Déjà vu, all over again

A TV screen broadcasts the exit poll results of the Israeli election in Tel Aviv, March 2, 2020.  (Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images)

Unless there is some tectonic shift in Israel’s body politic over the next dozen weeks, the country will hold national elections on March 23, 2021. This will be Israel’s fourth national election in two years. And it will likely result in a stalemate — necessitating a fifth round.

Those are the consistent early predictions from polls taken last week, shortly after the Knesset missed its budget vote, triggering new elections. The polls suggest that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party would remain the largest vote getters. Nonetheless, their projected loss of seats in the Knesset could make the remarkably durable and creative Netanyahu vulnerable.

Political gridlock has been the hallmark of the last three elections. But changes are in the air. Rather than their classic left-right split that prevailed in the previous rounds, Israelis are now divided over Netanyahu himself. And the anti-Netanyahu faction on the right has grown under the banner of former Likudnik Gideon Sa’ar and his new right-wing party, New Hope.

Initial polling projects New Hope winning second place, just a few seats behind Likud. If Sa’ar and Netanyahu rivals Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman join forces with centrists Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz — whose Blue and White Party has shrunk to a handful of seats — they could almost make a Knesset majority without Netanyahu and Likud. As tantalizing as that might be to the anti-Netanyahu players, they will have trouble building a large enough majority without including at least one of the left-wing parties — which appears to be a political non-starter. We are concerned.

Last week, the Israel Democracy Institute published information showing the frequency of elections in 20 of the world’s parliamentary democracies. Israel came in dead last, with an average of 2.3 years between votes over the past 25 years. First-place Ireland has an average of 4.5 years between elections. While there is no established connection between frequency of elections and quality of governance, Israel shows troubling signs of political dysfunction that demand resolution.

Commentators from the left and right have expounded theories and proposed solutions. They have pointed fingers at everything from the distraction of Netanyahu’s legal problems to the need for fundamental electoral reform as the reason for the current problems. At least part of what each is saying is correct. But a clear, immediate solution is needed.

Netanyahu has been an extraordinary leader. He deserves credit for his many impressive accomplishments on domestic and international fronts, even as he remains answerable for those areas where he has not had success, including his legal challenges.

Perhaps this is the time for the “Magician of the Middle East” to orchestrate one last parting deal that installs new government leadership, ensures continuity of center-right policies, frees Israeli society from the stranglehold of the rabbinate and ensures Israel’s longest-serving prime minister a dignified and peaceful retirement. Or maybe something else.

Whatever the approach, Israel needs to avoid a fifth election.

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