Analysis: Will split opposition hand Bibi victory at the polls?

It has been dubbed the most consequential election in Israel’s 70-year history, but, only two weeks since the firing gun was pulled on a 9 April poll, a series of bewildering moves have shaken the country’s political landscape.

The election – not officially due until November – was called on 24 December when the leaders of Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling right-wing coalition unanimously decided to dissolve the Knesset early. The decision came barely one month after the prime minister, shaken by the resignation of defence minister Avigdor Liberman and his party’s withdrawal from the coalition, fought off an attempt to stage a premature poll.

Few Israelis, however, will have been surprised by the prime minister’s rapid about-face: in his decade at the helm, he has shown an uncanny ability to outmanoeuvre opponents and save his political skin. If he is re-elected in April, Netanyahu will three months later surpass David Ben-Gurion, the founding prime minister of the Jewish state, as its longest-serving leader.

The polls indicate that – despite facing a plethora of corruption allegations – Netanyahu is poised to do just that. They show the national-religious bloc which the prime minister heads retaining its narrow majority over the centre, left and Arab opposition parties in the 120-seat Knesset.

The coalition’s dissolution was triggered by an internal row over legislation concerning the conscription of ultra-Orthodox young people into the military (many have traditionally been exempted from serving, but the Supreme Court has ruled the government’s previous efforts to tackle the contentious issue unconstitutional).

However, as has long been suspected, the real cause of the early elections is the prime minister’s deepening legal peril. The week before the decision, media reports suggested that state prosecutor’s office had recommended that the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, accept the recommendations of the police and indict Netanyahu in three separate corruption investigations. Among the reported planned charges are bribery and breach of trust.

Mandelblit was believed to be planning to announce his decision in the coming weeks. Netanyahu is gambling that the attorney general will hold off making an announcement in the politically sensitive pre-poll period, although it is reported that he will announce his decision next month.

As Reuven Hazan, a professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, suggested: “Obviously Netanyahu has realised that this is a serious threat, and the last thing he needs in the midst of an election campaign is the attorney general deciding to prosecute him. He wants to preempt this, he wants to win, he wants to turn around to the attorney general and say, ‘Before you decide to prosecute me, pay attention, the people of Israel have re-elected me for a fourth time … You can’t overturn the results of a democratic election.’”

Aside from vigorously asserting his innocence, Netanyahu has warned darkly of a conspiracy by the left and the media. He has also argued that because, if Mandelblit opts for an indictment, a months-long hearing would first be held in which the prime minister’s attorneys could put forward a defence, it would be unfair for the attorney general to make any decision known before the elections. “Don’t start a hearing before the election, if the hearing won’t be completed by the election,” Netanyahu said on a video posted on Facebook last weekend, before delivering a televised speech on Monday evening in which he demanded the right to directly confront his accusers.

Of course, opposition politicians will make the case that it would be unfair for Israelis to vote without knowing what charges may be levelled against the prime minister soon after the elections. The Washington Post has compared Mandelblit’s predicament to the “lose-lose decision” faced by former FBI director James Comey prior to the 2016 US presidential election.

That opposition, however, is currently hopelessly divided. Despite his long spell at the apex of Israeli politics, Netanyahu’s strength rests most upon the weakness of his opponents. His Likud party has never received more than one-quarter of the national vote, but has been able to form governments by marshalling the support of smaller right-wing nationalist and religious parties.

By contrast, the left and centrist vote is more evenly spread across a series of parties – the number of which has continued to proliferate since the election was called.

Last week, Labor leader Avi Gabbay unceremoniously ended his party’s alliance with former foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s centrist Hatnua party. The surprise move brings to an end the Zionist Union which was formed between the two parties prior to the 2015 elections. The alliance saw Labor’s best performance in a general election since Ehud Barak led it to victory in 2009.

Already struggling in the polls, Gabbay’s decision appears to have caused a – at least short-term – further deterioration of Labor’s position. On Thursday, a poll showed it falling from 18 Knesset seats in 2015 to seven or eight.

