Written by Numi Katz
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on December 24 that Israel would hold early elections on April 9th, 2019. The announcement came after Netanyahu convened his coalition’s leaders in an emergency meeting to discuss their governing prospects after a period of legislative gridlock.
In the announcement to press, Netanyahu reflected on his coalition’s “four full years in tenure with incredible achievement.” The decision to call for elections arose “out of budgetary and national responsibility” and with a goal of increasing its mandate to “continue to govern in our own path.” The coalition presented a display of solidarity after two months of internal struggles and in anticipation of the challenging campaign ahead. The call for snap elections is best understood in the context of both legislative and personal turmoil.
Netanyahu claims that now is the time for snap elections after the apparent subdual of national security tensions in Gaza and at the Israel-Lebanon border. His administration came under criticism for their handling of both situations with just 36% of the public approving of the administration’s actions in Gaza. Compounded with public dissatisfaction, the situation in Gaza brought to light internal strife within Netanyahu’s coalition. Out of disapproval of a peace agreement between Israel and Hamas, Netanyahu’s defense minister Avigdor Liberman resigned from his post and withdrew his party from the governing coalition. Liberman’s resignation and withdrawal of his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, means the governing coalition holds just a one seat majority in the Knesset.
On the legislative front, Netanyahu’s struggle to pass a controversial new conscription law has captured national attention. The new law attempts to resolve the dispute over the conscription of yeshiva age Ultra-Orthodox teenagers who would otherwise serve in the army. In September 2017, the Israeli Supreme Court struck down a policy exempting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from military conscription, tasking the government with drafting new legislation to remedy the situation. Between the first and second drafts of the bill Netanyahu lost the necessary votes to pass the bill with the resignation of Avigdor Liberman. Now, he faces defections from all sides with both left leaning and religious parties pulling their support for the bill after its second reading. The law is extremely important to Netanyahu’s constituency and legislative paralysis helped push the coalition towards calling elections to increase their mandate.
Not only has his coalition faced challenges from all sides, but Netanyahu himself is also the subject of his third corruption investigation. Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit recently announced that he would begin reviewing the case for corruption charges against Netanyahu. The call for snap elections constrains and politicizes Mandeblit’s investigation. Given the short time frame it is unlikely that the prime minister will be indicted or cleared before votes are cast. Perhaps more consequential to the legitimacy of the investigation, any announcement made in the context of ongoing elections is at risk of being construed as politically motivated. The call for snap elections not only emerges from legislative needs but hopes to preempt the corruption investigation from making Netanyahu a non-viable candidate.Despite underlying instability, early public opinion polls and past approval ratings suggest that Netanyahu’s coalition is likely to remain in power for another term. Victory, however, will be hard fought. The largest threat to Netanyahu comes from ex-IDF chief Benny Gantz who leads the Israel Resilience Party. Polls put Gantz’s newly created party second in the polls, but still well behind Netanyahu’s Likud. Rather than poaching Likud voters, Gantz’s decision to enter the race appears to pull voters from Yair Lapid’s centrist party. With three months until election day, a difficult campaign lies ahead for Israeli politicians.