On Tuesday, Israeli voters will return to polling booths for the second time in five months to decide— all over again— the fate of Binyamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu. The last election took place on April 9, 2019.
Netanyahu who first became PM in 1996, won three consecutive terms beginning 2009, 2013, and 2015 — and in July went past Israel’s iconic founder Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to become the longest-serving leader in that post in the country’s history.
However, Netanyahu, 69, faces possible indictment for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, which has the potential to end his long political career.
Second election of 2019
Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, has 120 seats. Members are elected from a single electoral district. Seats are allocated to parties by proportional representation; a party must win at least 3.25 per cent of the national vote to get a seat. A member can serve for four years, but early elections are extremely common.
No single party has ever won a majority in the Knesset, where around 10 factions are routinely represented. Coalition governments are the norm, with the larger parties getting support from smaller parties in return for specific concessions that serve the interests of their particular constituencies.
After the results are declared, Israel’s President decides which candidate has the best chance of putting together a coalition, and gives this candidate 28 days— with a possible extension of 14 days— to form a government.
The leader of the largest party usually gets the first shot at government formation, and in April, President Reuven Rivlin asked Netanyahu to make an attempt.
However, given the way the Knesset was divided after the election, the only feasible way in which Netanyahu could have reached a majority and formed the government was by having a coalition with the Yisrael Beiteinu, a far-right ultranationalist party led by an ally-turned-rival of the Prime Minister, the former Defence Minister of Israel, Avigdor Lieberman.
But Lieberman refused to back Netanyahu— and on May 29, with Likud stranded just one seat short of the 61 needed for a majority, the Knesset voted to dissolve itself and hold fresh elections on September 17.
As of now, both the caretaker government and the Opposition have 60 seats each in Parliament— on the government side, the biggest parties are Likud (38 seats), and Shas and United Torah Judaism (8 each); on the Opposition side, there are the Blue and White centrist-liberal alliance led by a former Chief of the Israel Defence Forces Benny Gantz (35 seats), the centrist Yesh Atid (15), and Resilience (14).
Yisrael Beiteinu has just 5 seats, but Lieberman held the key to government formation.
The two leaders have a long and complex history, but at the heart of the breakdown of talks was a concession from military conscription granted to ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students. Lieberman walked away from the right-wing religious axis and refused to join a government with the ultra-Orthodox parties.
The secular-religious divide is an important component of politics in the Jewish state. While many Israelis have been growing increasingly intolerant of the power that religious parties have over the political system, the Jewish orthodoxy has been fighting to hold on to its traditional values, economic interests, and political influence.
Some commentators and critics of Lieberman have alleged that his real game is to ultimately replace Netanyahu as the top politician in Israel, and that his stand against the orthodoxy is merely posturing intended to weaken Likud.
It will be Netanyahu vs Gantz, again
Like in April, the main contest in Tuesday’s election will be between Netanyahu and Gantz, 60.
Likud is the dominant force on the right, and Netanyahu, with all his experience and international position— which includes the personal friendship and goodwill of both Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi— is seen by many as the only suitable politician to lead the country.
Gantz is, relatively speaking, a newbie. But he is the strongest anti-Bibi candidate in Israel in years. His is a voice of moderation, and he is seen as clean— very different from Netanyahu’s image of being corrupt.
Who will vote on Tuesday?
All Israeli citizens ages 18 and older can participate in the election. About 5.8 million Israelis are eligible to vote.
Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip cannot vote. Most Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem, and do not hold Israeli citizenship, cannot vote either.
Most polling booths are scheduled to stay open from 7 am to 10 pm. Results will start to come out soon afterward, and the outcome can be expected to be clear in about six hours.
Lieberman now says he will support efforts to form a broad government of national unity.
Both Lieberman and Gantz have said they would not like the ultra-Orthodox formations in government— should that actually happen, it would mark a significant turn in the country’s politics.
But while a “unity government” ought to logically include Likud, Gantz has said that a PM who faces possible indictment (Netanyahu) is not acceptable.
Like in April, the elections may not throw up an outright winner. Yet another logjam is possible. Even before the second election has been held, some Israelis have begun to talk of a third vote.
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