In the run-up to its fourth election in two years, Israel is enjoying its vaccine success story. The number of seriously ill Covid patients is in decline, the R rate is slowly falling and the economy has started to reopen. But prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not reaping the rewards.
Support for Netanyahu's party, Likud, although still the largest, has shrunk significantly since the last elections where it won 36 seats. Blue and White, which won 33 seats, has since crashed and burnt due to brilliant political manoeuvring by Bibi (and a staggering lack of political sophistication by leader Benny Gantz). Yet Likud is expected to only win 30 seats in this week's snap election.
For Bibi, the vaccination programme has been a double-edged sword. It has been rapid and widespread, but uptake among the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arab communities has been much lower than in the general population. Combined with looser rule keeping, these groups still have higher infections rates relative to the rest of the population. For Israelis, this risks a hold-up in the long-awaited return to normality.
As a result, tensions are mounting between the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi), and everyone else, including traditional (Masorti) and secular Jews, who are resentful of what they view as an ongoing favourable treatment given to Haredi communities. Some Israelis think that Bibi’s reliance on ultra-Orthodox parties for his coalition’s integrity has allowed Haredis to systematically break lockdown rules, travel more freely and largely continue with their daily lives. Meanwhile, so these fed-up voters say, everyone else has been making huge sacrifices.
Relations between the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 12 per cent of the population, and the secular population have been tense for decades. Secular and traditional Jews have seen the ultra-Orthodox receive preferential conditions in government funding of Yeshiva students who do not work and are not drafted to the military like everyone else over the age of eighteen. Ongoing disagreements over key issues, such as observing the Sabbath, separation of men and women in public spaces, refusal to teach core-subjects in ultra-Orthodox schools, the power of the Rabbinical courts who judge on major issues including marriages and divorces, and on who is Jewish, contributed to the divide. The government’s handling of the pandemic has exacerbated it significantly.
These tensions along religious lines have come to dominate the election. It’s a major problem for Bibi, who faces corruption charges (which he denies) that will be more difficult to fight if he is no longer prime minister. Smaller parties on the right and centre, who position themselves as anti-Orthodox, have been biting into his voter pool.
Many Israelis may vote for parties that don’t represent their political views, but rather vote strategically in a bid to end Netanyahu’s long and tumultuous rule and avoid an ultra-Orthodox coalition. Could time finally be running out for Bibi, the great survivor of Israeli politics?
Heading the race against Netanyahu is Yair Lapid, leader of potentially the second largest party, Yesh Adit (‘there is a future’) who has pledged not to partake in coalition with Netanyahu, as well as with any ultra-Orthodox party.
The Israeli political system is complicated and ever-changing, with politicians reluctant to cooperate or merge into larger parties. Although this could stabilise the system, too many are eager to be leaders. Between ten and twelve parties are set to gain seats in the next parliament. One possible outcome is a coalition headed by Lapid, formed of left and right-wing outfits and Arab-Israeli parties. They have little in common, other than a shared resentment towards what they see as preferential treatment towards the ultra-Orthodox.
This leaves the ultra-Orthodox parties among the only allies Bibi has left, along with far-right party Zionut Datit. Netanyahu may still cling on. He could do so by forming a small, unstable and unpopular coalition. But this will force him into adopting policies that are likely to continue to benefit ultra-Orthodox communities over everyone else, increasing the public’s resentment towards him.
Perhaps the most important figure is Naftali Bennett and his New Right party. Bennett, a right-wing former Netanyahu ally who also served as defence minister and education minister, leads one of the only parties willing to be part of either coalition. If the polls are roughly correct, neither side will be able to form a coalition without it. Ambitious Bennett is eyeing the top job. Come Wednesday morning, he could be in a strong position to call the shots.
Could this be it for Bibi? Days before Passover, Israelis will try to free themselves of the man who has controlled the political system for too long. Unfortunately, what comes after him is unlikely to heal the fractures in Israeli society. The next government is likely to be unstable and full of deep internal tensions and contradicting ideologies and interests. A fifth round of elections may not be far off.