May 30, 2019 | 17:25 GMT

5 mins read

Israel: In Ordering New Polls, Netanyahu Sets the Stage for More of the Same

The Big Picture

In Israel's democratic parliamentary system, no party has ever won an outright majority; instead, coalition governments that are often riven with profound internal rivalries and disputes have governed the country, albeit uneasily. Now, as Israel prepares for another round of snap elections just a few months after April elections, resurgent nationalism and fractious party politics will remain front and center. September's elections also offer another rare opportunity for the center-left to take back power, although no one anticipates a huge swing in voting patterns so soon after last month's polls. As a result, the campaigns and inevitable coalition-building to come are likely to encounter the same stumbling blocks that just scuttled the most recent attempts to form a new government.

What Happened

Unable to cobble together a ruling coalition that would preserve his hold on power, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is betting that new elections will yield a more favorable result. Netanyahu, Israel's incumbent and prime minister-designate, failed to form a governing coalition by a May 29 deadline, coming up one seat short of securing a majority in the 120-member Knesset following elections in April. And with Netanyahu unwilling to allow Israel's president to ask a rival to step in to try to form a government, he decided to use his Likud party's current dominance to dissolve the parliament and call new elections for Sept. 17. This marks the first time in Israel's history that such an impasse occurred, as well as the first time the country will face two snap polls in one calendar year.

Why It Matters for Israel

The political drama shines a spotlight on several critical issues underlying domestic Israeli politics.

The religious-secular divide, particularly over military conscription. Ultra-orthodox Jewish leaders have demanded that young Orthodox Jews continue to be exempt from obligatory military service against the objections of secular right-wing leaders, including former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He refused to join the prospective coalition because ultra-Orthodox leaders wouldn't agree to the text of a bill on military conscription for all. The Haredim (ultra-Orthodox), who refuse to do military service because it detracts from their religious studies, are the fastest growing demographic group in Israel, which lends weight to their political demands.

Increasingly hawkish security policies. Already, Lieberman and Netanyahu are trading jabs over who is a "leftist," suggesting that the contenders for the September elections will make increasingly hard-line promises regarding policies to counter Palestinian militancy and Iran's regional activities.

Corruption at the government level. During coalition negotiations, Netanyahu reportedly requested future help with legislation that would grant him immunity from any charges related to three serious graft cases in which he is embroiled. The prime minister will face a hearing in early October over the cases, but given that the snap polls will not occur until mid-September, he will hardly have enough time to force through any legislation to protect himself — even if he does win the elections soundly.

Economic strain. The economic cost of another election will inflame concerns over government waste. Israel's finance minister warned on May 29 that a new election would cost 475 million shekels (or $131 million) to stage.

Netanyahu and Likud are gambling that they can win an election — and that their call for snap polls will not repel erstwhile supporters who might suffer from election fatigue.

Why It Matters Outside of Israel

While a new election is disruptive for domestic Israeli affairs, it won't affect Israel's foreign policy appreciably. No matter who leads the next Israeli government, the country still must deal with the same security threats internally (primarily Palestinian militancy) and externally (counterterrorism and Iran's growing presence in Syria and the broader Middle East). Whoever takes the helm, therefore, is likely to approach those issues in a similar way. It's also possible that in order to prove his tougher security credentials, if opinion turns against Netanyahu's favor, the current prime minister could push for even more hard-line policies in Gaza or against Iran in the region.

Nevertheless, given that Israel's government will be distracted by the upcoming polls, it is unlikely that it will be able to focus wholly on the White House-backed Arab-Israeli peace plan which will require significant Israeli buy-in in order to succeed.

What's Next

Netanyahu and Likud are gambling that they can win an election — and that their call for snap polls will not repel erstwhile supporters who might suffer from election fatigue. As it is, current opinion polling suggests that the results of the September elections will largely resemble those of the April vote, with the political right holding an advantage over the left. That bodes well for Netanyahu, but the next few months of campaigning will determine whether the public's trust in him and Likud will wane. The five seats that Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu won in the April voting made the former minister a kingmaker, a status that he employed to his advantage throughout the last several weeks of political horse trading. There's no guarantee, however, that Yisrael Beiteinu (or any other party) will score a similar result in September — especially as legislators who are anathema to Netanyahu, like Arab members of the Knesset, supported the parliament's dissolution, hoping that the electoral rerun would give them the chance to win more seats themselves. In the end, all of Israel's parties are hoping for a better showing in September, but there's an extremely high chance that the results will look a lot like April's.

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