There are already subtle, and not so subtle, indications that Israel may be heading for early elections. Of all the issues surrounding Israel at the moment—Iran, Syria, Russia, the Palestinians, and, of course, Trump—the looming battle over the next government holds the greatest potential for major change.
As recently as last fall, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition looked as solid as Jerusalem stone. Yet a combination of political and legal developments has begun to erode the long-serving premier’s political standing. Rivals both inside and outside the government are starting to circle. Does the ultimate political magician have one more trick up his sleeve?
Cracks in the governing coalition began appearing last November around the issues of settlement construction and demolition in the West Bank. Efforts to save the Amona outpost and several homes in Ofra from Supreme Court-mandated evacuations were unsuccessful; both operations were carried out by Israeli security forces last month despite fierce opposition from the Israeli right. As compensation, Netanyahu promised to ramp up construction in other West Bank locales, including the construction of a new settlement for the Amona evacuees—something that hasn’t been done in two decades.
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These plans have now apparently been delayed as Netanyahu tries to come to terms with the Trump administration. During their recent White House meeting, Trump told Netanyahu he would like Israel to “hold back on settlements for a little bit,” an amorphous statement whose disputatious details are now being negotiated behind closed doors. As a result, settler activists are threatening hunger strikes and other forms of protest, and a calculated leak last week to a right-wing media outlet declaring that settlement construction had, in fact, been frozen forced the Prime Minister’s Office to issue a heated denial.
More worryingly for Netanyahu, in December the Attorney General opened a formal investigation into the prime minster stemming from two separate corruption probes. Netanyahu has denied the allegations, saying “there is nothing, so there will be nothing.” The political system, however, has begun making its own calculations and preparing for the possible indictment of a sitting prime minister, with all that may portend.
The most obvious response is the groundwork being laid for early elections: The Labor party announced that its primaries, including a hotly contested leadership battle, will take place in early July. Yair Lapid, chairman of the Yesh Atid party, recently recruited several regional council heads and mayors from the country’s “periphery” to his party, and more political acquisitions are expected. Major figures outside politics, like former prime minister Ehud Barak, former interior minister Gideon Saar, and former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, have begun raising their public profiles with media appearances, town hall meetings, and Twitter posts. Ya’alon officially left the Likud last week and has said that he will form his own party ahead of the next election campaign. Even Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon breathed a huge electoral sigh of relief last month when official data pointed, finally, to the biggest drop in local home prices in a decade.
But the linchpin to any dissolution of the current Netanyahu government arguably lies to the prime minister’s right, in the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party. Sensing weakness, party chairman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett has repeatedly clashed with the prime minister on diplomatic policy and the two-state solution, the handling of the 2014 Gaza war, and settlement construction or the lack thereof. Bennett’s own settler constituency has publicly attacked Jewish Home for its complicity in the Amona and Ofra evacuations. It’s an open question how long Bennett will choose to remain in a right-wing government seen as reneging on its promises to its right-wing base.
Netanyahu, for his part, has not been idle, choosing to bolster his position—whatever happens legally—through three distinct approaches. First, he has spent the better part of the last two months flying around the world meeting with foreign heads of state, projecting an image of statesmanship and indispensability. Second, he has begun appearing extensively in public, a rare occurrence for Netanyahu usually associated with pre-election campaigning. He has been seen eating hummus on a Jerusalem street and sitting outside at an Eilat café, with video quickly uploaded to Facebook and widely disseminated. Finally, Netanyahu has gone on the offensive against the corruption allegations, trying to shore up his base by calling the investigation a political witch-hunt and a media-inspired “coup” meant to “topple a right-wing prime minister.”
Will Netanyahu be able to stave off this latest challenge to his rule? While no one knows whether the Attorney General will indeed move forward with charges, it’s worth noting that under Israeli law a prime minister under indictment doesn’t need to resign. In other words, Netanyahu’s biggest challenge at this point isn’t legal but political.
According to recent polls, over half of Israelis think Netanyahu is doing a poor job, and his Likud party actually trails Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Significantly, Lapid has also closed the gap with Netanyahu with respect to his “appropriateness” for the premiership. One can envision a scenario where, perhaps even before an official indictment is decided upon, Netanyahu is forced into an electoral battle, whether by the dissolution of his current government or a challenge within his own party from rivals for the chairmanship, or both.
Under a cloud of legal suspicion, caught in a bind with his right-wing base over settlements, and with the left-wing political and media class already envisioning his demise, the coming months will be crucial for Netanyahu. In the game of thrones that is Israeli politics, one can hear the refrain growing louder: elections are coming.
By The Tower
The author Neri Zilber is a journalist and researcher on Middle East politics and culture, an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a research associate of the Rubin Center at the IDC Herzliya. You can follow him on Twitter @NeriZilber.