2019 forecast: Israeli elections and corruption charges

2019 forecast: Israeli elections and corruption charges

Beset by legal challenges and with his coalition weakened, Netanyahu is turning to voters.

Having witnessed his hybrid right-wing coalition almost fall apart and looking to forestall a judicial attempt to indict him, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to call voters to the polls seven months ahead of schedule. Israel’s general elections will be held this year on April 9 with a record number of parties, old and new, expected to compete for control of the country’s 120-member Knesset. Since the Jewish state’s establishment some seventy years ago, no party has ever ruled in its own right.

Netanyahu is seeking a fourth consecutive and overall fifth term in office. He appears confident his conservative Likud party will be able to increase its numbers in the new parliament and avoid having to again form a broad coalition with the Israeli right’s warring secular and religious factions. Indeed, fewer parties constituting the next Likud-led government will mean, the prime minister hopes, fewer ideological clashes over policy.

Yet inter-party disputes should be the least of Netanyahu’s worries at this year’s election. The long-time premier faces allegations of corruption in three separate cases. Although attorney general Avichai Mandelblit will not adjudicate on the various charges of bribery and fraud — which Netanyahu has dismissed as baseless — before the April ballot, his verdict post-election, if not in the prime minister’s favour, could shake the foundations of the new government (should the Likud be returned to power). Consequently, Netanyahu wants a clear mandate from the electorate, which would put Mandelblit in a difficult position pursuring charges against a newly re-elected prime minister.

Netanyahu’s legal setback aside, the only other real contender for the premiership is retired lieutenant general Benny Gantz, a popular public figure and moderate who led the all-important Israel Defense Forces (IDF) between 2011–2015. The former military commander’s newly created Israel Resilience party is steadily gaining momentum as some voters desperately search for an alternative to the Likud and the other establishment parties, including the once mighty Israeli Labor Party. Given his untarnished reputation and centrist approach, political pundits consider Gantz capable of posing a real challenge to Netanyahu and the liberal establishment this election.

Beyond Israel Resilience, other parties to look out for are Yesh Atid and the Jewish Home, the former led by erstwhile media personality Yair Lapid and the latter by Netanyahu’s coalition partner and ambitious education minister, Naftali Bennett. Although the two men differ in ideology, both are trying to win over more Likud voters at the next election, Lapid among the more moderate types and Bennett the more hard-line and right-leaning.

Finally, with regard to some of the main issues at play, the new administration will doubtlessly have to deal with the dire situation in the Palestinian territories as well as find new ways to curb Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon and Syria. Indeed, a re-elected Netanyahu government will more likely focus most of its energy on security threats coming from the north. The Syrian conflict will have greater urgency for Israel now that US President Donald Trump has announced the withdrawal of American troops from Syria and Israel’s primary regional foe, Iran, has gained an advantageous foothold. The new government is unlikely to pin its hopes on the long-drawn-out peace process.

As for the internal issues, matters pertaining to the state’s identity will continue to dominate the political discourse, with Israel’s traditionally secular society witnessing the slow yet steady rise of the ultra-orthodox community. If the country’s hardcore religious establishment continues to gain influence within the government and society, expect the law exempting religious Jews studying at Yeshivas from serving in the military to remain largely untouched and the question of who really constitutes a Jew to further widen Israel’s secular-religious divide.