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Analysis: Israel's elections 'much ego about nothing'

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking in parliament in Jerusalem on December 24, 2018
Marc Israel SELLEM (AFP/File)

Israel is going to the polls again, earlier than expected. A real act of democracy accompanied by two unresolved questions: Why and what for?

Just recently, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Israelis that some ominous danger jeopardizes Israel. Israelis were told that it was not the time to rock the boat by an irresponsible action like calling snap polls.

And yet just three weeks later, we are deep into some Amoeba-like election campaigns – with a multiplication of political parties running for votes. Why? Political analysts and even politician themselves make an intellectual effort to find a coherent answer to that question. It might end as a futile exercise in "much ego about nothing”.

The two most popular answers to the “why” question are: After the resignation of former Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman, the coalition shrunk into 61 out 120 Knesset members.

“It’s utterly impossible to function under such constraints,” said those who just a day earlier had preached against elections. Not true. It is hard to function with 61 members coalition but not utterly possible. Such a small coalition achieved big things in the past.

The second most popular answer to the “why” question is that Netanyahu’s change of mind was motivated by a will to hold elections before Attorney General decides to potentially announce indicting him on bribery and corruption charges. In between, the warning that the timing to dissolve the parliament and call for early elections, Netanyahu – and the public – was left with the impression that an indictment might come earlier than expected.

(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Having announced early elections in April, Netanyahu and his ardent supporters launched a campaign to postpone a pre-election indictment until after the vote, claiming it might otherwise affect the voters and therefore be undemocratic. On the other hand, so does postponing the indictment and letting voters cast ballots while lacking some very important information. This second option is as un-democratic as the first one.

The “why” question has no clear answer, certainly when recent public opinion polls show Netanyahu’s supporters are not deterred by pre- election indictment.

“A pre- election indictment might even strengthen Bibi and the Likud," media consultant Ze’ev Yanay tells i24NEWS.

All over the world the political right tends to close ranks when their leader is under assault. Netanyahu is not just the leader of this camp; he is a much stronger brand than his party is.

Furthermore, 40 percent of Israelis (a much bigger proportion than Likud voters), still believe Netanyahu is the most apt of all candidates to be prime minister. The basic assumption of all political analysts, therefore, is that Netanyahu will remain Prime Minister, early indictment or not.

Israelis will go to sleep late with Bibi and wake up early with Bibi. And so herein lies the answer to the second question - early elections - what for?

These elections are about the day after for Netanyahu. The heads of competing parties – like the head of the newly founded “New Right” party Naftali Bennet - know that. Senior Likud up-and-comers – like the once popular Gideon Sa'ar who took time out from politics and came back in time for the Likud primaries - know that.

The 2019 elections are a dress rehearsal for the next round in parliament. The heads of opposition parties declare they want to replace Netanyahu now, knowing this is not going to happen. Those who enter his future coalition can just aim at a higher position in his government. Same with those within the Likud, who are not even trying to challenge Netanyahu, but who will use the April vote to better position themselves as legitimate heir to the throne occupied by "King Bibi" for the past decade.

So far, the only thing known for sure is that on April 10 Israel will be over 2 billion NIS poorer. Democracy comes with a high price tag, especially when 15 parties have announced – so far – their intention to run for election.

Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."


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