Israel is heading towards holding early elections, the fourth in less than two years, after the failure of the Likud and Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) parties to reach a settlement on the state’s budget, which would prevent the Israeli Knesset (parliament) from dissolving itself. Meanwhile, Gideon Saar’s split from Likud reversed the political balance in Israel, constituting a threat to Netanyahu’s renewed rise to power, especially after Water Resources Minister Zeev Elkin, who is close to Netanyahu, resigned and joined Saar.
Background and context
It was announced in Israel that early elections would be held on 23 March 2021, following the failure of the Likud and Kahol Lavan parties to reach a solution that would prevent the Israeli Knesset from automatically dissolving itself, and guarantee the continuity of the coalition agreement between the two parties signed in May 2020 and the implementation of the rotation clause therein with regard to the premiership where Benny Gantz, leader of Kahol Lavan would assume the premiership in place of Netanyahu in November 2021.
In an attempt to put pressure on Likud, which has always evaded the coalition agreement, and drive it to put to the vote the Israeli budget for 2020 and 2021 on the deadline of 23 December 2020, which has already been extended from August 2020 by virtue of a law that was passed in the Knesset at the time, Kahol Lavan supported the draft law to withdraw confidence from the Netanyahu government, that was submitted by the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) and Meretz parties. It was voted on in a preliminary reading by the Knesset on 2 December 2020 where 61 members voted for it and 54 members voted against it, in preparation for putting it to the vote during the same month after the first, second and third readings to become effective.
Thus, Benny Gantz sent the ball into the court of Likud and Netanyahu, leaving it to them to prevent the implementation of the law to dissolve the Knesset and the government if they complied and decided to vote on the budget for two years instead of one as they wanted, before 23 December 2020, and thus adhere to the agreement to rotate the leadership of the coalition government. However, the Likud took advantage of the powers granted to the Likud-affiliated Speaker of the Knesset Yariv Levin, and aborted the submission of the no-confidence law for a vote on it after the first reading, given that the proposed law included demands to reduce 10 percent of the parties’ budget and affirm the transparency of election campaigns on the social media. These two demands were rejected by Likud because both of them would not serve its purposes in the elections it was seeking. The Likud let things go as they are towards the decision by the Knesset to automatically dissolve itself after 23 December 2020 by virtue of the failure to pass the budget law.
48 hours before the deadline for the automatic dissolution of the Knesset (23 December 2020), Netanyahu and Gantz attempted to reach an agreement between them in the last moments, by proposing a bill delaying the vote on the budget until 5 January 2021, in the hope of getting more time to reach a solution that would bring the ruling coalition out of its crisis and prevent heading towards new early elections whose results are unknown. However, members angry at the performance of the government from Kahol Lavan and Likud alike, rebelled and aborted together the passage of the law to postpone the vote on the budget at the preliminary reading with 49 votes against 47. Thus, Netanyahu and Gantz were drawn together to early elections on 23 March 2021.
Since the formation of the coalition government with Gantz eight months ago, Netanyahu has been trying hard to drag the country towards early elections for the fourth time, which were at one time in his favour, in order to get rid of the coalition agreement with Kahol Lavan and prevent the alternative Prime Minister Benny Gantz from achieving the rotation and assuming the premiership in November 2021. For his part, Gantz was also striving to avoid the elections after his party’s popularity was shattered even among his own supporters because it entered into a partnership with the "corrupt" Netanyahu who had manipulated it for months in the coalition government and succeeded in marginalising it. Kahol Lavan has retreated so much that opinion polls have come to grant it 5 to 6 seats only, after it had won 33 seats in the elections of 2 March 2020.
Saar’s defection shuffles the cards of the Israeli right
In parallel with the debate over early elections, the Israeli political arena, especially the right-wing camp, entered a critical juncture with the defection of Gideon Saar, the fourth man in the Likud Party, and his formation of a new party called Tikva Hadasha (New Hope). Saar attracted a significant number of ministers and members of the Knesset, most notably the Minister of Water Resources and Higher Education Zeev Elkin, who is deemed Netanyahu's confidant and one of two very close names to him.
Netanyahu is likely to be in a worse position when he has to compete in the elections against Gideon Saar who is accepted by all the Knesset blocs, from Kahol Lavan and Yesh Atid to extreme right Yamina (Rightwards), headed by Naftali Bennett, given that Saar would appear as a politician with a rare capability to form alliances. He guarantees the formation of a true and honest unity government without deception and tricks, unlike Netanyahu. This would end a political, economic and moral nightmare that dominated Israel for a decade, threatened to demolish the foundations of the state, and put the Israeli street in a state of continuous demonstration against the authority and the government.
According to the latest polls, Saar’s new party will gain votes from various trends and parties on the political map, with the exception of Meretz and the fundamentalist Haredi parties. The polls gave it between 17 and 21 seats, whereas they gave Likud 25 seats after previous polls had given it 29 seats, in an indication of the continued decline in Likud’s power in the polls. On the other hand, the coalition of right-wing parties Yamina retreated and got 19 seats after the polls had given it 23 seats. The same situation awaits Yesh Atid that retreated and got 14 seats, given that previous opinion polls had given it 19 seats.
The recent divisions affected the Arab Joint List that recorded a decline in opinion polls to gain 11 seats, while the fundamentalist Haredi parties maintained their strength with Shas (Shepardic Guardians) (for the Eastern religious) winning 9 seats, while Yahadut HaTora (United Torah Judaism) (for the Western religious) won 7 seats, the Russian Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party got 7 seats, the Kahol Lavan coalition continued to break down and got only 6 seats, and Meretz, the icon of the left and peace, got 5 seats.
The most prominent outcome revealed by the opinion polls after Saar split from Likud and expressed its intention to run in the elections with a new right-wing party is how Saar’s Tikva Hadasha party will influence the party and political map and the chances of any of the candidates in forming a government after the elections. The results of the polls showed that a bloc headed by Netanyahu that includes the Likud and the fundamentalist Haredi parties would only win 41 seats out of 120 seats (the total of the Knesset seats). This bloc would get 60 seats if they are joined by the ideological right-wing coalition Yamina. On the other hand, an alternative bloc to Netanyahu, led by Saar, with the participation of Yesh Atid, the Joint List, Yisrael Beiteinu, Kahol Lavan, and Meretz would reach 60 seats in the next Knesset.
The coming weeks, until 4 February 2021, which is the last date for the submission of the electoral lists in Israel are expected to witness unexpected lineups and formations. Some parties would possibly disappear, including old ones such as the leftist Labour Party that founded the Hebrew state, unless it chooses an appropriate leadership. Some alliances that have had a strong presence in the Israeli political scene during the past two years would possibly disintegrate, such as Kahol Lavan that competed with Likud during the past three election rounds, to be replaced by Gideon Saar's new party Tikva Hadasha. Naftali Bennett, the leader of Yamina, who announced that he will run for prime minister in place of Netanyahu, will be the main player and the critical factor in the upcoming elections. According to expectations, only the Saar-Bennett coalition would overthrow Netanyahu's rule.
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