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Israel - Knesset Election - 23 March 2021

The Israeli electorate is deeply polarised with supporters hailing Netanyahu, 71, as “King Bibi”, and opponents holding up placards calling him “Crime Minister”. Israeli voters headed back to the ballot box on 23 March 2021 for yet another referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu, after three elections in less than a year changed neither Israel’s prime minister nor the generally conservative and religious makeup of its government. Four parties — Gantz’s centrist Blue and White, the right-wing Religious Zionist, the left-wing Meretz and Labor — are each polling barely above the four-seat threshold needed to enter the Knesset. After Netanyahu signed a power-sharing a year earlier with his chief rival, Gen. Benny Gantz, he took every possible step to delay his departure date, which was agreed upon for November of 2021. Infighting over the government’s agenda and a dispute over the budget led to the collapse of the national unity government in December 2020. Observers expected turnout to be lower than in the last three rounds of balloting simply because of election fatigue. The high percentages of undecided voters a few days before election day was unusual. A channel 12 poll showed 10% of Israelis remain undecided, which translates into 12 seats. Another poll indicated that at least 36% will make their preferred choice on Election Day.

Israel would hold a snap election in March after parliament failed on 22 December 2020 to meet a deadline to pass a budget, triggering a ballot presenting new challenges for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Campaigning in Israel's fourth parliamentary election in two years gets underway with Netanyanu facing public anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and while he is engaged in a corruption trial, the first against an Israeli prime minister.

Gantz had demanded that the government create a budget for 2020 and 2021, to resume a semblance of stability to Israel. However, Netanyahu refused to endorse a budget for 2021. Gantz was reportedly expected to succeed Netanyahu in the prime minister role in November 2021, as part of an agreement when they formed the unity government this year. Both parties ultimately tried to pass a bill that would give them more time to present a budget. The parliament rejected the bill, triggering a political crisis.

The Netanyahu-Gantz unity government, agreed on in April 2020, was in part aimed at providing Israel with desperately needed stability following the worst political crisis in its history, and as the coronavirus pandemic was gathering pace. Netanyahu was to serve as prime minister for the first half of the three-year deal, with Gantz taking over in November 2021. The deal included several provisions that would have automatically triggered the collapse of the coalition, including a failure to pass a budget.

By mid-2020 the Israeli government was struggling to find a solution to current unemployment and the Covid-19 pandemic, but another crisis was knocking on the door. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition partner Benny Gantz can't agree on a budget, the country may be forced into a fourth election in just over a year.

Two surveys conducted in August 2020 by Israel’s public broadcasters, Kan and Channel 13 News, revealed that the rightwing Hredi bloc would garner the majority of Knesset, an unprecedent rise for the ultraorthodox party. Two new opinion polls declared that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party would lose its electoral prowess should another election be held in Israel now. Conducted by the Kan Public broadcaster, as well as Channel 13 News, the surveys concluded that the far-right Yamina alliance would enjoy a significant increase in its vote share at the expense of Netanyahu's Likud.

Neither Netanyahu, nor his rival-turned-ally, Benny Gantz's political visions had resonated with many right-leaning voters. "Amid the pandemic, Netanyahu failed to realise its occupation plan of Palestinian lands and disappointed his supporters. Besides, his alliance with Benny Gantz who was accused by him of not loving Israel for a year also disappointed the right-wing.

As the polls suggest, the rightwing Haredi bloc would gain the majority in Knesset by having 63 seats, while the centre-left bloc would take 49, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu will have eight, according to the Channel 13 poll. Public broadcaster Kan also gave the highest seat tally of 62 to the far-right and 51 to the center-left. Like Channel 13, Kan also gave eight seats to Yisrael Beiteinu.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud got 29 seats according to Channel 13, and 30 as per Kan’s poll. Led by the former Defence Minister, Naftali Bennett, the Yamina party which previously won seven seats in Knesset, would increase the number of its seats by 12 - this according to Channel 13’s poll and 8 according to Kan. Current Defence Minister Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, which won 33 seats in the elections in March, also dropped below its former partners by gaining 8 projected seats from Channel 13 and 12 from Kan.

The new alternatives — referring to the right-wing parties — have a potential to increase their votes because of Netanyahu and Gantz’s recent activities. In May 3030, Yamina was quick to announce that the party refused to join the governing coalition, calling it a "left-wing government headed by Netanyahu." The party's statement said that it was preparing for "the day after Netanyahu."

Both of the polls concluded that the Joint List of Arab-majority parties remained in third position, and according to Channel 13’s survey, the Joint List is projected to have 15 seats, while Kan’s poll suggests 16.

