Israel Has Its 4th National Election in 2 Years. Here’s Why. | Press "Enter" to skip to content

Israel Has Its 4th National Election in 2 Years. Here’s Why.

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JERUSALEM — Israelis head to the polls on Tuesday for the fourth time in two years, hoping to break a seemingly endless cycle of elections and a political deadlock that has left the country without a national budget during a pandemic.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hopes Israel’s world-leading vaccination program, which has helped the country emerge in recent days into something approaching normality, will give him and his right-wing allies an edge and the stable majority that proved elusive in three earlier rounds of elections.

But Mr. Netanyahu, prime minister since 2009, is running for re-election while standing trial on corruption charges — a dynamic that opposition parties hope will prompt voters to finally push him out of office.

In reality, though, polls show that neither bloc has a clear route to a majority, leaving many Israelis bracing for another inconclusive result, and a possible fifth election later in the year.

Here’s what else you need to know.

The simplest explanation is that since 2019, neither Mr. Netanyahu nor his opponents have been able to win enough seats in Parliament to form a coalition government with a stable majority. That has left Mr. Netanyahu in office, either as a caretaker prime minister or at the helm of a fragile coalition with some of his fiercest rivals, though not wholly in power. And that has forced the country to vote again and again in an attempt to break the deadlock.

Underlying this drama, analysts say, is one of Mr. Netanyahu’s motivations for seeking re-election — his hunch that he can best fight his prosecution from the prime minister’s office. They say he is ready to take the country to election after election — until he wins a stronger parliamentary majority that could grant him immunity from prosecution.

“I don’t know any serious thinker who says Israel is going to another round of elections for reasons other than Netanyahu’s personal interests,” said Gayil Talshir, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Supporters of Mr. Netanyahu, however, reject the notion that his personal interests have pushed Israel from election to election. They contend that his critics simply resent that Mr. Netanyahu is a fierce and savvy competitor, and they blame Benny Gantz, his rival and centrist coalition partner, for making the coalition untenable.

A series of disagreements between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz culminated in December in their failure to agree on a state budget. That led the Parliament to dissolve, forcing a new election, though for now the government remains in place.

The rivals joined forces last April, after the third election, saying that it was to ensure Israel had a government to lead the country through the pandemic. Under their power-sharing agreement, Mr. Gantz would take over as prime minister in November of this year. But the coalition partners never got along, and each side accuses the other of failing to cooperate in good faith.

Mr. Netanyahu’s critics contend that he acted out of personal interest when he fought Mr. Gantz over the budget, favoring a one-year plan, rather than the two years called for by the coalition agreement. The budget deadlock, by forcing a new election, gave Mr. Netanyahu another shot at forming a government, rather than staying in the current coalition and ceding power to Mr. Gantz later this year.

But Mr. Netanyahu blamed Mr. Gantz for the break, saying that Mr. Gantz had refused to compromise with Mr. Netanyahu on several state appointments.

The gridlock has forced Israel to go without a state budget during one of the most profound health and economic crises in its history, undermining long-term economic planning, including the development of major infrastructure projects.

The stasis has delayed the appointment of key state officials, including the state attorney and senior executive officers at the Justice and Finance ministries. And members of the coalition, including Mr. Netanyahu, have been accused of politicizing government decision-making even more than usual, seeking any possible edge in the electoral advantage.

The continual turmoil, abetted by Mr. Netanyahu’s long-running legal troubles, has reshaped Israeli politics. Voters are now divided less by ideology than by whether they are for or against Mr. Netanyahu.

And with the race so tight, Jewish politicians are now increasingly looking to members of Israel’s Arab minority to help break the deadlock. Arab citizens of Israel form about 20 percent of the population. Once marginalized, they have become a key constituency in this election campaign.

In a sign of how the political map has changed, two of Mr. Netanyahu’s principal challengers in this election cycle are also right-wingers. Gideon Saar is a former interior minister for Mr. Netanyahu’s party and Naftali Bennett is Mr. Netanyahu’s former chief of staff.

The third leading challenger is Yair Lapid, a centrist former broadcast journalist whose party is mounting the strongest challenge to Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Gantz is no longer considered a viable threat to the prime minister. Polls suggest his party may even fail to win a seat, largely because of anger among his former supporters over his decision to form a unity government with Mr. Netanyahu in the first place, an arrangement he had promised not to join.

The Parliament, known in Hebrew as the Knesset, has 120 seats that are allocated on a proportional basis to parties that win more than 3.25 percent of the vote.

The system almost guarantees that no single party will win an outright majority, often giving tiny parties big influence in the deal-making that forms coalitions. The system allows for a broad range of voices in Parliament but forming stable coalitions under it is difficult.

It could take weeks or possibly months for a new government to be formed — if one can be formed — and at any point in the process, a majority of the Knesset could vote to dissolve again, forcing yet another election.

In the days after the election, Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president, will give one lawmaker four weeks to try to form a coalition. He usually gives that mandate to the leader of the party that won the highest number of seats, which is likely to be Mr. Netanyahu. But he could grant it to another lawmaker, like Mr. Lapid, who he believes has a better chance at pulling together a viable coalition.

If that lawmaker’s efforts break down, the president can give a second candidate another four weeks to form a government. If that process also stutters, Parliament itself can nominate a third candidate to give it a go. And if he or she fails, Parliament dissolves and another election is called.

In the meantime, Mr. Netanyahu will remain caretaker prime minister. If somehow the deadlock continues until November, Mr. Gantz might still succeed him. The power-sharing deal the pair agreed to last April was enshrined into Israeli law, and stipulated that Mr. Gantz would become prime minister in November 2021.

In recent weeks, Israel has sent children back to school, reopened restaurants for in-house dining and allowed vaccinated people to attend concerts and theater performances.

Mr. Netanyahu hopes the success of Israel’s vaccine rollout, which has given a majority of Israelis at least one dose, will help propel him to victory.

But his pandemic record may also cost him. Some voters believe he politicized certain key decisions — for instance, capping some fines for flouting antivirus regulations at levels much lower than public health experts recommended.

Critics perceived this as a sop to ultra-Orthodox Israelis, some of whom flouted coronavirus restrictions on mass gatherings. Mr. Netanyahu will need the support of two ultra-Orthodox parties to remain in office after the election.

Voting by mail is not available in Israel. To prevent the spread of the virus, special polling stations are being set up for quarantined people and for Covid-19 patients.

No one is ruling it out. Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, is predicted to emerge as the largest party, with around 30 seats. But his allies may not win enough seats to give him a majority of 61.

And though current polling suggests the opposition parties will collectively win more than 61 seats, it’s unclear whether their profound ideological differences will allow them to come together.

The key player could be Mr. Bennett. Though he wants to replace Mr. Netanyahu, he has also not ruled out joining his government.

Patrick Kingsley and Isabel Kershner contributed reporting.


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