In a preliminary vote Dec. 2, the 120-member Israeli parliament, or Knesset, voted 61-54 to disband itself and bring down the unity government established in the spring. Although three more votes are required to set the election process in motion, this was the first step toward scheduling a fourth set of elections in just two years.
Israel Democracy Institute President Yohanan Plesner said the “two-year-long ongoing political crisis is expected to continue as long as [Benjamin] Netanyahu remains prime minister and a government cannot be formed without him.”
And, if Israeli elections are held again in early 2021, Netanyahu will, mostly likely, be named prime minister again. If the current government indeed falls, he will remain as caretaker prime minister as he has most of the last two years.
Dov Wilker, regional director of the American Jewish Committee in Atlanta, noted that this cycle of repeated elections all started when Netanyahu chose to disband his government in 2018. Since then, elections were held in April and September last year and this past March. All ended without Netanyahu – or anyone else – able to cobble together a majority government until May of this year, when Netanyahu’s main competitor, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party, broke his promise to his voters not to join a Netanyahu government. Gantz said he made the unpopular choice because the country was mired in the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic crisis.
“Many people questioned the likelihood of the unity government being successful,” Wilker pointed out. The new government’s coalition agreement included, among other shaky elements, Netanyahu’s promise to rotate the premiership to Gantz in November 2021. Many observers doubted that prospect.
But what led to the Knesset vote against the unity government was the breaking of another component of the coalition agreement, which was to pass a national budget this year for 2020 as well as 2021. The country has been financing itself based on a 2018 budget that doesn’t reflect the current economy and the extra expenditures required due to the fight against the pandemic.
According to Plesner, the Dec. 2 vote was “a significant milestone, … but not necessarily the final act of the government.” He said Dec. 23 “is the more important date.” That’s the deadline for passing a 2020 budget. If the budget isn’t approved by that date, the government automatically falls.
Meanwhile, the government continues its paralysis, Plesner said, during a pandemic that is “not taking into account the political crisis. The vaccine is many months away from being available to a significant number of Israelis.” There’s a potential for a third impending lockdown. “After the second lockdown, most people thought it was politically motivated.” If a lockdown is imposed during an election campaign, “Israeli distrust will rise.”
“We’re now in a deep economic recession,” Plesner continued, “with trust at an all-time low. There’s a lack of social cohesion.” In the past, he said, Israelis would rally around the flag during a crisis. This time, it’s the opposite.
And there’s no good news coming in the new year for this government. The evidentiary phase of Netanyahu’s corruption trial on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery is scheduled to start in February, which could be in the middle of an election campaign. Netanyahu, Plesner said, wouldn’t want the optics of him showing up in court several days a week during the political contest.
In addition, the Israeli Supreme Court has refused to provide an extension for the government to halt the recruitment of ultra-Orthodox into the army. That means that by January, tens of thousands of these young men could be recruited, against the wishes of the ultra-Orthodox parties that are partners in the coalition government. Plesner said this could result in a “constitutional crisis.”
If there is another election around the corner, Netanyahu would not showcase pictures of himself with President Donald Trump, as he has in the last three elections, Wilker said. On the other hand, he said, the prime minister might display posters of himself with leaders of the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain, with whom he recently signed diplomatic agreements. “That was a huge win for Bibi,” Wilker said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
Plesner said it’s still possible the current government will survive into November 2021, but no one seems to be betting on that possibility this week.