On 01 December 2020 Netanyahu’s chief governing partner Benny Gantz said that his party will vote for an opposition bill to dissolve parliament – a move that could force a fourth election in under two years. Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party is currently the key partner in a precarious coalition led by Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud. That coalition – which was only formed after three bitterly fought elections between Netanyahu and Gantz failed to produce a clear winner – was plagued from the outset by infighting and recriminations. Gantz, a former army chief serving as defence minister, said Netanyahu’s refusal to support a budget proposal made clear the prime minister wanted to take Israel back to the polls.

Once the budget is complete, Netanyahu would be forced to commit to their rotation agreement next year and yield power to Gantz. But if the government collapses, Netanyahu would remain as prime minister throughout the three-month election campaign and until a new coalition is formed. Fearing a new election is inevitable, Gantz appears to have concluded it would be best for the vote to take place as soon as possible, when Netanyahu’s corruption trial is under way and with COVID-19 still out of control.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, would benefit by further delaying the budget talks. That would give more time for the coronavirus vaccine to arrive and the economy to begin recovering next year, presumably giving him a better chance in elections. Opinion polls predict that Netanyahu’s Likud party would still emerge as the largest party in parliament in the next election, but with far fewer seats than it currently has.

Israel's longest-serving leader will also have to contend with a new rival from the right, Gideon Saar, a defector from Netanyahu's Likud party who an opinion poll on Israel's Kan public TV on 22 December 2020 showed was drawing even with him. Netanyahu, who has denied any criminal wrongdoing, and the current defence minister, centrist politician Benny Gantz, established a unity government in May after three inconclusive elections held since April 2019. But they have been locked in a dispute over passage of a national budget key to implementing a deal in which Gantz was to have taken over from Netanyahu in November 2021.

An election in March put Netanyahu at a disadvantage over his rivals, as he was set to appear in court in February for his corruption trial. A vote in June would have been more advantageous for the PM as it would have given time to Israel to receive the vaccine and recover economically.

Thousands of Israelis rallied outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Jerusalem residence Saturday 20 March 2021 to protest his policies and premiership, days before a general election that could see the long-standing leader removed from power. Netanyahu, 71, in power for a record 12 consecutive years, was hoping to remain in office following Israel's fourth election in less than two years on March 23. His detractors accused him of corruption and say his management of the coronavirus pandemic, including protracted lockdowns, battered the economy and contributed to job losses.

Exit polls indicated there was no clear winner in Israel’s election, leaving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fate uncertain and signaling continued political deadlock. The polls on Israel’s three main TV stations late Tuesday showed Netanyahu and his religious and nationalist allies, as well as diverse array of opponents, both falling short of a parliamentary majority. That could set the stage for weeks of paralysis and even an unprecedented fifth consecutive election. The exit polls conducted by Channels 11, 12 and 13 were nearly identical, showing Netanyahu and his allies with 53-54 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament. His opponents were projected to win 59, and Naftali Bennett’s far-right Yamina party was projected to win 7-8.

Netanyahu has a May 4 deadline to build a governing coalition. After that, a group of small parties that oppose him hope to be able to cobble together an alternative government. He has been courting a small Islamist faction that has emerged as kingmaker, and a pair of former allies who now head small rival parties. But so far he does not have a clear path to a new government.

Netanyahu began pushing for a new law to allow the direct election of the nation’s leader as a way to break the country’s two-year political deadlock. The proposal could guarantee Netanyahu another term as prime minister after he and his religious and nationalist allies failed to win a clear majority in March 23 elections. It also would allow him to stay in power while facing a lengthy corruption trial. “There is a solution to the political stalemate, and the vast majority of the public supports it,” Netanyahu told lawmakers from his Likud party 19 April 2021. He said a direct vote for prime minister would avoid “assembling absurd governments” and would allow Israeli citizens to choose a leader in “snap elections, without dissolving parliament.”

Netanyahu's deadline for forming a new Israeli government expired early on 05 May 2021, with the country's longest-serving prime minister having failed to break more than two years of political deadlock. There was also no guarantee that, after the conservative incumbent was unable to assemble a new coalition, parties outside his caretaker government could bridge their differences and unseat him. Netanyahu, 71, has been in office since 2009 and also served for three years in the 1990s. He has been fighting to hold the helm through four inconclusive elections since 2019 and is on trial for criminal corruption charges he denies.

