office.
If neither the pro- nor anti-Netanyahu blocs manage to cobble together a viable coalition and Netanyahu remains Likud leader, Israel could be facing another period of political instability, similar to chaos that triggered four elections in quick succession before Bennett’s coalition manage to govern for just over a year.
A comparison of leading democracies by the Israel Democracy Institute now places Israel as the most unstable, at the bottom of the list with elections every 2.4 years. Ireland is ranked the most stable, with elections every 4.5 years.