Israel’s fifth election in less than four years opens on Tuesday, pitting familiar rivals against each other. None is more familiar than former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is aiming to capitalize on the current political upheaval and return to power.
As ballot boxes open in Israel on Tuesday, Israelis hope to break the political deadlock paralysing the country for the past three and a half years.
The fifth election since 2019 has seen Israel gain the dubious honor of the highest election frequency of any parliamentary democracy in the world. Yet opinion polls are predicting another tight race. And, once again, elections are set to be dominated by former Prime Minister Netanyahu, now in the running to regain power.
His main rival is caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, a centrist currently leading the coalition who ousted Netanyahu in 2021 after 12 years as prime minister.
More than 12 months later, the prospect of voting for Netanyahu comes with baggage. He is currently embroiled in a corruption trial and is expected to unite with far-right parties in order to attempt to form a coalition government.
Even so, “Netanyahu still commands a lot of popularity, whether it's because people still believe in his politics or they just don't think there’s anyone else,” says Mairav Zonszein, senior analyst for Israel-Palestine at International Crisis Group in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu’s legal troubles have been ongoing since 2019, when he was indicted for breach of trust, accepting bribes and fraud, and legally obliged to give up ministry portfolios except for his position as prime minister.
Accusations include that Netanyahu accepted expensive gifts from wealthy acquaintances, bribed an official to drop charges against his wife, and discussed legislation to harm certain national newspapers.
Yet the legal scandal does not seem to have dented public opinion. In 2021 his party Likud received about a quarter of the total vote.
Among some Israeli Jews, “there’s still the belief that he is the most able and the most competent Prime Ministerial candidate,” says Hugh Lovatt, senior policy officer at the European Council on Foreign Relations based in London. “He may have his personal problems, but he has been, in their view, able to safeguard Israel's security interests, and advance Israeli foreign policy.”
The assurance of safety is a powerful one when recent terror attacks have lowered the numbers of people polled in Israel who feel optimistic about the future of national security from 52% in August to 43% in October.
It is expected that if Netanyahu returns to power, he will continue to pursue long-held political beliefs: fighting the danger of an Iranian nuclear deal and the rejection of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.
Rhetoric around annexing parts of the West Bank and expanding Jewish settlements can also be expected to return, even if major action is less likely. A commitment to remaining in power makes Netanyahu a naturally “cautious and careful” politician, Lovatt says. “His political survival rests on not upending the status quo too much.”
An attack on the courts?
Political survival is a running theme in Netanyahu’s policy pronouncements. He has said he would 'neutralize' a historic agreement with Lebanon formalizing maritime borders between the two countries signed by Israel's current the prime minister – and Netanyahu’s main opposition – in October 2022. Critics say Netanyahu would have made the “exactly the same deal” had he been in power.
Critics are also concerned that a return to power would see Netanyahu weaken state institutions to consolidate his position.
If Netanyahu’s center-right party, Likud, does not gain the 61 seats required for a parliamentary majority, he is expected to unite with the ultranationalist Religious Zionism bloc. Both parties have an interest in modifying Israel’s judiciary system.
On the far-right, Israel’s highest court is accused of being too liberal, and of not protecting Jewish interests – for example, failing to reject the maritime deal with Lebanon.
“They feel the Supreme Court has been far too activist liberal in their view that the Knesset [Israel’s legislative body] should have a greater say,” says Lovatt.
For Netanyahu, the desire to tame national courts is a means to end his legal problems. Itamar Ben-Gvir, a co-leader of the Religious Zionism party, has already pledged to demand legislation that would cancel Netanyahu’s corruption trial if he were made a member of Israel’s next government.
“There’s an assumption that Netanyahu has promised far-right politicians cabinet positions in return for them pushing a law that would make the judicial system less independent,” says Zonszein.
'Last chance to win'
There are signs that some in politics are tiring of Netanyahu’s dominance. In 2021, he was ousted by an unlikely coalition that united left-wing, far-right and Arab political parties keen to block him from power.
Although the group surprised many by staying in power for more than a year, ultimately ideological differences won out. Right-wing Jewish nationalists withdrew support over disagreements on whether to maintain legal protections giving Jewish settlers in the West Bank rights that Palestinians living there do not have, such as access to Israeli health insurance.
Despite his longevity, Netanyahu’s presence in political life may even be a contributing factor to ongoing instability in Israeli politics. “On paper, you have enough votes to form a right-wing coalition,” says Lovatt, “but a lot of right-wing groups won't sit with Netanyahu. If Netanyahu was no longer on the political scene, the main obstacle to forming a right-wing coalition would disappear.”
Within his own party, too, some are keen for change. “There are members who are sick of him, but they can't say it out loud yet because there's nobody who has risen up to take it over,” says Zonszein. “But they're saying this is the last election that Netanyahu has a chance to win and if he doesn't win, his time is up."
A deciding factor could be the Arab vote – if voters can be mobilised. “They are the biggest opponent to the right in this election because they make up 20% of the population,” says Zonszein. “If they voted in high numbers, the Arab vote would sway the election.”
Voting closes on Tuesday at 10pm in Israel, but negotiations between parties to form coalitions and decide on a new prime minister are likely to take weeks. So far opinion polls have predicted a race that is too close to call.