Relations between Gabbay and Livni have seemed tense for months. However, the immediate cause of the rupture appears to be the formation of a new centrist party, Israel Resilience, by former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz late last month.

Gantz follows a long line of military men who have entered politics, some of whom – such as Yitzhak Rabin and Barak – have proved politically popular. Gantz’s new party has swiftly risen to second place in the polls, taking around 13 percent, although critics note that the former general has done little so far to outline his views, beyond vague pledges to “strengthen the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of the Zionist vision”. However, Gantz’s squeaky-clean image will provide a sharp contrast with that of the scandal-ridden Netanyahu. Polls also suggest that, were he to team up with fellow centrist Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, the alliance could pose a real threat to the prime minister, and come within one seat of Likud.

It has been speculated that Gantz’s sudden rise may have been a key factor in the implosion of the Zionist Union. The former IDF chief is said to have rebuffed attempts by Livni to woo him into a broader, anti-Netanyahu alliance. Gabbay, who has indicated his desire for a similar goal, is thought to have ditched Livni in the hope of making an alliance with Labor more attractive to Gantz.

However, while Livni indicated that she would not expect to lead any new alliance, neither Gabbay, nor any of Gantz’s other potential centrist suitors, have signalled such a willingness. A united centrist bloc, it has been calculated, could win 40 percent of the vote – easily besting Likud – and defeat Netanyahu.

Gantz isn’t the only newcomer in the crowded centrist field. Moshe Ya’alon, Netanyahu’s former defence minister and, like Gantz, a former military officer, has started a new party, and Orly Levi-Abuksis’ Gesher party is a new player this time (Levi-Abuksis was elected under Liberman’s banner in 2015 but quit to sit as an independent). Like her father, the veteran former Likud foreign minister, David Levy, Levi-Abuksis is attempting to woo working-class Israelis with a left-leaning economic platform.

The new entrants join Lapid and Moshe Kahlon – who helped shake up the 2013 and 2015 elections respectively by establish insurgent parties. Kahlon’s Kulanu party is the most moderate member of Netanyahu’s government and is the most likely, were the arithmetic correct, to bolt the alliance.

Netanyahu has adopted a dismissive tone when asked about these developments. “I don’t get involved in how the left divides its votes,” the prime minister suggests. “What matters to me is that the right will form the next government and keep leading Israel.”

Nonetheless, the right-wing has not been without fireworks of its own. Last week also saw two of Netanyahu’s current ministers, Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, quit their Jewish Home party to establish a new party, the New Right. It will remain highly hawkish on security issues and negotiations with the Palestinians – the pair support the settlers and oppose a Palestinian state – but the new party aims to be less dependent on the religious right than the Jewish Home. The Jewish Home has been stymied by its inability to appeal to many secular Jewish voters. Shaked and Bennett are said to be in talks with Israel’s former ambassador to the UN and to Britain, Ron Prosor, about running for the Knesset on its slate.

Aside from his potential legal difficulties, Netanyahu faces two, seemingly paradoxical but interconnected, political dilemmas.

Likud’s current strong performance in the polls and the – at present – seeming inevitability of Netanyahu’s re-election is not all good news for the prime minister. If he looks like a shoo-in, Likud-leaning voters may decide to cast a ballot instead for one of the other right-wing parties. At the same time, a splintering of the right-wing vote – already split by Shaked and Bennett’s decision last week – across too many small parties might prevent some of the bigger players passing the 3.25 percent electoral threshold required to gain seats in the Knesset. After polling day, Netanyahu will need such parties to assemble a workable majority for his coalition.

But Netanyahu also knows that the stronger Likud’s vote, the better his chances of surviving a decision to indict him. He has already made clear that he will not resign if he’s indicted (there is no legal obligation for a sitting prime minister to do so). However, at least one of his current coalition partners – Kahlon – has previously suggested that he would not support Netanyahu remaining as prime minister in such a circumstance.

For Netanyahu, even victory on polling day may not bring to an end his battle for survival.