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Second Ballot of 2019 Could be Netanyahu’s ‘Swan Song’

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13 Sep 2019
With Israelis headed to a second round of elections next Tuesday, the final polls came out this Friday and they continue to show a virtual dead-heat between incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud and his main rival Benny Gantz of the Blue & White list, with each polling at around 30-32 Knesset seats. A couple outlier surveys did show Likud with a last-minute surge to as many as 36 seats, but the Right bloc is still falling one or two seats short of the 61 majority needed to form a government. This has been a somewhat lackluster race by Israeli standards, marked by a very quiet summer hiatus from the campaign trail, as well as much voter fatigue and frustration over having to go through this whole exercise a second time in 2019. Indeed, voter turnout is projected to be low on Tuesday. However, we can expect a very intense drama to start playing out once the ballots are counted and the crucial horse-trading begins in talks over who will form the next government, with what coalition partners and on what terms.

If anyone benefitted from this second round of elections, it was the man who forced them, Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu. True to his calculations, he has risen from five to likely 9-10 Knesset seats, cementing his place as the ‘kingmaker’ at the center of Israeli politics. He forced the nation into a second go-round by challenging Netanyahu not to cave to the demands of the ultras-Orthodox parties in a Right-wing government – the same old alignment that has basically kept Bibi in power (with Liberman at his side) for the past decade.

Liberman has recently suggested he would recommend to President Reuven Rivlin that Benny Gantz should serve as the next prime minister, which would radically reshuffle the deck, although even the end-result of such a move is still filled with uncertainty. Gantz has ruled out sitting in a government with the Joint List of Arab MKs as well as with a Netanyahu-led Likud, which means he will need Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, plus Labor/Gesher and Democratic Union to his left, and then one or more parties to the right of Likud – parties that could be highly reticent to join him.

One foreseeable scenario has a humbled Netanyahu quickly stepping down as head of Likud to make way for a successor, who would then take the party into a centrist, national unity government with Gantz and Liberman. That normally would call for a rotation deal between Gantz and the new Likud leader to take turns as prime minister, but such an outcome is complicated by the rotation agreement Gantz already has with his current campaign partner Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid.

It also cannot be ruled out that Netanyahu could still pull out a last-second victory, like so many times before. But he conceded this week that Likud’s own internal polls indicate the Right will not get enough seats for him to continue as premier. And unlike the April ballot – when Netanyahu got an election-eve boost from US recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan and Russia helped return the body of a long-missing IDF soldier – the waning days of this campaign have been marked by an uncharacteristic show of “weakness”, his critics insist. First, he was chased from the stage of a Likud rally in Ashdod by a Hamas rocket barrage on Tuesday evening, and then Vladimir Putin made him sit and wait for three hours before their meeting in Sochi on Thursday.

According to what is perhaps the most objective and comprehensive poll in recent weeks, the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute found that most Israelis feel Netanyahu has improved Israel’s international standing and strengthened its national defense, but has failed to reduce economic and social gaps and remains tarred by corruption suspicions. They also prefer a unity government over one dominated by the Right or the Center/Left. Finally, the double election of 2019 has undermined the public’s confidence in the political process to deal with the nation’s problems and provide a better future for their children.

Whatever the outcome on Tuesday, this rather blase election season will nevertheless be historic, as it either will mark yet another surprise election victory by Israel’s longest serving prime minister, or the likely end of Netanyahu’s long and storied political career. Nearing 70, it would be hard to envision a defeated Bibi staying on as Opposition leader, or even his Likud party keeping him at the helm.

For more on the recent Israel Democracy Institute survey on the second round of Israeli elections, click HERE


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