Israel’s unconscionable decline into its fourth general election in two years — now almost certain to be held in late March 2021 — would appear to spell the end of the brief, unhappy career of one of the two key protagonists of the previous three rounds.
Benny Gantz jettisoned most of his Blue and White alliance — horrifying Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem factions, and sending them fuming into the opposition — when he agreed to partner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an “emergency” coalition after March 2020’s inconclusive vote. Blue and White, which won 33 seats in that election, has hemorrhaged support ever since, as Netanyahu maneuvered to ensure that Gantz would never get his hands on the premiership, despite their “rotation” agreement, humiliated Gantz by repeatedly keeping him in the dark as the Trump administration brokered a series of Israel-Arab normalization agreements, and reduced Gantz to frustrated observer status in the ongoing battle against COVID-19.
An opinion poll published on Sunday evening found Blue and White at its lowest-ever ebb, heading for just five seats, barely above the minimum threshold for any representation at all in the next Knesset. And that was before several of his diminished band of MKs openly rebelled against his last-ditch compromise terms with Netanyahu, in which Gantz was reportedly ready to curb some of the authority of his own party’s justice minister, Avi Nissenkorn, in order to keep the dysfunctional coalition alive.
Gantz has said several times in recent months that if his political career ends quickly, he will be comforted by the knowledge that he tried to act in the best interests of Israel. And doubtless he did try. But he lost the support of many of his voters when he broke Blue and White’s sole unifying pledge: not to sit in a government with Netanyahu so long as the Likud leader was under the cloud of corruption charges. And that support has now dwindled to almost nothing as he appeared ready to sacrifice another core commitment — to protect Israeli democracy. His compromise terms in the past few days would reportedly have seen the nomination of Israel’s next state prosecutor overturned, and the process by which Israel chooses its Supreme Court justice amended. Those changes, it should be noted, would have given Netanyahu a fresh say in the composition of the very hierarchies that are prosecuting and trying him.
Not only is Gantz heading into political oblivion, but so is much of the Israeli center-left. Blue and White drew much of its support from that part of the spectrum, but the opinion polls suggest many voters are not going back there. The new icon of the “anyone but Bibi” movement is Gideon Sa’ar, a former Likud minister who stands to Netanyahu’s right on matters relating to settlements and the Palestinians. In the 2015 elections, the center-left National Union (Labor), Yesh Atid and Meretz mustered 40 of the Knesset’s 120 seats between them, in what was regarded as a failed campaign; recent polls give Yesh Atid about 16 seats and Meretz 6 or 7; as for Labor, which also joined this Netanyahu coalition, it is near-certain to disappear from the political map.
Netanyahu would have preferred to stave off another polling day for at least a little longer
But if Gantz is all but finished, what of Netanyahu, who outwitted him every step of the way and clung on at the Prime Minister’s Office after those last three elections, at times by the skin of his teeth?
On the face of it, his position is much improved. The main threat to his continued rule, the Blue and White alliance that came so close to prising him from power, has collapsed. The Israel right, his part of the political spectrum, is ascendant; the next Knesset looks set to be the most right-wing in Israeli history. And his two most reliable political partners, the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, stuck with him through thick and thin, and insist that they will continue to do so.
But Netanyahu would have preferred to stave off another polling day for at least a little longer. He has held the state purse-strings hostage to his political maneuverings, and much of the public has been directly affected by the failure to pass a 2020s budget, much less one for 2021. The economy is in shambles because of COVID-19. The virus contagion rate is rising again, and we may well be heading into another lockdown in the next few days. And while Netanyahu can claim personal credit for his role in securing the purchase of millions of doses of vaccines that Israel has this week begun using, he would have wanted more time for the pandemic to hopefully recede before again facing the voters.
Additionally, his trial will still be in its headline-making early stages in March.
Most of all, he would have liked to wait for the enthusiasm surrounding his latest rival Sa’ar to dissipate. Sa’ar resigned from the Knesset last week to set up a new party, New Hope, whose prime declared goal — sounds familiar? — is to unseat Netanyahu. Current polls suggest that New Hope is heading for 19-20 seats, while Netanyahu’s Likud is not too far ahead with 28.
The permutations for a new coalition are numerous, if current polling figures hold firm. Were Sa’ar to join forces with Naftali Bennett’s right-wing/Orthodox Yamina, Avigdor Liberman’s right-wing/secular Yisrael Beytenu, and Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid, they could make it impossible for Netanyahu to build a majority. But only if Sa’ar can sustain his fresh-faced momentum. And only if Sa’ar, Bennett, and Liberman — all of whom have much more experience working with Netanyahu than Gantz did — are prepared to maintain a solid alliance against him, as Gantz failed to do.
So Netanyahu was in no great rush to face the public again, and may have a tough battle on his hands — on his own side of the political spectrum. But if his rival-ally-rival Gantz now looks doomed — in what is a simply astounding fall, barely nine months after he was recommended as prime minister by most of the Knesset — nobody should bet against the shrewd, wily Netanyahu sailing onward.
“We didn’t want elections… but if elections are imposed on us, we’ll win,” Netanyahu said Monday night, going on to blame the hapless Gantz for sending Israel back to the polls. He knows full well how unhappy the public is about what he called these “unnecessary elections.” The degree to which he is held responsible for them will be one more major factor in whether he emerges victorious again.
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