This summer all of Israel is in for second-round-exam malaise, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s snap decision to hold a new election on Sept. 17. Many regard the prospect of another campaign season with a mix of disgust, ennui and exhaustion.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, is betting on improving his score on the makeup test. The previous election, less than two months ago, gave six right-wing and clerical parties that supported him a total of 65 out of 120 seats in the Knesset. But personal rivalries, a secular-religious rift on the right and Netanyahu’s weak bargaining position while facing likely graft charges kept those parties from coalescing into a government.
At first glance, there’s little reason to expect change. The balance between the two major blocs in Israeli politics has shifted little in the past four elections. As I’ve noted, voters’ loyalties to the right and to the center-left tend to be intense, based on rancor that has been passed down unto the third and fourth generations. In the previous campaign this year, the old loyalties produced an apparent victory for the right, which turned into stalemate.
Then again, this exam has new questions. It could produce surprises.
To start, the fight within the right-wing camp is escalating. Netanyahu is trying to pull votes from hawkish ex-defense minister Avigdor Liberman, whose Israel Is Our Home party won five seats in April. Lieberman’s insistence on exempting fewer ultra-Orthodox men from military service is what kept Netanyahu from forming a government.
The prime minister’s reflexive response was to accuse Liberman of being “part of the left.” In Netanyahu’s lexicon, “the left” means anyone who opposes him. In this case, it’s a hard sell: Lieberman is a West Bank settler known for his bellicose views. Now he’s appealing to secular rightists tired of Netanyahu’s concessions to the ultra-Orthodox. If Lieberman takes votes from the Likud, Netanyahu will be weaker. If Netanyahu cuts too far into Liberman’s support, Liberman’s party could fall short of the threshold needed to enter parliament, and the right as a whole will be weaker.
On the opposition side, the most significant question is turnout among the Arab minority. In 2015, an alliance of Arab-backed parties won 13 Knesset seats, their strongest showing ever. This year, the alliance split up. Together, the Arab-backed parties won only 10 seats. Arab turnout dropped from about 62 percent in 2015 to just under 50 percent.
Disappointment over the broken alliance was one reason. Another was the Nation State Law — legislation passed by Netanyahu’s last coalition that virtually labeled Arabs de jure second-class citizens. The law aggravated a sense of alienation from the state and the political process.
The new election gives the Arab-backed parties a chance to reunite. It also gives Blue and White a chance to appeal to Arab voters, to make clear that the outcome will affect their lives and their integration into Israeli society. A rise in Arab turnout, by itself, could be enough to deny Netanyahu a majority in the Knesset.
Netanyahu’s standing and his state of mind are the biggest variables in the rematch. It’s possible those who voted for him in April despite the corruption allegations will ignore his effort after the election to pass legislation to protect himself from indictment. But his failure to form a coalition could rob him of momentum and of his image as a political magician.
By Israel Is Our Home’s account, coalition talks failed because Netanyahu spent most of his time working on the laws to preserve his immunity. That’s a partisan claim, but it underlines an opposition argument: Can Netanyahu be a full-time prime minister while he tries to stay out of jail?
A hearing on whether to indict Netanyahu is scheduled for soon after Sept. 17. Can he focus on being a candidate while his defense team prepares its arguments? Or will his campaign lose direction?
Already, pundits and pollsters are trying to prophesy the outcome of the vote. There is hubris in every forecast. After all, the one thing no one expected before the previous election is that we’d already be getting ready for another one.