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Israel heads to third election as Knesset dissolves

What happened: Israel’s 22nd Knesset voted to dissolve itself overnight as the deadline for forming a government passed with no breakthrough, sending the country to its third election in the past 11 months: 2 March, 2020. There was no real last-minute effort to find a compromise solution as loyalists of both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz traded blame for the impasse.

  • Both Netanyahu and Gantz failed in their search for a parliamentary majority and governing coalition. Netanyahu had been stuck on 55 seats (out of 120 in the Knesset) with his Likud party and right-wing/ultra-Orthodox allies.
  • Gantz, despite his Blue and White being the largest party, could not find a way to entice defections from this right wing bloc or, alternatively, convince kingmaker Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beitenu) to back a minority government with the external support of the Arab-Israeli factions.
  • Efforts brokered by President Reuven Rivlin for a “national unity government” fell apart amidst deep distrust between the two sides — primarily over Netanyahu initially remaining prime minister in any rotation agreement with Gantz and the insistence that the entire right wing bloc be included in government.
  • Blue and White had previously vowed that they would not serve in a government with Netanyahu, who in late November was formally indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Context: Until last year Israel had never gone to a second straight election after an inconclusive vote, let alone a third. The thinking was always that the public would punish the party it held responsible for the waste and impasse. It is now clear that this is no longer a sufficient deterrent.

  • Yet a poll this month by the Israel Democracy Institute indicated that 43 per cent of Israelis blame Netanyahu for the failure to form a government, while 38 per cent blame Liberman. Only 8 per cent blame Gantz.
  • Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s right wing and ultra-Orthodox allies stuck by him after last September’s election and, indeed, after the Attorney General’s decision to indict. The Likud overwhelmingly remained loyal, with lawmakers arguing that Netanyahu could – and should – remain prime minister even after being indicted and even (in future) during a criminal trial.
  • Former Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar was the lone voice of dissent in the Likud arguing that Netanyahu was leading the country into an unprecedented political crisis and the Likud to electoral defeat. While some Likud backbenchers and activists supported Sa’ar, most of the senior party officials remained quiet or joined in attacks against him.
  • Sa’ar did succeed in forcing a Likud leadership primary against Netanyahu, set for 26 December. This will be the first real challenge to Netanyahu’s rule inside the party for nearly a decade. Yet the prime minister is still expected to win.

Looking ahead: Aside from the Likud leadership primaries, attention will now shift to the well-known variables of a campaign. Polling numbers (see below), potential mergers and the impact of the 3.25 per cent electoral threshold that pushes small parties to amalgamate. Netanyahu, as he has done in the previous two campaigns, will likely have some diplomatic and political tricks up his sleeve. But even one loyalist Likud MK said last night that Netanyahu was a severe underdog and that right wing voters had to come out to avert defeat. The only silver lining is that the election date was brought forward slightly: the campaign will last just 82 days, the shortest in Israeli history.