With the midnight deadline having passed, President Reuven Rivlin could assign the coalition-building task to another member of parliament. That was widely expected to be Yair Lapid, 57, whose centrist Yesh Atid party placed second to Netanyahu's Likud in the March 23 vote. Netanyahu's bloc of right-wing and Jewish religious parties failed to win a majority, but so did a camp aiming to oust him, which would have to include his right-wing rivals as well as traditional left-wing and centrist opponents. Both sides have courted the support of parties representing Israel's around 20% Arab minority, potentially giving them say over a Cabinet for the first time in decades.

Rivlin spent 05 May 2021 consulting with all of the parties elected to Israel’s parliament and announced that he believed Lapid has the best chance of forming a coalition.The former finance minister had the pledged support of 56 of parliament’s 120 members – still short of a majority. Lapid's new Yesh Atid party is popular with secular, middle-class voters and has been critical of Netanyahu’s close ties with ultra-Orthodox parties. Lapid was backed by much of the so-called “change” bloc, receiving endorsements from left-wing Labor, centre-left Meretz and from the hawkish but fiercely anti-Netanyahu Yisrael Beitenu party of Avigdor Lieberman. Blue and White, led by Defence Minister Benny Gantz, also backed Lapid again. New Hope, a party of Likud defectors that holds six Knesset seats, endorsed Lapid after abstaining during Rivlin’s last round of consultations. Former Netanyahu ally turned rival Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yamina party, controlled just seven seats in parliament, but he has emerged as a kingmaker by carrying the votes Lapid would need to secure a parliamentary majority. Lapid pledged to rotate as prime minister with Naftali Bennett.

A poll released on 05 May 2021 by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that 70 percent of Israelis believe the coalition talks will fail and a new vote will be called. Israel previously held three direct elections for prime minister, in 1996, 1999 and 2001. But the system was scrapped due to widespread dissatisfaction and the country reverted to its current system of elections for party lists of candidates. People in Israel were extremely tired and fed up of this never-ending saga. There had been a non-functioning government for two years – with all sorts of crises, and emergencies, the lack of budget. There are impacts from this and people want to see it resolved.

Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party that finished second to Netanyahu's right-wing Likud in an inconclusive March 23 national ballot, faced a deadline 02 June 2021 from Israel's president to announce a new government. Lapid's chances of success rested largely with far-right party leader Naftali Bennett, a former defence chief whose Yamina party's six seats in the 120-member parliament were enough to give him the status of kingmaker. Bennett threw his support on 30 May 2021 behind a "government of change" in Israel to unseat Netanyahu, in what would be the end of a political era. "It's my intention to do my utmost in order to form a national unity government along with my friend Yair Lapid, so that, God willing, together we can save the country from a tailspin and return Israel to its course,'' Bennett said. Bennett's decision could enable opposition chief Lapid to put together a coalition of right-wing, centrist and leftist parties and hand Netanyahu his first election defeat since 1999.

“A government like this will succeed only if we work together as a group,” Bennett, said, adding that everyone “will need to postpone fulfilling all their dreams. We will focus on what can be done, instead of fighting all day on what’s impossible”.

Under a prospective power-sharing deal, Bennett would replace Netanyahu, the 71-year-old head of the Likud party, as prime minister and later give way to centrist Lapid in a rotation agreement. The new prospective coalition’s diverse members would have little in common apart from the desire to end the 12-year run of Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, now on trial over corruption charges that he denies. An anti-Netanyahu alliance would be fragile and require outside backing by Arab members of parliament who oppose much of Bennett’s agenda, which includes more settlement building in the occupied West Bank and its partial annexation. It would be expected to focus on the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, while setting aside issues on which members disagree, such as the role of religion in society and Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid informed the country’s president 02 June 2021 that he can form a coalition government, a move that would bring an end to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 years in power. "I am honored to inform you that I have managed to form a government. The government will be a rotation government, in accordance with clause 13a in the Basic Law on the Government. I will lead it with MK Naftali Bennett who will be the first to serve as prime minister," Lapid said. Israel was plunged into a political crisis that could lead to months of paralysis and pave the way for the return of Benjamin Netanyahu to the premiership. A key member of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party said on 06 April 2022 that she was quitting his coalition government – a surprise move that suddenly left him without a parliamentary majority. Idit Silman’s announcement left Bennett’s coalition, an alliance of parties ranging from the Jewish right and Israeli leftists to a Palestinian party, with 60 seats, the same as the opposition. Although Silman’s defection does not mean the fall of the coalition, it raises the spectre of a potential return to office by Netanyahu less than a year after he lost the premiership to Bennett.

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Page last modified: 22-06-2022 16:38:57 ZULU