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Political Parties’ Maneuvering Hints at Netanyahu’s Vulnerabilities

Splits in Israel’s center-left coalition emphasize uncertainty in Netanyahu’s long-lived tenure ahead of significant risks to the Prime Minister

Political maneuvering continued to rise in Israel in the wake of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for early elections, which will be held on April 9.

Political coalitions have reshuffled, and new parties have emerged since the announcement of early elections, which some experts attribute to mounting threats to Netanyahu’s popularity posed by investigations into charges of corruption against him and his wife and the uncertain impact of U.S. President Donald Trump’s imminent Middle East peace plan.

Last week, the turbulence amassed on the center-left Zionist Union coalition which has, until recently, represented the most significant competition for the prime minister’s right-wing Likud-led government. The blow came when Avi Gabbay, leader of the Labor Party, shook up the fragile unity in the center-left by unexpectedly ejecting the politically inert Tzipi Livni, leader of the Hatnuah party, thereby dissolving the alliance.

The Zionist Union emerged as the second-largest party in the Parliament after the 2015 elections with 24 seats while Netanyahu’s Likud Party won 30. Nonetheless, running with Livni’s party, the Zionist Union has been experiencing a drop in popular support over the last decade and an identity crisis in recent years, as different factions have fought for leadership and quarreled over the direction of the party. Its leadership also emerged from uncertain foundations when Gabbay, who is not a member of the Knesset, took the reins in 2017 just months after transferring from the rival Likud.

Netanyahu’s decision to reschedule the election has galvanized various factions of the Israeli parliament into reconfiguring themselves in an attempt to make the most out of whatever the outcome, whether or not the Prime Minister were to be re-elected.

Professor Tamir Sheafer, the Dean of Social Sciences Faculty at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, explained to The Media Line that “each party is now trying to get as many votes as possible to increase its power. Even parties that know they will continue to be in the opposition will simply be trying to increase their power.”

“It doesn’t matter what they’re competing for,” Shaefer continued, “the fact is that the right wing has a strong majority in Israel and I don’t think that the breakdowns or possible recombination of parties within each bloc matter as long as the right wing and the center-left continue at odds. This is what defines the future coalitions.”

Echoing this relationship, Dr. Shmuel Sandler, an expert on Israeli electoral politics at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line that, “If you look at the Israeli political map today you predominantly have a right wing and a big center. The right wing believes in something similar to the status quo where there is no Palestinian state and no partition of Israel. The center, however, is known for two factors: one, that you cannot control the whole land of Israel as the right wing wishes and two, that there should be no negotiations to divide the land of Israel until a further time.”

This dynamic between the right and the center-left underscores the troubles faced by the Labor Party, which experts say needs to increase popular support by taking a harder line on the security concerns of the Israeli population.

Gabbay is now expected to seek an alliance with the popular former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who recently announced he was forming a political party called Hosen L’Yisrael (“Resilience for Israel”), in an effort to strengthen the resistance to the Likud Party’s dominance.

“Gabbay needed some momentum,” Dr. Sandler continued. “He wants to move his Labor Party from the center-left to the center and to compete for that center with the other politicians,” Sandler concluded. “Gantz’s potential to further this goal is clear” because he has placed himself steadfastly on the center.

However, many observers remain wary of the anticipation about Gantz’s leadership, like Dr. Jonathan Rynhold, director of the Argov Center for the Study of Israel and the Jewish People, who warned The Media Line that “we don’t really know what commands Gantz.”

“He clearly has the security credentials that are very important to the Israeli public so he’s clearly in the game. The problem is that his credentials don’t mean that he’s a good politician. But he hasn’t said anything yet. We understand that he is capable, but we don’t know his stances, nor do we know his methods.

Politically speaking, Dr. Rynhold questioned, “is he nice but ruthless or is he nice but nice?”

Gantz has entertained other offers for alliances since Gabbay’s dissolution of the center-left alliance. His trajectory remains largely unknown.

The political arena will become more complex as April nears. Netayahu’s domination of the polls could be threatened by an imminent announcement from Israel’s attorney general regarding his intent to indict the prime minister on corruption charges. It could also be threatened by the unknown nature of U.S. President Donald Trump’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan, which, among much else, could pit Israel’s political establishment against itself or against the American administration.

In this context, Israel’s center-left must find a way to appeal more effectively to the voters, and to do so in a more united manner, if it wishes to pose a real threat to a prime minister whose long tenure has afforded him the epithet “King Bibi.”

(Victor Cabrera is a student intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)