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Israel's perpetual elections: What next?

June 27, 2022 at 1:36 pm

People cast their votes at a drive-in polling center for people on quarantine or tested positive for COVID-19 as Israelis head to the polls on March 23, 2021 in Ramat Gan, Israel [Amir Levy/Getty Images]

Israel is gearing for its fifth election in less than four years, as the controversial and equally multifaceted Bennett-Lapid consensus ends in the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament). The governing coalition in Israel had already lost its majority in parliament in April when the first defection from Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett’s Yamina Party surfaced. With another defection last week, due to significant disagreements between Bennett’s right-wing peers and Arab members of the coalition, the government started functioning as a minority in the Knesset, spelling an inevitable end.

Focus has shifted on Netanyahu

Indeed, many pundits – unified in their cynicism on the make-up of the government in Israel – had predicted the demise of this unique political arrangement since its inception. The coalition’s heterogeneity had been regarded as being far too broad, which prevented the necessary political cohesion from enacting meaningful change and establishing stable rule. In the year since Bennett assumed the premiership, the coalition had already withered several storms, only to be dismantled using Bennett’s loyalists. Now, several possible scenarios await Israel. Focus has shifted on the former Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has branded this government Israel’s “worst,” accusing the government of colluding with “terror supporters” in a direct swipe at the Arab component of the coalition.

An opening presents itself for Netanyahu and the Likud as Israeli politics increasingly become high stakes, with conjuncture shifting at every turn. Bennett, on the other hand, or the coalition he came to represent, is not left entirely hopeless, as the political system remains fractured to the extent that several possible power-sharing arrangements remain possible. Immediate polls conducted after the news of the coalition’s dissolution validate such fracturing. Ultimately, neither a Netanyahu win is inevitable, nor is certain demise for the incumbent government.

 Pre-emptive dissolution

While Bennett’s move to dissolve the Knesset and seek elections – likely to take place in the first week of November – is pre-emptive rather than necessary, they increasingly look like a political ploy. Bennett’s strategy would seem straight out of the handbook of Netanyahu, infamous for his political shrewdness and resourceful decision-making. By moving to dissolve the Knesset and set the electoral calendar in motion, Bennett is not only possibly maximising time for Yair Lapid’s succession as Prime Minister, therefore de facto prolonging his coalition, but is also likely buying time to reconstruct a new platform.

With the coalition having been moved for dismissal by Bennett on the pretext that a law ascribing special status to Israeli settlers had failed to pass, which is critical in a government whose several constituents and Prime Minister are religious Zionists, a series of several possibilities present themselves.

First, the motion to dissolve offers Bennett an honourable exit of sorts. Given his astute style of politics, Bennett would be allowed to walk away from the Knesset, either indefinitely or for the duration that would allow him the time to muster support. This break would be clean, so to say, being enacted at the behest of Bennett himself and not forced upon him and his coalition. It would be void of political stigma and ridicule, embodying stateliness, adherence to ideals and a polished style of politics that contrasts with Netanyahu’s.

Secondly, the motion, by virtue of Israeli law, allows Bennett’s succeeding caretaker government to function for three months before elections. This would give Bennett’s proposed successor, Lapid, breathing space before elections materialise. In an interim government staffed by members of the former coalition, a stark contrast presents itself with the last four years, where Netanyahu served as the caretaker Prime Minister as Israel jumped from election to election until, finally, the Bennett-Lapid pact was established.

The period between establishing a caretaker government and elections presents the opportunity for the coalition to manage perceptions by doubling down on their strategy of uniqueness, compromise and broad representation. In this period, Lapid could spearhead a campaign to maintain the narrative that Netanyahu is mistaken in his criticism of the coalition, deflecting blame while reconstructing a platform for imminent elections. It is yet unclear whether Bennett would take part in this procedure or if he would try to prolong his leaving.

Netanyahu’s gambit

Much like the coalition set to dissolve, Netanyahu is also apt to proceed with a possible series of strategies. The clearest one would be to continue his rhetoric that this government simply failed to rule, plagued by zero-sum interests and little room for compromise. This discourse could see traction, especially with voters who would now turn on Bennett and Lapid in their apparent mismanagement of the coalition’s differences, perceived as being unable to prevent a major breakup such as this one. Netanyahu could also lure some of the right-wing votes directed toward Bennett, possibly increasing the number of Likud members in parliament.

The alternative course of action for Netanyahu stems from Israel’s peculiar political system. Reports indicate that Netanyahu is seeking to move for a constructive vote of no confidence in the Knesset. This unique motion would dissolve the current government but reinstate a new one in the Knesset with the existing makeup of members. If Netanyahu can muster support for the motion, possibly swaying former Likud members that had defected to other right-wing parties, this could materialise.

A government dominated by Likud and its religious Zionist allies, aided by defectors from Yamina and other right-wing parties, could reach 60 plus members of Knesset, hence ushering in a new Netanyahu government. The likelier scenario for a Netanyahu ascendancy is through this constructive no-confidence motion, which would nullify the current government’s opportunities to rule in the interim and reconstruct their agenda. Hence, it is unsurprising that, while Netanyahu publicly intensifies the election rhetoric, he is seeking an alternative arrangement to reassume power.

Bennett’s decision for dissolution leaves Israel at a crossroads with several viable opportunities having presented to various political actors in the short term. Indeed, Netanyahu is poising for a return, but the numbers do not favour him yet. On the Bennett-Lapid camp, the honourable exit of the incumbent Prime Minister is perhaps becoming a politically expedient scenario for the elongation of their rule.

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