Bibi or not Bibi. The continuity of Prime Minister Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who has been in power for 12 consecutive years and head of the traditional conservative Likud party, is on the line when Israelis go to the polls again – for the fourth time in just two years – Tuesday (23).
The vote will be a personal referendum on the longest-serving prime minister since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, who faces three corruption charges in court.
Netanyahu is either loved or hated, and no one remains indifferent to him. For Jonathan Rynhold, professor of political science at Bar Ilan University, traditional ideological issues escape this election, which boils down to “the character, the priorities and the capacity of the Prime Minister”.
According to Rynhold, the Israelis are still under the trauma of the Second Lebanon War (2006), conflicts with the Islamic group Hamas and possible attacks. “All the people want is calm. She accepts any leader capable of managing the conflict, because she no longer believes in big solutions ”.
Thus, polls and analysts point out that Likud, Netanyahu’s party, should receive the most votes. In favor of Bibi – the most astute Israeli leader in decades – is the great popular approval for the conduct of the coronavirus pandemic in Israel.
With more than 50% of the population fully vaccinated and restrictive measures being imposed, the number of people infected, hospitalized and killed by Covid-19 has plummeted across the country, and life is slowly returning to something like normal. Netanyahu, who was directly involved in the advance vaccine purchase, is held responsible for the success, although some say he turned a blind eye to political allies, such as the ultra-Orthodox, who took the time to comply with sanitary instructions. .
He also flaunts the signing of Abraham’s so-called diplomatic normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, in practice an anti-Iranian alliance that was negotiated by former US President Donald Trump.
The question is whether these successes will be enough to form a viable government that will keep him in power – something Netanyahu desperately needs to try to gain immunity and get rid of possible corruption convictions. Few believe that the current Prime Minister will be able to form a stable and lasting coalition. The feeling is that it will be a déjà vu of the three previous votes, from April and September 2019 and March 2020, which led to fragile and temporary governments.
There are those who are already talking about a fifth election in six months before the polls even open. The reason for this is the spread of voting intentions in new and numerous parties, which will make it difficult to form a 61 block out of 120 seats in the Knesset, the Parliament of Jerusalem. Channel 12 political journalist Dafna Liel summed it up well: “If we continue like this, it will be difficult to solve this sudoku”.
“The general campaign is for everyone to disqualify everyone and say they won’t join each other. Because we have a coalition system, it’s more complicated than a game of chess, ”said Aviv Bushinsky, veteran journalist and former Netanyahu adviser.
This time around, however, there is one element that can make a difference in the great stalemate that has become Israeli policy. The camp of those who want the prime minister out has won over members of the right, of whom Bibi has been the leading representative since 2009 – and in the three years he was also prime minister, in the 1990s.
If previously the anti-Bibi bloc was mainly formed by names turned to the left, there are now even right-handed people who are fed up with the cult of Netanyahu by many of their supporters. They say the prime minister is only thinking of getting rid of the accusations and that he may even harm democracy by doing so.
The main one is Guideon Saar, who was a member of the Knesset for Likud from 2003 to 2014. He returned to the party in 2019 and attempted to overthrow Netanyahu. He fails and then forms a new legend, Nova Esperança, who is essentially a “Likud 2”, but without Bibi.
“The big change we see in this fourth election is the split of the right,” said Gayil Talshir, a political science expert at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “A substantial part of the right is saying ‘yes, we are on the right, but we want to replace Netanyahu’.”
The Saar can also attract center-left voters whose main objective is to remove the current prime minister from power. More than 40% of the opponent’s potential voters, for example, are in favor of the “two states for two peoples” solution, even if he himself is opposed to it. Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yemina coalition (right, in Hebrew), is another right-wing who would like to impeach Netanyahu. A former ally and yet another disaffection of the Prime Minister, he might surprise by supporting a government without Likud.
This electoral round will also be marked by the possible disappearance of names and major parties, mainly the opposition. The main one is the current Alternative Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, of centrist Blue and White, who two years ago appeared to be the hope of the anti-Bibi bloc.
However, after forming a coalition with Likud in 2020, due to the crisis generated by the coronavirus pandemic, he disappointed most of his constituency and became almost useless.
Two other names on the left, the traditional Labor Party and the Meretz, are struggling to get represented in the Knesset. In this dispute, they are cannibalizing themselves instead of doing what many on the left would prefer: join forces against Netanyahu. The Labor Party – home of the country’s founding fathers, such as David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin – still features in the polls, but there is a risk of not exceeding the minimum number of votes (3 , 25%) for the first time in 73 years.
Analysts have divided the parties into two blocs: the pro-Bibi, with a projection of 51 seats, and the anti-Bibi, with 56. Both would need the seats with two acronyms, Yemina and United Arab List, which could to be joined on either side, to reach the key number of 61 and form the government.
On election days, final cards can set the tone for what will actually happen at the polls.
Netanyahu, a specialist in pulling rabbits out of a hat at the last minute, surprised when he approached Arab leaders after having for years assured that he would never make an alliance with this minority in the country (21% ). He traveled to Arab villages to demand direct votes for Likud or the Joint List, a party that split after supporting the Prime Minister’s conservative agenda.
“This time Netanyahu is trying to legitimize an alliance with the Arabs as a sign to other Jewish parties that he has this option. It is a very radical change. We can see Arabs supporting Netanyahu from outside the coalition or even within the government, in the ministries, ”says Talshir of the Hebrew University.
While fondling the Arab electorate, Likud members have attempted in recent days to undermine the legitimacy of the Central Election Commission, claiming that the body turns a blind eye to fraud at polling stations in Arab towns. Some equate this strategy with fake news from supporters of former President Donald Trump that there were irregularities in the last US election.
It is also worth noting the percentage of undecided – around 10%. Most of them may not even go to the polls, as voting is not compulsory in the country. Israel has high participation rates in parliamentary elections. In the latter, in March 2020, it recorded 71.5%. This time around, however, there is political fatigue in the face of an almost intractable political conundrum.
“Apparently 43% of Israelis will decide to vote on or just before the election,” Bushinsky said. “This is one of the reasons we can’t predict the end of this crazy fourth election.”