Analysis: Can the Israeli left beat Bibi?

Israel appears to be on the brink of new elections – the fourth round in less than two years – as its centre-left weighs options to prevent Benjamin Netanyahu emerging victorious.

Last week, the Knesset passed the first reading of a bill to dissolve itself. Three more votes will be needed before the bill becomes law and the parliament is dissolved. Crucially, however, the opposition parties were joined by the centrist Blue and White party and its allies in the Labor party.

Israeli voters went to the polls in three elections which produced indecisive outcomes in April 2019, September 2019 and March 2020 before Netanyahu formed a “unity government” earlier this year which brought together elements of his previous right-wing coalition with Blue and White and Labor.

But the coalition – which is due to see the Blue and White leader Benny Gantz become prime minister under a so-called “rotation agreement” next November – has been wracked with infighting and suspicion since its formation.

That infighting and suspicion have now come to settle on the passage of a state budget. Under the terms of the coalition deal, the government was supposed to pass a two-year budget covering 2020 and 2021 by the summer. Netanyahu, however, reneged on the agreement and wants to pass two separate budgets covering each year. The earlier summer deadline was pushed to 23 December. If a budget isn’t passed by that date, the Knesset is automatically dissolved and elections held on 23 March.

The battle over the budget revolves around raw politics. Gantz and his allies suspect that Netanyahu is seeking to exploit a loophole in the coalition agreement which would allow him to engineer a crisis over the budget next year, bring the government down and avoid turning over the premiership. Under the deal, the only scenario – except where Blue and White itself brings down the government – under which Gantz doesn’t become prime minister is if a budget is not passed by the deadline.

“A schemer and a liar”

Although Gantz held budget talks with finance minister Israel Katz on Monday, the pair did not appear to find a way out of the current deadlock. While Gantz has left open the door to further negotiations which might save the government – “it’s either an immediate budget or elections,” he declared at the weekend – his relationship with the prime minister appears close to breaking point. Ahead of the Knesset vote last Tuesday, he declared: “Netanyahu committed to pass a budget in August, and naturally did not stand by his word. He promised that it would happen in December and is not following through. Does anyone believe him anymore? Millions of citizens stand heartbroken watching businesses they’ve built over lifetimes fall apart in front of their eyes. Business are closing, hundreds of thousands of unemployed don’t have the slightest ray of hope, while whole families are struggling to survive. And the State of Israel has no budget.”

Since then, Gantz, who serves as defence minister, has further toughened his rhetoric, on Saturday branding Netanyahu “a schemer and a liar”. Referencing the prime minister’s corruption trial, which steps up a gear in the new year, Gantz suggested: “Even though I knew who I was getting into government with, I thought he too had limits he wouldn’t pass,” Gantz said. “I’m afraid Netanyahu is more concerned with his trial than his country.” He has also argued that “if there was no trial, there would be a budget”.

Netanyahu’s critics have long believed he wants new elections next summer to free himself of Blue and White ministers (who, among other departments, run the Justice Ministry) and possibly pass legislation which would grant him immunity from prosecution. The prime minister is thought to be wary of spring elections, before a covid-19 vaccine arrives and the economy can begin to revive.

Polls indicate that, while Netanyahu’s Likud party is likely to emerge with the most seats in any election, thanks to the prime minister’s pandemic-hit popularity, it is likely to lose ground compared to the last occasion on which Israelis voted earlier in the year. Netanyahu also faces a potential further – possibly major – complication with the news today that Gideon Sa’ar, a former cabinet minister, is to quit Likud and form a new party. Sa’ar, who challenged Netanyahu for the leadership before the last elections, is reportedly taking a number of Likud MKs with him, and is said to be open to working with other parties.

But Gantz’s decision to enter a coalition with Netanyahu – something he had repeatedly vowed never to do – also came at a heavy price for the former IDF chief. It first split the centrist alliance he had forged with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and former Likud defence minister Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem – which both opted to remain in opposition – and then led to a sharp decline in Blue and White’s popularity. Indeed, polls show that both Netanyahu and Gatz evoke deep distrust among Israelis, with 60 percent of voters saying each has very low or moderately low credibility.

