Since Israel’s emergency government was formed in May, the problems have only gotten worse. Last week, there was talk of another national election by the end of 2020 — the fourth in the span of two years.
Israel’s challenges are clear: The coronavirus, held at bay during the early months of the pandemic, is now burning uncontrollably through the country. Street demonstrations have for weeks protested Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic, the nation’s skyrocketing unemployment and the prime minister himself, who is the subject of a slow moving but increasingly embarrassing trial for corruption. Significantly, those protesting include members of Netanyahu’s own constituency — some of whom are frustrated by continuing political gridlock, and others who are upset about various perceived broken campaign promises.
The political gridlock was predictable, since the coalition agreement included near veto power for both Netanyahu and his rival-turned-partner-turned-rival Defense Minister Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, as the price to join together to form the emergency government.
The broken campaign promises are a bit more of a surprise. The fraying of the coalition increased last week when Blue and White members broke with the government and sided with the opposition in supporting the first of three readings of a bill to criminalize gay conversion therapy — which drew strong criticism from haredi coalition partners.
As the political crisis deepened, and Haaretz reported that new elections might be in the offing, President Reuven Rivlin tried to force the politicians to stop bickering and get back to work. But Rivlin only has a bully pulpit and ceremonial authority. The real power is with Netanyahu, who is a wizard at using it.
So, are new elections likely? And will a fourth round provide a more workable result? It depends who you ask. Most seem to agree that if Netanyahu’s objectives are to stay in power and to stay out of jail —both of which seem obvious — a fourth election will be called. And next month’s likely fight over the budget is projected to be a good trigger to break the fragile balance of the emergency coalition.
If new elections are called, Netanyahu would, once again, remain as caretaker prime minister. In addition to consolidating power, he will also likely focus on recapturing control of the Ministry of Justice in an effort to achieve a better outcome to his corruption trial. And, of course, by dissolving the government, Netanyahu would deny the prime ministership to Gantz — a result almost universally predicted when the emergency government was formed, with the only question being when, and for what reason, Netanyahu would back out of his power-sharing deal.
Through it all, Netanyahu has remarkable staying power. Indeed, even with all of his problems, polls indicate that Netanyahu is now stronger politically than he has been in years. If the next round of elections is announced, watch for an annexation move to further motivate Netanyahu’s base.