Another Israeli election looms — and Netanyahu rides high, Gantz is a loser

Yesterday night, what seemed to be a last and desperate attempt to save Israel from another premature election failed.

The vote in parliament was about prolonging the deadline for passing of the budget – not for 2021, but for 2020. Tonight (Tuesday) at midnight is the point at which new elections will automatically be set, three months ahead– that is, likely the 23rd of March.

This point marks a nadir for the attempt of Benny Gantz, the supposedly “liberal” rival to Benjamin Netanyahu’s forever-leadership. A former army chief of staff, Gantz came into politics two years ago, riding on the white horse of having brought Gaza back to the “stone age”, promising more extrajudicial executions if he were elected. The white knight Gantz managed to gather a coalition of “just not Netanyahu” people, a party that was a kind of “Likud-light”, but that also held appeal for many from the Zionist left.

So the supposedly liberal Gantz bloc, titled Blue and White, managed to create the illusion of an actual united party that could amass as many parliamentary mandates as the Likud, about 30-35. But you need to count to 61 mandates to have a parliamentary majority coalition in the 120-seat Israeli Knesset, and this was a deadlock problem which resulted in forever-elections throughout 2019 and 2020.

After the last elections of March 2020, Gantz broke his vow to never serve under a Prime Minister facing indictment – which, by that time, Netanyahu officially was, for several corruption cases. Gantz pointed to the coronavirus pandemic as the motive for such a compromise. He thus went into an agreement with Netanyahu for a “rotation-government”, which, over the next three years envisioned first Netanyahu as PM for 1.5 years, then Gantz.

Less than a third of Israelis actually believed that the moment of Gantz’s planned premiership would ever arrive. And they were right! 

That agreement broke up Gantz’s coalition over the “just not Netanyahu” principle. The the two other former Blue White leaders – Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon — splintered off to be in the opposition with their factions Yesh Atid and Telem; and the Blue-White bloc, which had won 33 seats against Likud’s 36 seats in that election, became a shadow of itself. Gantz was left with a “Blue White” faction that was about halved but was part of the governing coalition. This was already Netanyahu’s victory: The bloc challenging him was reduced so significantly that the powers of the Likud Party could be exercised in order to bring about a maneuver to nix the rotation agreement.

The pretext the power-hungry Likudniks used was the budget. The original coalition agreement had called for a two-year budget, which would have paved the way for Gantz’s term under a year from now, creating a certain calm to avert the situation of parliamentary dissolution that we are now in the midst of. But Netanyahu saw how weak Gantz was becoming politically and changed to insist on a one-year budget for 2020, which would thus preserve the possibility of busting the agreement in 2021, in time to avert Gantz’s premiership.

The attempt yesterday was only about delaying the budget deadline by two weeks. Likud is interested in a new election to take power fully once again, with a coalition of far right parties, but it was assessed that March may be a bit early to turn the coronavirus situation around significantly so as to claim victory over the virus. For Gantz, elections might well become a political suicide. In polls, his Blue-White party is dwindling to about six mandates, and it might end up falling below the electoral threshold of four.

It appears clearly, that Gantz has lost it. He had already lost his credibility among the “just not Netanyahu” voters with the rotation agreement. Many of them figured that entering a rotation coalition with Netanyahu will only mean that it’s still Netanyahu-forever. Gantz could proclaim as much as he wanted, but he has fallen into Netanyahu’s traps.

Netanyahu’s path to a renewed premiership is far from certain. He has rivals within. Last week, Gideon Sa’ar, one of Likud’s most powerful politicians, split off to create another party – “New Hope – Unity for Israel”. Polls have given him some 19-20 mandates. Well, you know, it’s the Jewish-supremacist “new hope”: “Realization of the natural and historic rights of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel”; upholding Israel’s “values as the national state of the Jewish people, which safeguards human rights and practices equal individual right” (except Palestinians, of course); “supporting settlement and agriculture in the Galilee and Negev, in Judea and Samaria, and along the eastern spine — from the Golan Heights, along the Jordan [River] and the Araba down to Eilat.”

So Sa’ar represents an ultra-nationalist, expansionist agenda that is arguably to the right of Netanyahu.

Sa’ar is now definitely a “just not Netanyahu.” And there’s significant further “opposition” from the Jewish right and center. Naftali Bennett with his Yamina Party (Rightwards), currently polls at about 14 mandates, Yesh Atid-Telem at about 13, Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu Party (Israel Is Our Home) at about 7, and Blue-White with 6, though it might not make it. Altogether they could barely reach 60, together with “New Hope”. Oh and the left-Zionist Meretz bloc polls at five seats. Would it support such an ultra-nationalist “new hope”, just because it’s not Netanyahu?

As for the mostly Palestinian-representing Joint List, it is now down to 11 seats in polls, from the historical high of 15 seats it got in March. Though even Benny Gantz didn’t want their actual support, and no Israeli government has ever included Palestinian parties in government. So many of those Palestinians who held the hope of garnering actual influence in Israeli politics, became disillusioned once again.

So what’s the prospect for Netanyahu’s Likud? Right now, they are just below 30. Joining with their traditional allies, the religious parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, would add another 15. That’s still a long ways from 61 – and Sa’ar won’t be an ally, but Bennett might. Which would get Netanyahu close to 60.

Who do Israelis want to lead them? It’s important to note, that one out of three voters (32%) sees Netanyahu as most fit to rule. Sa’ar is at only around 15%, Bennett at 12%, Lapid at 12%. And as for the alternate Prime Minister? Benny Gantz is at 8% (according to Channel 12 poll reported by Times of Israel).

In other words, with all the drama, with all the obstacles still in the way of another Likud victory, Netanyahu is still the unchallenged leader of Greater Israel, and Gantz is the loser.

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