Old alliances

But a spring election may well see new contenders enter the race and a reordering of political alliances as is often the case in the run-up to Israeli elections. After their fractious divorce earlier this year, the prospects of Lapid and Gantz reuniting seem weak. “We’ll be the biggest party and the axis around which the next government is formed,” the defence minister confidently predicted last week. “There’s no possibility of working with Lapid in one faction. I need to lead the [center-left] camp, Lapid can’t form a government,” Gantz added, insisting that “only I can form a unity government. I’m willing to cooperate with anyone who will join us; I’m going ahead and people will follow me”.

Lapid, however, maintains that one centre-left party would be formed and he will lead it. “We’re the bigger party, and we’ve proved that only we can be trusted not to join forces with Netanyahu,” the opposition leader argued. He added that while he may meet with Gantz, the latest polls give Yesh Atid nearly twice the level of support as Blue and White. At the same time, Ya’alon has announced that Telem will run separately from Yesh Atid. “He feels he can attract more votes by going alone,” Lapid explained. “I think it’s a mistake, but a legitimate one.”

Gantz and Lapid’s refusal to cooperate may not turn out to be disastrous for the centre-left. A Channel 12 poll released last week showed that if Yesh Atid and Blue and White linked up, they would win 25 seats, six behind Likud but beating Yamina with its projected 21 MKs. The hard-right alliance, which is led by former defence minister Naftali Bennett, has surged during the pandemic as Netanyahu’s popularity has sunk. (Bennett, a former coalition partner of Likud, chose not to join the unity government this spring). But, if they choose to run alone, Yesh Atid and Blue and White may win a higher combined total: with Lapid’s party gaining 17 seats, while Gantz’s pockets 10. Overall, that poll showed, the parties in their current alliances would see Likud on 30 seats, Yamina 21, Yesh Atid 17, the Israeli-Arab Joint list 12, and Blue and White 10. The ultra-Orthodox UTJ and Shas would each win eight seats, while Yisrael Beitenu (led by the anti-Netanyahu maverick right-winger Avigdor Liberman) would win seven, as would the left-wing Meretz party. Labor and the far-right Jewish Home party would fail to cross the threshold.

Labor pains

Labor has been hit hard by both its decision to join Gantz in government and the formation of Blue and White itself. The party, which, under Yitzhak Herzog secured 24 seats in the 2015 general election and came close to ejecting Netanyahu from power, has spent several years in flux. In the September 2019 general election, it allied with a fledgling centre-right party Gesher led by Orly Levy, and in March 2020 the two parties allied with Meretz. Levy then abandoned Labor and backed Netanyahu becoming prime minister immediately after the elections. When party leader Amir Peretz decided to follow Blue and White into government in April, Labor’s small Knesset faction was split. Itzik Shmuli opted to take up a cabinet post as Minister of Welfare, while Merav Michaeli fought a vigorous rearguard action against the party’s abandonment of its pledge not to join a Netanyahu-led government. Michaeli has subsequently opposedPeretz’s effort to merge Labor with Blue and White. But Blue and White has also posed something of an existential threat to Labor. As Oru Wertman, a researcher at the University of Haifa’s National Security Studies Centre, wrote last week: “Since Herzog was ousted as chairman in 2017, the Labor party has failed to be an alternative to Netanyahu and the Likud. There is no doubt that the establishment of the Blue and White Party in its unified version, which was in fact a genetic duplication of the Labor party of the 1990s, crushed Labor and took its place in the landscape of Israeli politics.”

Saviours on the horizon?

Now, though, the centre-left is eyeing two potential saviours. Ron Huldai, a popular Labor mayor of Tel Aviv, has been suggesting since the spring that he would stand in early elections. “What is happening in Israel terrifies me. I can’t stand by,” he told the Kan public broadcaster in May. The mayor, an outspoken critic of Netanyahu, was slightly injured when he joined a demonstration against the prime minister in October. Last week’s Channel 12 poll showed that, if he chose to form an alliance with Lapid, he would boost the centrist party from 17 to 21 seats.

