Israeli election, Take Four: Conservatives vs. Conservatives

JERUSALEM – For three consecutive elections, Israeli Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to avoid challenges from the center-left.

Now, as Israel moves towards an unprecedented fourth early election in two years, the center-left has imploded and Netanyahu faces a challenge from its own right-wing ex-allies.

The election, scheduled for March 23, after a fragile and fragmented unity coalition disintegrated on Tuesday, is shaping up as a battle of conservatives against conservatives, an internal dispute over the leadership of about half of Israeli voters who consider it center-right.

“It will be a right-wing government,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a veteran Israeli election analyst. “The question is who will lead and how far right will it be?”

Leading the charge against Netanyahu, the former prime minister and leader of the conservative Likud party, are two former protégés who have become rivals: Naftali Bennett, a former education and defense minister who leads the right-wing religious party Yamina, and Gideon Saar, a popular ex-minister of education and the interior.

Bennett, 48, seated in the opposition, has raised his stature and his position in the polls this year by attacking the way Netanyahu is dealing with the coronavirus. He visited hospitals across the country, courted business owners who suffered repeated blockages, and published a book-sized list of recommendations for tracking contacts, testing and more, some of which were adopted by the government.

But it was defection this month by Saar, 54, from Likud to form a separatist right-wing party called “New Hope” that launched him into contention overnight. His decision reinvigorated critics of the prime minister, known to the Israelis as Bibi, raising hopes that this election will send Netanyahu, 71, into retirement.

“For the first time, the fight is on the right side of the map,” said Karine Nahon, a political scientist at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. “I usually stayed behind Bibi without any questions. Now, two parties are really challenging Likud’s hegemony. “

Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister for the longest time, is unlikely to be at a disadvantage in the March dispute: he is already trumpeting Israel’s rapid start to vaccination and its historic normalization agreements with four Arab countries. And he is a master at controlling the news cycle, among the many benefits of the assignment.

Still, the pandemic has taken a million Israelis out of work, business leaders warn that tens of thousands of companies could be wiped out and another blockade is approaching to remind voters of the government’s inability to contain the virus.

But Netanyahu’s biggest responsibility may come in February, when the deposition will begin at his trial on charges of corruption, including bribery and breach of trust. One of the main reasons why Israel is being subjected to yet another election, analysts say, is Netanyahu’s burning desire to reinforce his support in Parliament for possible action to mitigate his legal exposure, postpone the process or even have the case filed.

Indeed, while Israel’s rat-a-tat elections may appear from the outside as a symptom of systemic instability, up close, even Netanyahu’s supporters see the recurring campaigns as evidence of their ability to bend the system to their purposes. .

Certainly, few are celebrating the prospect of yet another election campaign, a provisional government limited on the interim and on election day itself, which implies closing many deals at a time when the pandemic has already devastated the economy.

“A fourth election will not be at our expense,” Roi Cohen, leader of Lahav, a small business group, said on a radio program on Wednesday. “Go find another pocket!”

A cartoon in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper captured the feeling of dread with a family huddled in their living room amid a frightening-looking Covid-19 cell that entered through one window and a menacing urn falling from another.

What paved the way for the fourth election – and made Bennett and Saar see this as the time to try to end Netanyahu’s career – was the breathtaking collapse of the center-left anti-Netanyahu movement led by Benny Gantz , the former army chief who fought Netanyahu for a draw in three consecutive votes starting in April 2019.

After galvanizing the anti-Netanyahu voters behind his Blue and White party, Gantz broke his most fundamental campaign promise – that he would not join a government led by a prime minister under indictment – and entered a coalition led by Netanyahu. In return, he was promised the alternation of prime minister – Netanyahu would go first, and Gantz would get a turnaround next fall – a check that hardly anyone in Israel would think Gantz would be able to cash.

But if Gantz’s bright political future is now a reminder, anti-Netanyahu fervor has only grown, with weekly protests attracting thousands of participants and not just in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, but at bus stops and overpasses in distant places seen as territory of Netanyahu.

“There is real concern on the part of a significant portion of Likud voters,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a researcher and strategist. “Before, there was nowhere to go due to the leak of people who were sick from Netanyahu. Now, they really have interesting options. “

Saar, who was voted the most voted in the Likud primaries in 2008 and 2012 and mounted a failed contest in the primaries against Netanyahu a year ago, said in announcing his new party that the previous one had turned into a “personality cult” became a “tool for the personal interests” of the prime minister, “including issues related to his criminal trial”.

On Wednesday night, a longtime confidant of Netanyahu and government minister, Zeev Elkin, became the fourth Likud legislator to flee to Saar’s party, accusing Netanyahu of “destroying” Likud and putting his own needs ahead of those in the country.

Sima Kadmon, a Yediot columnist, said many Likud voters are tired of Netanyahu and perceive his actions – including promoting changes in the Israeli legal system – as motivated above all “by his desperate need to escape his judgment” .

“These traditional followers of Likud see the populism and dishonesty that govern Netanyahu’s actions,” said Kadmon. “They are looking for a more civilized government, both in style and in essence. Bennett and Saar provide this alternative. “

Bennett and Saar’s challenges would presumably also deprive Netanyahu of a campaign tactic: portraying his opponents as leftists spoiled by terrorists.

But Saar also brings skills that can be decisive in post-election negotiations crucial to forming a government coalition. A longtime whip from Likud, Saar said he orchestrated a skilful parliamentary maneuver on Monday night, in which Likud and Blue and White defectors emerged from their hiding places – some of them in their cars – at the last minute to vote against a Hourly buying measure for Netanyahu and Gantz reach an agreement to avoid, or at least delay, elections.

Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, suggested that Saar was skilled enough even to bring a left-wing party like Meretz into a coalition with him. “He has to do one thing, get Bibi out of there,” said Pfeffer. “If he takes Bibi, anything is possible.”

Then again, no one is known for getting rich by betting against Netanyahu. Tal Shalev, political writer for Walla News, said he had no trouble imagining Bennett or Saar ending up as minister of another government led by Netanyahu.

“If Gantz broke his promise,” she said, “why shouldn’t they?”