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Netanyahu pushed for early elections, but he may be its main victim

Dec 29,2020 - Last updated at Dec 29,2020

Israel will hold its fourth legislative elections in March after the nine-month-old coalition government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu collapsed having failed to pass a budget bill in the Knesset. Netanyahu is believed to have wanted this outcome in a bid to wriggle out of his coalition agreement with the chief of the centre-left Blue and White Party Benny Gantz, who, under the deal, would become prime minister in October next year.

Netanyahu still faces bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges and his attempt to gain immunity or have the charges dropped have failed till now. He now faces the biggest battle in his long career as he seeks to form his sixth government. But unlike last time his rivals are former Likud members and far-right parties. Recent polls show that the Blue and White may fail to win the prerequisite four-Knesset-seat electoral threshold. That may well be the fate of Labor, which is expected to disappear from Israel’s political map. The Joint Arab List is expected to lose four seats, downsising its share to 11 seats.

While Likud is expected to win no less than 28 seats, if elections were to be held today, it will still need to partner up with other parties to form a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. As left and centre-left parties fail to win seats, parties on or affiliated with the right are expected to end up with 75 to 80 of the 120 seats. But this time Netanyahu is being challenged by a former Likudist; Gideon Sa’ar, who few weeks ago quit the Likud and formed the New Hope Party. The polls show that this new party would win 19 seats. The trick is that Sa’ar has already committed not to join a Netanyahu-led government; meaning that without him Netanyahu will find it difficult to form a stable government.

This would benefit far-right and religious parties who would demand major concessions in order to ally themselves with the Likud. Regardless of the outcome of the March elections, it will take weeks for Netanyahu, if he was assigned by the Israeli president, to form a coalition government.

The make-up of ultra-nationalistic right wing parties make it impossible for them to even consider negotiating with the Joint Arab List.

Despite a drop in his popularity over the corruption charges and his mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis, Netanyahu remains a major player and key to Israel’s political future. And unlike the previous elections, where the Blue and White party hinted at a solution with the Palestinians, this time around the issue of occupation and peace with the Palestinians has no place in public debate.

This year has been good for Netanyahu in terms of foreign policy achievements, despite of his poor domestic record. It started with a victory lap at the White House in January when he joined President Donald Trump in unveiling the much-touted Middle East peace plan. After winning the elections last March, Netanyahu threatened to go ahead with annexing major chunks of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley.

While suspending that move for the time being, he was rewarded with normalisation deals with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. Even as he celebrated this historic breakthrough his government continued to give the green light to building more settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In his view and that of his allies, in addition to the White House, Israel can reap the benefit of peace while maintaining occupation.

Netanyahu may still find himself ousted after March’s elections. For a growing number of Israelis, Netanyahu’s long reign as premier has tainted Israeli politics and sown divisions and the time has come for him to leave. But for the Palestinians the man who has done irreparable damage to their quest for independence will be replaced by an even more terrible alternative. Sa’ar, 54, is one of the early Israeli politicians who founded the far-right and held cabinet positions under Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu. He is pro-settler and had opposed Trump’s “deal of the century” because it included the establishment of a Palestinian state. And while Netanyahu can be described as a pragmatic politician, from an Israeli point of view, Sa’ar remains the quintessential right-winger and a committed ideologue.

In short, the next elections will be a battle between the right and the far-right and looking at how Israeli politics has evolved in the past 20 years, one can only assume that the far-right will be making additional gains. That poses a challenge not only for the Palestinians, but for the incoming Joe Biden administration which seeks to revert to the two-state solution. Ironically, for Israeli voters the occupation will be absent from pre-election debates.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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