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March Madness Descends on Israel; Incumbent Fights an Uphill Battle

Failing to form a unity government, top parties agree to hold elections next year

As the midnight Wednesday deadline rapidly approaches, Israel took a step closer to an unprecedented third election within a 12-month period when its two top parties agreed to hold Round Three in March 2020 after failing to agree on forming a unity coalition government.

Embattled Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from the right-wing Likud party and his main rival, former army chief-of-staff Benny Gantz, who heads the centrist Blue and White alliance, blamed each other for the political deadlock.

Neri Zilber, a senior fellow at Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre in Tel Aviv, told The Media Line that, barring a last-minute deal, the chance of averting a third election is slim.

“This was the inevitability as they see it, that Israel is almost certainly going to a third straight election. While they still have a few more days until the Wednesday midnight deadline, it doesn’t seem that a last-minute breakthrough will happen to form a government and avert a third election,” Zilber said.

Following the inconclusive elections in April and September, the two parties engaged in intense negotiations between themselves and with other parties on ways to form a coalition, but they failed.

Netanyahu, who was indicted on a string of corruption charges earlier this month, has demanded that he lead a unity government first, but Gantz refused outright and said it was he who should serve first as premier.

But with an unprecedented third election in less than a year, no one can guarantee that the next election will produce a result that is any more conclusive.

The political stalemate has affected almost every sector of life in Israel and the political impasse has essentially been holding everything else hostage.

“You have to look at it from two different angles: number one, in terms of economics. [Because the] government is essentially not functioning normally for almost a year, that will impact long-term budgetary planning, military spending, [the] health sector and just dealing with the budget deficit,” Zilber said.

Interestingly, Zilber opined that the military was less affected by the political logjam.

“In terms of security, things are moving along relatively normally. All elements under the prime minister, cabinet and security establishment seem to be moving forward fairly normally. They are operating in Gaza, Syria and the region as they need to so that hasn’t been impacted as much.”

Aside from its effects on policy and budgets, the political deadlock may have significantly affected citizens’ trust in the democratic system.

Dr. Amir Fuchs, head of the Defending Democratic Values project at the Israel Democracy Institute, told The Media Line that after two consecutive elections, Israelis may be facing voter fatigue.

“I don’t know how much the percentage will be, but some people may say, ‘We give up. If politicians cannot agree, then why should I vote?’ I fear this.”

Fuchs argues that political disarray and politicians being unable to work together will have an impact on how Israelis feel about their democracy.

“It might influence the participation and lead to low turnout in the election. Of course, we saw in some polls that people were more worried about the fate of Israeli democracy. They see that there is a problem.”

Zilber says the road to a March election is going to be harder for the incumbent.

“A lot can change. Netanyahu almost certainly has to win. I don’t think the stalemate like the last two elections will be enough for Netanyahu to maintain his position as both the head of Likud and interim prime minister.”