Israeli elections down to two men

  • Paula
Israeli elections are still three months away, which is a lifetime in Israel. So much can happen between now and then that when election day arrives on 9 April, much of what is written here could be obsolete.
by PAULA SLIER | Jan 17, 2019

As things stand now, however, the elections will boil down to two people: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s running for his political survival, and Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

It wasn’t so long ago that Netanyahu insisted that he wasn’t going to call for early elections. He argued that Israel was facing existential challenges that only he and his government could surmount.

Then suddenly at the end of last month, he announced he was bringing the elections forward by eight months.

Most Israelis agree this was an attempt to put pressure on the attorney general, who needs to decide whether he will indict the prime minister or not, and if so, on which charges. The issue has morphed into a political one.

Mandelblit is doomed if he does, doomed if he doesn’t. He must also decide when to act. If he postpones his decision to indict Netanyahu until after the elections, Israelis will not be happy. It means they will go to the polls without knowing if the candidate they are potentially voting for faces charges of bribery, lesser charges, or no charges at all.

But should Mandelblit decide to indict Netanyahu before the elections, he will also be attacked. The premier and his right-wing support base will accuse him of meddling and trying to disgrace Netanyahu ahead of the polls.

As if this is not enough of a headache, there’s been a major upheaval among Israeli political parties recently. Because of the proportional system for electing parliament, there has never been a clear majority for any one party in the country.

For decades, Labour (a social democratic and Zionist party from which all Israeli prime ministers until 1977 originated) and Likud (a centre-right political party chaired by Netanyahu) dominated the political scene. But in recent years – and months – they’ve splintered into smaller, more ideologically-driven factions.

On the left, the Zionist Union (an alliance between Labour and the Hatnuah party, headed by Tzipi Livni) broke up. On the right, Bayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home) ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked left the party they’d established to set up a new one called Hayemin Hehadash (New Right).

They’re hoping to take votes away from Netanyahu, but the increasing divisions might mean that Likud is the only right-wing party certain to meet the electoral threshold of 3.25% of votes. The creation of centrist parties has further split the political playing field.

If there is one politician who might give Netanyahu a run for his money, it’s former Israeli Army Chief of Staff General Benny Gantz. He’s running almost neck-and-neck with the premier, polling number two (38%) behind Netanyahu (41%) in popularity.

At the end of December, Gantz formed a new political party called Hosen Yisrael (Israel Resilience Party), but at the time of writing, he had still not publicly stated his position on various issues. History has shown that Israelis rally behind generals when they’re in the army, but as soon as they step into the political arena, they lose popularity. No doubt, once Gantz presents his platform, he will too.

As things currently stand, the polls also predict that the next parliament will be comprised of parties currently in Netanyahu’s coalition. Gantz is likely to be watching how things unfold before he makes his move as he’d rather be in the next government as opposed to being pushed into the opposition.

The only person who can realistically, therefore, stop Netanyahu from winning a fifth term in office is the attorney general. But he’s already dragged his feet for months, so it seems unlikely he’ll rush to intervene in coming weeks. Certainly, this is what Netanyahu is banking on.

On the other hand, Mandelblit has said that, it is “an obligation to decide” on a course of action pre-election so that voters have the necessary information. So, who knows what will happen.

Assuming that Netanyahu wins the election, his power will be severely diminished if he’s forced to fight the charges as a sitting prime minister. In such a scenario, it’s unlikely he’ll survive for long.

For now, the country is in full election mode, and candidates are vying for airtime. It’s highly unlikely that they’ll take the looming indictments against Netanyahu out of their campaign speeches. But the attorney general needs to make sure that the campaigns are taken out of all discussions regarding the indictments.


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