The narrative for Israel’s 2019 election was written long before the coalition's announcement on Monday that Israelis will head to the polls seven months early, on April 9. Benjamin Netanyahu will win easily before being forced to step down a few months later, when members of his new coalition refuse to continue serving under an indicted prime minister. According to that narrative, the election is only about one thing – Netanyahu’s fight for survival.
But that narrative has a few minor problems. First, there are a number of scenarios under which Netanyahu is not reelected, and while apparently the consensus among the police and the state prosecutors is that he must be indicted on at least two counts of bribery, no one has any clear idea yet on when – and if – Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit will act on their recommendations. But granted, it remains the most plausible outcome, which raises the question: Why even hold an election when the result is almost preordained and won’t matter by 2020 anyway, when the winner will be forced out of office?
While the polls will fluctuate for the next three and a half months until Election Day, chances are that the basic dynamic will remain unchanged. Netanyahu’s Likud base of around thirty seats, a quarter of Israeli voters, will hold – it may gain or lose a couple of seats, but it will almost certainly win first place. Likud's victory is guaranteed by the chronic fragmentation of the center, which is expected to consist of at least five parties this time – Avi Gabbay’s Zionist Union, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu and the yet unnamed parties led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and MK Orli Levi-Abekasis.
The five centrist parties have two things in common: They all have very vague ideologies and all are led by egotistical politicians who are unlikely to give up their number-one position to link up with competitors. Together they are polling at somewhere between forty and fifty seats in the next Knesset. If they were all running as one, that would not only be a much higher tally than Netanyahu’s Likud, but could conceivably be enough to replace his right-wing religious coalition together with Meretz and one or two of the religious parties. This, however, almost certainly won’t happen, because of said egos and anyway, the sum of their parts won’t necessarily be as large. But this centrist disunity deserves to be the true narrative of the upcoming election.
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It’s not just their egos that are preventing the centrist parties from merging – there is a deeper strategy at play here. Since none of them believe at present they can beat Netanyahu, but are all fairly certain he will be forced out by 2020, it makes sense for the centrist leaders to position themselves at the head of independent power-bases and wait for the day after Bibi. It’s not a dissimilar strategy to the one guiding the leaders of the right wing, who can barely wait for their chance to vie for leadership, but are biding their time so as not to be accused of disloyalty to Netanyahu. This applies to several senior Likud ministers, including Yisrael Katz, Gilad Erdan, Miri Regev and the ex-minister Gideon Saar, as well as Habayit Hayehudi ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who will likely try and join Likud with Netanyahu gone.
Whether it’s the centrists who will spend this entire campaign speaking of the need to replace Netanyahu, or the rightists who yearn to do so but will repeatedly express their fealty, none of them believe they will succeed this election. They are all waiting and hoping that Mendelblit will do the job for them.
If the law did not require holding new elections for the Knesset every four years, it really would make no sense to go to the polls before Mendelblit has pronounced. Indeed, this is why Netanyahu has manipulated the election earlier, to try and preempt the attorney general.
This election will probably not decide who will lead Israel from 2020 and beyond – it’s just about everyone waiting and jockeying for positions. But that doesn’t mean Israel has no other issues to deal with. There is in fact a long list of issues, including – to name just a few – whether Israel should take advantage of the regional situation being in its favor and embark on a new diplomatic voyage with the Palestinians; where Israel should position itself in a world in which America's influence is rapidly on the wane; how to bridge the growing gulf between the prosperous "new" high-tech economy and the rest of the "old" economy, which has been left behind; and how to integrate the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arabs, who together make up nearly a third of the population, into society.
None of these crucial issues are seriously being addressed in public or occupying much of the election agenda simply because after a decade under Netanyahu, Israelis have gotten used to asking themselves if and how Netanyahu – and no one else – will deal with these problems. Even his staunch opponents have nearly forgotten what life without Bibi looks like and no one is preparing to face Israel's challenges once he’s gone. Sadly, this election will be no exception. It is a fake election in which the only thing that matters is getting over with it and waiting for Netanyahu to bring himself down later, under the weight of his own corruption.
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