Yesterday, a last-minute bill delaying Israel’s budget deadline by 120 days passed with reluctant support from Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Under the coalition agreement, failure to approve a national budget would have triggered new elections, but the compromise, which moves back the deadline to approve a national budget to December 23, 2020, means another campaign is off for now. The mistrust between Kachol Lavan and the Likud suggests this delay is only temporary, and for Netanyahu, an election is essential for his survival – the elusive 61 seat right-wing majority to provide him protection from prosecution still seems to be his only way to stay in power beyond the short run.
Despite an increase in popularity since announcing the U.S.-facilitated normalization agreement with the UAE, Netanyahu’s political career still hangs in the balance. The agreement itself has come under scrutiny, in particular, due to reports suggesting the deal was conditioned by Netanyahu approving the American sale of F-35 fighter jets to the Emiratis. The prime minister denied making any such commitment, prompting the UAE to cancel a trilateral meeting with the U.S. and Israel last week. And though the normalization announcement was met with great approval in Israel, Netanyahu still faces significant issues on the domestic front.
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister must navigate Israel through an economic crisis that has caused the worst quarterly fall in GDP in 40 years as COVID-19 cases continue to spread at one of the highest per-capita rates in the world. Despite his attempts to delay court proceedings, Netanyahu is standing trial for charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. The corruption cases and Netanyahu’s handling of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic have brought Israelis to the streets, and protests continue around the country.
Netanyahu does not want elections at this point in time, but there is no doubt that he is eyeing the perfect moment. His refusal to agree to Kachol Lavan’s proposed two-year national budget is a clear indication that Netanyahu does not intend to pass over the premiership to Gantz in November 2021. This, despite the prime ministerial rotation clause being a central pillar of the Likud-Kachol Lavan unity agreement signed just a few months ago. Moreover, polling projects that Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc is in a position to secure the 61 seat majority that Netanyahu failed to reach in the last three consecutive elections.
If Netanyahu is waiting for the chance to pounce on snap elections, Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz will do anything to stop them. Ever since agreeing to join Netanyahu’s government, and breaking up Kachol Lavan, Gantz has plummeted in the polls and many are suggesting he will face the fate of previous generals-turned-failed politicians like Shaul Mofaz, who brought Kadima from being Israel’s largest party to holding just two Knesset seats between two legislative elections. Gantz has lost much of his center-left base of support to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid-Telem and many of his center-right supporters have turned to Yamina’s Naftali Bennett, whose popularity has surged due to his effective critique of the government’s coronavirus response.
For Netanyahu to prolong his political career, he needs elections, but his timing must be spot on. The prime minister must find a window when Israel’s economy is recovering, COVID-19 is under control, and he can effectively campaign both in Israel and abroad. For Gantz, the opposite is true; prolonging his political career depends on preventing elections at all costs. If by some miraculous chain of events, the coalition survives until November 2021, Gantz will become prime minister, but all the odds are against him.