Israeli politicians have failed to build a coalition, again, and the country is bracing itself for more voting. This means double drama, with two more elections expected before the winter is out.
The leaders of the two biggest parties both failed to build coalitions. They had until Wednesday to announce a breakthrough and avert another general election, but instead, they readied themselves for campaigning, and agreed a March 2 Election Day.
The blame game is in overdrive. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel is “sliding toward a completely unnecessary third elections that none of us want, but if they will be forced on us, we will win and win big.”
His rival Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party claimed that Netanyahu — who was indicted on corruption charges last month — has engineered another election out of a belief it will “afford you the majority with which to achieve immunity.”
Avigdor Lieberman, head of Israel Beiteinu, the party that holds the balance of power but refuses to help Netanyahu, who heads the Likud party, or Gantz unless they cooperate with each other, blames both leaders for being “unwilling to give up their ego.”
The election date is just about the only thing that Blue and White and Likud have agreed on since election season began almost a year ago. One could say that this is apt.
By default, the election would have been set for March 10. But this date is Purim, the Jewish festival of chaos that commemorates a Middle Eastern farce story set in the corridors of power.
Much of Israel sees the current saga in farcical terms. The public has been asked to vote twice, and both times, found the top parties virtually tied and unwilling to make compromises with each other or with other parties to build a stable government.
This time around, the main event, the general election, will be preceded by a dramatic warm-up act. Netanyahu announced on Monday that there will be a Likud leadership contest ahead of any national vote. “If there are general elections, there will be primaries for the Likud leadership,” said Likud statement.
Gideon Saar, the sole Likud politician who has put his head above the parapet and said he will challenge Bibi, welcomed the announcement and said he will “present clear plans and positions in all policy areas.” He added: “Likud members will decide.”
In the past, a Netanyahu victory in primaries has been widely seen as a foregone conclusion — but it may be too soon to call the race this time around. Most Likud members couldn’t imagine another leader, but this is before any campaigning has taken place. A year ago, for instance, Blue and White didn’t exist and Benny Gantz had never given a speech as a politician. Support snowballed as soon as the party presented itself as a Bibi alternative — and the same could happen in Likud.
Saar was a popular minister from 2009 to 2014, he is hawkish, which pleases the Likud base, and he is seen as honest and scandal free, an asset when running against an indicted prime minister. Jerusalem’s former mayor, Nir Barkat, is expected to throw his name in the ring for Likud leader. He is also a staunch rightist, and such a champion of clean politics that he only accepted a shekel a year as his salary as mayor.
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“In my work as mayor, on a salary of a shekel a year, no idiot would dare to approach me with offers of bribes or anything like that,” Barkat told Israel Hayom.
The biggest barrier the candidates challenging Netanyahu face is the prime minister’s reputation for commanding respect and wielding influence internationally, with the likes of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. But it’s conceivable that a world leader or two could tire of Netanyahu, with his double failure at coalition building and his legal woes, and show warmth to one of his challengers. Small signals from the likes of Trump toward Saar or Barkat could convince Likud members that Bibi doesn’t have a monopoly on international credibility, and give them a significant boost.
A smart strategy by a Bibi challenger in the primary could swing the pendulum. If a candidate can rebrand Bibi from the party’s ultimate asset to an albatross around its neck, it could work wonders. Such a candidate could present scenarios suggesting what a coalition might have looked like with a different Likud leader. Blue and White refuses to serve under Bibi, but would have served under Saar, and several of its politicians many have defected to Likud. If Likud members can be convinced to think seriously about such coalition scenarios, it could lead to a shock in the primary.
But doesn’t Bulletproof Bibi always research and assess before making political moves like backing primaries? Yes, but his desperation to see the endorsement he expects primaries will give him at one of his most embattled moments is so strong that it can cloud judgment. And secondly, simply put, Bibi isn’t always right.
After all, had he not gambled that an early election last April would make him stronger, Israelis would have only just gone to the polls four weeks ago and may actually have been close to having a ruling coalition. n
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.