On March 23rd 2021 Israel held its fourth legislative elections in two years. No candidate was able to secure enough parliamentary seats to stay in power, meaning Israel’s political crisis will remain unsolved in the months to come.
Following the 2009 legislative elections, where Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party finished second, Netanyahu was able to create a majority coalition with several other right-wing parties. He formed a new government and was nominated Prime Minister. This was his second term as Israel’s head of government, following his 1996-1999 term that ended with a vote of no confidence by the parliament. Netanyahu managed to win both the 2013 and the 2015 elections, securing his stay in power by forming coalitions with smaller right-wing parties.
In 2016, Israeli prosecutors started investigating Netanyahu on charges of corruption, and on November 21st 2019 the Israeli attorney general formally indicted Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases. If convicted, the sitting Prime Minister could face up to 13 years behind bars.
Benjamin Netanyahu is involved in three court cases, known as 1000, 2000 and 4000. Case 1000 concerns the Prime Minister’s relationship with two businessmen. Netanyahu allegedly received from these businessmen a quasi-continuous supply of cigar boxes and cases of champagne. These gifts amounted to almost €170,000, and Netanyahu is accused of fraud and breach of trust.
Likewise, Case 2000 also sees the incumbent Prime Minister charged of fraud and breach of trust, but these charges regard Mr. Netanyahu’s meetings with Israeli media mogul Arnon Mozes. Both are alleged of striking an agreement, where Mozes’s media group would improve their coverage of Mr Netanyahu, in exchange for restrictions on the Israel Hayom newspaper, Mozes’s competitors. The attorney general has also charged Mr. Mozes with bribery.
Case 4000 concerns what attorney general Mandelbilt called a “reciprocal agreement” between Prime Minister Netanyahu, who at the time was also the communications minister, and Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Israel’s largest telecommunications company, who also owned the news website Walla. Netanyahu is accused of using his powers and authorities as a public servant to promote matters of substantial financial value pertaining to Mr. Elovitch’s businesses, dealing on several occasions with changes in regulatory frameworks. In exchange, Mr. Elovitch and his wife exerted continuous pressure on the director-general of the news website Walla, to change their coverage to be aligned with Mr. Netanyahu’s demands.
Israel’s political crisis
With the investigation and indictment of Prime Minister Netanyahu came a clear rise in “anti-Netanyahu parties”, whose main campaign goal centred around deposing the Prime Minister. The largest contender to Netanyahu’s power was Benny Gantz, who had the support of the Blue and White political alliance. Gantz managed to tie Netanyahu in terms of parliamentary seats in the April 2019 elections, preventing Netanyahu’s coalition from obtaining a majority in parliament and forcing renewed elections in September 2019. In the September rerun both main parties lost seats, making considerable efforts to form a new coalition. Netanyahu approached his religious and ultra-orthodox allies, and Gantz the liberal aisle of the parliament. Nonetheless, those efforts fell short, and new elections were yet again scheduled for March 2020.
Benny Gantz managed to secure a parliamentary majority, but his coalition parties failed to agree on a government program and refused to sit together in government. The Covid pandemic led to the need of an emergency coalition, and Gantz felt forced to break his campaign promise and form a coalition government with Netanyahu and other smaller parties. This decision severely affected Gantz’s popularity, both inside his party and among voters. This, together with disagreements between Gantz and other parties in the coalition, led to the collapse of the government, when it did not manage to approve a state budget before the end of 2020. According to Israeli law, this calls for the dissolution of the parliament, and the scheduling of elections within 90 days, resulting in the March 21st elections.
With all votes now counted, no party can be considered a clear winner. Netanyahu’s opponents hold 57 seats of the parliament, while Netanyahu and his coalition partners solely hold 52. 11 seats are still up for grabs as two parties are yet to commit to either side, the United Arab List and Anthony Bennett’s Yamina. The decisive party may well be the United Arab List, a small Islamist party that won four seats. Their leader, Mansour Abbas, has openly stated his willingness to negotiate with both sides of the aisle. For Netanyahu to secure a majority, he would need his former aide turned critic Naftali Bennett and the United Arab League. However, to balance a coalition with nationalists, ultra-orthodox members and an Islamist party seems like an impossible task.
The anti-Netanyahu camp, however, only needs the United Arab List’s four seats to secure a parliamentary majority and oust Benjamin Netanyahu. Benny Gantz already tried to form a coalition with Islamist parties following the last elections, to no avail, citing disagreements with the Islamist party’s leadership over national and security issues.
President Rivlin is trying to solve this deadlock by holding consultations with each party in the coming weeks, but it is far from clear what the outcome of this stalemate will be. If a coalition fails to be formed, the President will be forced to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections, the fifth legislative elections in two years, leading to further political instability in a country that has been plagued by it throughout the last two years.
Sources: Al-Jazeera, BBC, CNN, Deutsche Welle, Reuters
António Payan Martins