Embattled Netanyahu dragging Israel toward another election

Israelis have been demonstrating in their thousands against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the last month. They are demanding his resignation for failures on several fronts, including on combating the coronavirus pandemic, the severe economic crisis, and the corruption charges he is facing. A placard at a recent protest simply called him “Crime Minister.”

Netanyahu maintained his grip on the prime minister’s office in April, when he negotiated a new coalition government in partnership with the Blue and White alliance, headed by former army chief Benny Gantz. What brought them together was a commitment to facing the pandemic in unison. But, in office, Netanyahu’s entire effort has been directed at undermining the coalition and prolonging his term as PM. This self-centered focus has condemned Israel to a prolonged period of uncertainty and chaos.

After at first taking credit for the effective control of the pandemic in the country, Netanyahu, under popular pressure, relaxed lockdown measures in May, causing a second surge of infections. Now, the country is reeling from 92,000 infections, more than 600 deaths, and the high figure of 10,000 cases per million people.

The pandemic has played havoc with the economy, destroying the businesses of thousands of self-employed Israelis and burdening 20 percent of the population with unemployment. These afflicted and desperate people constitute the bulk of the demonstrators. 

Netanyahu and his supporters have callously described the protesters as being from the far left, anarchists or children of the rich, who are anxious to bring down his nationalist government. However, respected political commentator Akiva Eldar has pointed out that the demonstrators also include Likud voters, ultra-Orthodox Jews and even admirers of the Netanyahu family. Militants from the far right have been mobilized by Netanyahu’s supporters to viciously attack the demonstrators, adding to the popular animus against the prime minister.

However, Netanyahu’s populist instincts are intact: On July 29, the Knesset approved his proposal to pay Israelis a total of 6.5 billion shekels ($1.9 billion), or about $880 for each family. Critics view this as populist profligacy and believe these funds should have been used to improve health services and directly support small businesses.

Netanyahu’s actions are entirely determined by his political interests. His ratings are going down rapidly — only 25 percent approve of his handling of the pandemic crisis and just 30 percent support his running of the government. Besides this, he faces the challenge of three court appearances per week from January onwards. This will bring him a lot of ugly publicity, besides the concern that, by then, both the pandemic and economic situations will likely have worsened, further damaging his electoral standing.

Gantz has been thoroughly outmaneuvered by his wily partner and now seems to have a bleak political future.

Taking these factors into account, Netanyahu appears to have concluded that his best interests lie in wriggling out of the coalition and forcing a fresh election this year — the fourth in Israel in the space of just 18 months. Hence, he is insisting that the government propose a one-year budget for just this year, instead of the two-year budget he is committed to under the coalition agreement. 

This has placed Gantz in a no-win situation: If he opposes Netanyahu’s one-year budget proposal and the coalition collapses, the country will be forced into a new round of elections in November, whose outcome is very uncertain. If he accepts the budget, Netanyahu could still renege on handing over the prime ministership to Gantz next year and go in for elections. The dissolution of the Knesset would allow Netanyahu to remain in office until elections are held. The deadline for approval of the budget is Aug. 25, although a bill that would put the date back passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset last week.

Four months into the coalition government, Gantz is already a beaten man. Discredited among his liberal followers, he has been thoroughly outmaneuvered by his wily partner and now seems to have a bleak political future. 

However, in the elections, whenever they are held, Netanyahu will not have a free ride; just too many political leaders are anxious to see him go. On the left, there is Yair Lapid, who hopes to increase his number of seats either with his own party, Yesh Atid, or in association with his former Blue and White alliance if it is under new leadership.

On the right, there is Netanyahu’s old bete noire Naftali Bennett, who — ousted from the Knesset and government after the last elections — has built up considerable popular appeal by focusing on the pandemic with a grassroots volunteer movement. If he gains sufficient numbers in the Knesset, he could insist that the Likud join a right-wing coalition with him, and potentially with a new leader.

Then there is the indefatigable Avigdor Lieberman. Defense minister under Netanyahu until 2018, he nurses deep animosity for Netanyahu personally. This makes him very flexible in seeking alignments, so long as they can help to oust Netanyahu. He has just announced he is “project manager” for the prime minister’s removal.

The protests on July 14 were dubbed “Bastille Night,” painting Netanyahu as the despotic Louis XVI and his unpopular wife, Sara, as the profligate Marie Antoinette. Will the demonstrations effect a revolution in Israel by ousting Netanyahu? We will know soon enough if this great Houdini can pull off one more trick.

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Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies at the Symbiosis International University in Pune.

The article was first published in Arab News, Jeddah.