The sun is out, the streets are bustling and the shops, restaurants and bars are rammed. Israel’s majority-Jewish population is rushing to prepare for the start of the Passover festival this weekend and today nobody is at work. It is one of only two non-religious public holidays in the country: election day. Again.
Israel has emerged from a year of strict restrictions and, after a huge wave of Covid-19 cases at the beginning of the year, exacerbated by the spread of the more infectious B.1.1.7 UK variant, things are now almost back to normal — in large part due to the most successful vaccination programme in the world.
One man who can justly claim credit for Israel’s vaccine success is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who secured enough doses from Pfizer to vaccinate Israel’s entire population. Netanyahu reportedly called Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla 30 times until they agreed to make Israel the “world’s lab”, the global poster child for how mass vaccination can beat the coronavirus. So far, all signs are that it’s working.
Yet as polls open around the country, there are two competing narratives hanging over today’s election. One is the story of Netanyahu, “King Bibi”: the ultimate survivor at the height of his power who is approaching his thirteenth continuous year of his second period in office, having beaten the record of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. Despite multiple attempts to oust him, he remains in the PM’s residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street.
According to this account, the man nicknamed “the magician” surely has a trick up his sleeve. Netanyahu, after all, has in the last year signed “normalisation deals” with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and begun peace talks with Sudan, ushering in a new era of Israeli-Arab cooperation. His relationship with Donald Trump, meanwhile, brought the US embassy to Jerusalem and Western recognition of Israel’s Golan Heights annexation. And then came his vaccine success, the envy of the world, rounding off Israel’s most peaceful and prosperous decade. Surely, goes this story, he’s going to storm to a romping victory today.
But there’s another, far less optimistic, narrative underscoring this election; one which warns that as Israel holds its fourth general election in just two years, Netanyahu is in deep trouble. For despite his vaccine success, the polls suggest his Likud party will lose several seats, leaving him unable to form a government. Even in the best scenario, he looks set to just about scrape together an unstable coalition with a majority of one seat, making him the hostage of every Knesset member and their whims.
At the same time, this second narrative points out, let’s not forget that Netanyahu remains on trial for bribery and corruption (the trial was suspended for the election, or he’d be facing witness testimony now), and faces an uncertain future and possible prison term if convicted. Moreover, a planned election in the Palestinian Authority in May threatens to elevate Hamas and destabilise the West Bank and Gaza. And in America, with Trump out of office, President Biden is ready to re-enter the Iran deal, an accord that Netanyahu worked hard to sabotage. Now he’s being forced into another election after failing to pass a Budget. “King Bibi”, this narrative suggests, has never been so besieged.
But which of these narratives is true? The truth, I suspect, contains elements of both. Few doubt that Netanyahu’s key political skill lies in his ability to make surprising political moves that alter the playing field. Whenever things look bad, Bibi always finds a way to come out on top.
When, for example, the Likud party won fewer seats than challenger Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party in September 2019, Netanyahu forced the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, to dissolve itself before Gantz could be asked by the President to form a government. Then, in the election that followed, Netanyahu was able to convince Gantz to join a crisis coalition to fight the coronavirus, with the promise of a rotating premiership that nobody believed would ever come to pass. The move split Blue and White in half.
In this election, Netanyahu’s shrewd realpolitik has seen him campaigning for Arab votes, even visiting Arab towns and promising direct flights from Israel to Mecca (just as soon as there’s a peace deal with the Saudis, of course). It marks a dramatic change from his anti-Arab campaigning of recent years; his party passed a Nation State Act that downgraded the status of the Arabic language and filmed undercover footage in Israeli Arab polling stations to suggest voter fraud. Could this be just another ploy to see him retain power?
Whatever the truth, the reality is that Netanyahu’s position remains insecure. Israel’s election polls are notoriously inaccurate, but Likud will still be watching them with unease; the result, whatever it is, is going to be close. Several parties are on the cusp of the four-seat threshold, and if one or more of them drops below it, the coalition calculus shifts. Pollster Camil Fuchs believes that there could be 15 seats’s worth of undecided voters (there are just 120 seats in the Knesset), certainly enough to swing the election one way or another.
So how did Netanyahu find himself in such an uncertain position? Partly, he’s still damaged by the pandemic. On the face of it, that sounds faintly ridiculous, given that he has overseen the most successful vaccination programme in the world. But the truth is that, by and large, his initial Covid response — typified by strict restrictions — was deeply unpopular. Unlike in many other countries, no Israeli political party supported tougher national coronavirus restrictions. Even as infections soared and deaths rose, politicians on all sides pushed for a relaxation. And this was mirrored in the wider public: one poll in January suggested that just 24% of Israelis supported the Government’s measures.
Nationwide criticism was further inflamed by Netanyahu’s apparent capitulation to pressure from Ultra-Orthodox parties, which led to large parts of the Jewish religious education system remaining open while other schools were closed. Enforcement of lockdown rules in Ultra-Orthodox towns was almost non-existent, despite the extremely high Covid rates in those communities. At times, it felt like the whole country was being forced to suffer lockdowns except for the Ultra-Orthodox areas.
Yet most damaging, perhaps, was the revelation last year that Netanyahu flouted the strict nationwide lockdown he imposed, hosting his son at a Passover seder while the rest of the country celebrated alone. The sense of hypocrisy and injustice cut through far more than the political criticisms levied at him.
But more generally, a palpable sense of weariness has taken hold. Twelve years is a long time to be Prime Minister, especially when they’re marked by the Prime Minister being put on trial. In Israel — where, like so many countries, the old labels of Left and Right feel well-worn — politics today isn’t really about anything other than Netanyahu or Not Netanyahu. No doubt that’s partly why Likud has stopped publishing a manifesto altogether. The manifesto is Netanyahu, and shouldn’t that be enough?
Judging by a number of last-minute campaign stutters, that remains to be seen. Opposition canvassers have been beaten by Netanyahu supporters and required hospitalisation, while several last-minute election stunts have also fallen through; Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla cancelled his planned trip to Israel, and the United Arab Emirates objected to an election-eve Netanyahu visit to Abu Dhabi.
Yet for all this, Netanyahu retains one major advantage. As the incumbent, he stays Prime Minister until a new government is seated. If his rivals are unable to form a coalition to replace him, which seems likely, then Israel will head to a fifth election in the autumn, likely delaying his corruption trial further and giving him yet another chance to win.
Can the ultimate survivor pull off his most audacious win of all, building another coalition that can both keep him in office and, perhaps even legislate to stop his trial? Election Days are certainly Netanyahu’s speciality, but I’m not convinced. Either way, whatever the result of today’s election, it will probably be some time until we learn if Netanyahu has managed to triumph yet again.