But much recent speculation has focused on whether Huldai, a former fighter pilot and a commander in the Israeli Air Force, might instead join up with the former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot (pictured). Eisenkot has hinted that he may through his hat into the political ring since stepping down from the military last year. He has made clear his opposition to Netanyahu’s Likud party, adopted a less hostile stance towards the Iran nuclear deal than the prime minister, and is credited with the IDF’s restrained response to the 2015-6 “knife intifada”.

Last week, a survey conducted by pollster Camil Fuchs showed a new Eisenkot-led centrist party – which was envisaged to also include Huldai and the former foreign minister Tzipi Livni – picking up 15 seats. In such a scenario, Likud would win 27 seats, Yamina 21, Yesh Atid 14 and Blue and White eight.

Eisenkot has also been linked to Ya’alon, another former IDF chief of staff. The two men are said to believe that, together, they could draw enough support from Netanyahu to deny the prime minister victory. Indeed, last week’s Camil Fuchs poll indicated that, with Eisenkot in the race, the pro-Netanyahu parties would fall from 65 seats in the Knesset to 61 perilously close to being unable to form a government.

But Eisenkot is thus far keeping his cards close to his chest. “I have inquiries from many parties and I meet with and talk to everyone,” he was quoted as saying at the weekend. “Nothing has been agreed yet. The decision on whether to join political life and with whom will be only be made when the election date is set.”

As Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer suggested this week, given the failure of three former IDF chiefs – Blue and White’s Gantz, Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi – to topple Netanyahu in the three elections during 2019-20, the current fixation on Eisenkot may appear strange. “The Israeli centre-left simply can’t wean itself from its addiction to saviour-generals,” he wrote this week. “There’s a compelling logic, after all. Netanyahu has built his enduring political success on branding the ‘left’ … as weak defeatists and Arab-loving traitors. Who better to restore the opposition’s patriotic and fighting credentials than a man who led Israel’s military?”

Pfeffer believes, however, that Eisenkot’s personal story may have more appeal than Gantz to “soft right” Mizrahi voters, who traditionally support Netanyahu but who might be persuaded to abandon the prime minister. “His parents were immigrants from Morocco and he grew up in working-class neighbourhoods in Tiberias and Eilat. Some of his close family became ultra-Orthodox over the years. Unlike most of his predecessors who served in the special forces or the elite Paratroopers Brigade, he served in a regular infantry battalion in the Golani Brigade.”

But there is, perhaps, a deeper, more structural (as opposed to ideological) reason why the centre-left has repeatedly struggled to displace Netanyahu over the past decade. As the Times of Israel’s Haviv Rettig Gur noted this week, the centre-left has proved far more fickle and less forgiving of its leaders than Israel’s right. “There is a deep-seated culture of political loyalty and solidarity on the Israeli right, and Netanyahu is only its latest beneficiary,” he wrote. His Likud party has had just four leaders since Israel’s founding in 1948. By contrast,  Labor has seen 11 leadership changes since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995 – an average of 2.3 years a term. Moreover, as Labor’s support has dropped, centre-left voters have swung behind, and then abandoned, an ever-changing cast of parties: Kadima, Yesh Atid, Kulanu and, most recently, Blue and White. “The centre-left is unmoored, disloyal, and easily disappointed,” Rettig Gur argued. This has had damaging consequences. “Netanyahu would not be able to hold the country permanently suspended at the precipice of a new election, delaying a state budget for a year and preventing the government’s most fundamental work from getting done in a bid to cling to his seat – if Gantz’s support hadn’t evaporated as soon as he joined the new coalition,” he wrote. Of course, some argue that it is the betrayal of their promises which cause centre-left voters to jump from political ship. As Rettig Gur suggested: “Both arguments may be true, a chicken-and-egg conundrum that is likely to continue plaguing the Israeli centre-left for some time to come. The fickleness of voters drives a grab-what-you-can culture among leaders, which in turn drives voters to seek out better pastures.”

If Israeli voters head to the polls early next year, that alleged fickleness may see those opposed to Netanyahu rallying to yet another new standard-bearer.