Israelis, left and right alike, are hoping for an election surprise on Monday: an actual result.
The prospect of a single party declaring victory after the votes are counted — in what will be the third election in a year — seems like a pipe dream. Surveys indicate that the political deadlock that defined the April and September elections will continue in Election Number Three, set for March 2.
“Most people are fed up and really don’t want another election, a fourth,” said Eran Vigoda-Gadot, voting expert and political scientist at the University of Haifa.
Desperate to avert another stalemate, as it could well spell the end of his political career, Benjamin Netanyahu has been battling hard. Another vote without a clear winner would mean either a unity government, which would be hard to form unless he stepped aside, or another election, which could well take place during his trial for corruption charges, which is due to start March 17.
Netanyahu’s nonstop campaigning has paid off, and two polls published this week saw him taking the lead. After trailing the centrist Blue and White party, Likud suddenly has a one-seat advantage, according to polls, with 34 or 35 seats. But as the polls were released, the Gaza border exploded anew.
Two days of cross-border violence represented an election nightmare for Netanyahu. Normally, security threats help him, but not on the Gaza border, where he has told people that he’ll provide calm. “This is not a reality that can continue,” Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said on Monday in the rocket-ridden south. “Netanyahu, you have failed.”
Gantz was quick to connect dots between the security situation and politics. He argued that Netanyahu has left security in the hands of a novice, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, whose Jewish Home party is an essential political ally for Netanyahu. Gantz stressed that if he wins the election, the defense portfolio will go to a heavyweight — former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.
Gantz said of Netanyahu: “You appointed a defense minister as a political move, you appointed a puppet cabinet and instead of restoring the deterrence we achieved during Operation Protective Edge [of 2014], you’ve erased it.”
Netanyahu talked tough. He visited Ashdod and spoke about the latest Israeli strikes in Gaza — and also against terror targets in Syria. “We will continue to strike until quiet is restored,” he promised. “I have a message for the heads of the terrorist organizations: If quiet is not restored — you are next in line.”
It’s the kind of fighting talk that Netanyahu has been using since the election that brought him to power in 2009. Then, he said he would topple Hamas and restore security. In the south, there is heavy pressure for intense military action. Sderot’s mayor recently said that only a wide-scale operation will bring quiet.
The Netanyahu of 2020 is struggling to shake the image of a politician who has gone soft on Hamas. And to his misfortune, this week’s violence shone the spotlight on his Gaza record.
The 2009 Bibi prayed for misfortune on the part of Hamas, while today he is allegedly so keen to maintain its stability that his representatives allegedly “begged” Qatar to send money to Hamas.
On Saturday night, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman claimed that Netanyahu recently sent Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and top IDF official Herzi Halevi to Qatar to ask the authorities there to continue regular payments to Hamas, in view of their plans to end the transfers next month.
Lieberman derisively claimed that Netanyahu is having “protection money” sent to Hamas, and commented: “Suddenly, Netanyahu appears as the defender of Hamas, as though it were an environmental organization. This is a policy of submission to terror.”
Lieberman, self-appointed chief critic of Netanyahu’s security policy, is often described as Israel’s kingmaker. The rightist politician could have crowned Netanyahu after the last two elections, giving him the Knesset seats he needed to form a stable government, but refused. He also declined to back Gantz.
This time around Lieberman is at loggerheads with Netanyahu but could conceivably cooperate with Gantz and the left-wing Labor-Gesher-Meretz list.
Two factors make a Gantz alliance easier for Lieberman than last time. He will have repeatedly tried his favored unity government option, and can say he’s giving it up out of necessity.
Secondly, Lieberman has disdain for the Arab party, Joint List, part of which backed Gantz as potential Prime Minister last time. While this may have been an impediment to a Gantz-Lieberman alliance in September, today the relationship between Blue and White and Joint List is in tatters.
Gantz has distanced himself from Joint List, seeing it as a smart move to build confidence with Jewish voters. And the Joint List is livid with Gantz for welcoming Donald Trump’s peace plan.
Netanyahu’s big hope is that the bad publicity from the Gaza violence won’t hurt him, and his rise in the polls will continue. If his party and other rightist factions between them gain five seats, he could potentially build a government with a razor-thin majority.
If Gantz gains in the polls and ends up with the largest number of seats, possibly helped by an anti-Netanyahu backlash after the Gaza fighting, he is likely to secure Lieberman’s support. Current polling gives these two leaders about 41 seats between them, and gives Labor-Gesher-Meretz around nine seats. Even if all of these numbers rise, Gantz is likely to be a few seats short of the 61-seat figure needed to build a stable government. What then?
Vigoda-Gadot tells me that unless he can get Likud to serve in a unity government without Netanyahu as prime minister, power is likely to rest in the hands of Arab or charedi politicians.
One of the charedi parties, United Torah Judaism or Shas, may break its loyalty pledge to Netanyahu and join Gantz, but that’s a longshot, Vigoda-Gadot said.