As Israelis prepare to go to the polls on Tuesday for national elections — the second such vote this year — they may feel like they are living through the political equivalent of “Groundhog Day.” And if the results are the same as the last round, which began with elections April 9 and ended weeks later inconclusively, with Prime Minister Netanyahu unable to form a majority of 61 seats in a coalition government, there could even be a third do-over election later this year.
One thing is clear: this election is, front and center, a referendum about Netanyahu, who has now served in Jerusalem’s top post longer than any prime minister who preceded him. And keep in mind that he also serves as defense minister, minister of diaspora affairs, minister of welfare and minister of health.
There has been little talk along the campaign trail of peace talks with the Palestinians or plans to resolve the conflict. Not in Netanyahu’s Likud party, or the chief challengers in the Blue and White party led by Benny Ganz and Yair Lapid, or the eight other parties with a shot at winning seats in the Knesset. The same goes for a range of other major issues facing Israel, from internal societal tensions to growing economic inequality. Rather, the key issue is whether Netanyahu can and should serve another term.
His supporters see him as Mr. Security, deftly able to protect the nation from the chaos surrounding Israel in Syria to the north while overseeing a solid economy and maintaining good relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and even better relations with American President Donald Trump.
Critics, however, focus on what they see as an eroding democracy at home, with the prime minister seemingly prepared, if re-elected, to stave off imminent indictment charges of corruption in three cases against him through legislation that would weaken the Knesset and the Supreme Court. Netanyahu has blamed the press (“fake news”), his political opponents, the attorney general (whom he chose), the police and top legal officials for his legal predicament.
Most recently, he and his Likud allies have tried to pass a last-minute bill that would place secret cameras inside polling stations on Election Day, ostensibly to limit voter fraud. In April, Likud sent 1,200 paid observers to film in polling places, primarily in Arab neighborhoods. The company that directed the operation took credit for reducing the Arab voter turnout to a record low, with parties on the right the clear beneficiaries. Virtually no cases of voter fraud were found.
The attorney general, a key Supreme Court justice and election officials have sought to thwart such an effort by Likud now, and the bill is not expected to pass. But it’s another example of how Netanyahu, who declared on Tuesday that he plans to annex the Jordan Valley and West Bank settlements if re-elected, appears prepared to do whatever it takes to stay in office — not only for obvious political reasons but also to try to prevent facing criminal indictment. If early reactions from some American groups is a barometer, the annexation move will drive an even-deeper wedge between Israelis and American Jews and make a two-state solution next to impossible.
The pivotal figure in the upcoming election is Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Israel Beiteinu party, which has strong support from the Russian-speaking segment of Israeli society and is expected to garner enough seats to determine which party — Likud or the Blue and White, if any — will form a coalition. It is Lieberman who played kingmaker — or in this case, un-maker — after the last election by refusing to join a coalition with Netanyahu at the top, a pledge he continues to make. The two men have a long history together, first as close allies and more recently as political adversaries.
With the vote expected to be close between the two top parties, Netanyahu continuing to pull out all stops to assure victory, Ganz running a low-key campaign and Lieberman waiting in the wings to throw his political weight into the proceedings, it’s impossible to determine the outcome. And it’s quite possible that neither major party will be able to get the 61 votes to form a government, and yet another election will be called.
What is clear, though, amidst the political jockeying, is that Israeli society has moved significantly to the right in recent years. This election is really between the center-right and the further right, with young people being the most right-wing segment of Israeli society. No doubt that is the result of years of continuing hostility and disinterest in peace talks from the Palestinians, nuclear threats from Iran and the horrific civil war next door in Syria.
Whether or not the majority of American Jews agree with the outcome, Israelis will be choosing their leaders in a democratic election and the voters are the ones on the front lines.