Will Israel’s election trilogy complete the saga?

Bibi Netanyahu and Benny Gantz at the polls, but who will come out on top during the third straight election? (Jewish News)
Bibi Netanyahu and Benny Gantz at the polls, but who will come out on top during the third straight election? (Jewish News)

Trying to make sense of Israel’s third election on 2 March I sought solace in film trivia to find a new mode of analysis. Three elections in 11 months defied all expectations and broke the paradigm, so I thought I’d give this one a go.

Like many a third episode, this election has seen the main characters return, but they are stuck in a stale format, the audience is bored, and the writers are struggling with the script.

But for every terrible third film – think Back to the Future III, Karate Kid III, Rambo III, Lethal Weapon III, Indiana Jones and the last Crusade – there are some absolute classics. Rocky III brought us the titanic struggle with Clubber Lang, Return of the Jedi, Toy Story III, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and of course Godfather III. Is this election a classic or a turkey?

First the poll predictions. Like the last two episodes, this one is expected to have the same ending – neither Benjamin Netanyahu nor Benny Gantz are likely to be able to build a 61-seat majority coalition. Avigdor Lieberman, who provided the drama at the end of episode one and set up episode two, is playing the same role, he says he doesn’t want Netanyahu to be Prime Minister and now wants full military conscription for the ultra-orthodox community.

Netanyahu’s criminal charges, a strong theme throughout the trilogy, will begin their dramatic denouement on 17 March when the Jerusalem District Court will start his criminal trial. This announcement would have focused minds on the absurdity of Netanyahu’s barely credible plan to split his time between running the country and appearing in court. But Netanyahu had other ideas. Displaying his mastery of comic timing and distraction, on the same day he appeared in a bizarre but oddly compelling scene with President Trump at the White House to launch the US plan for Israel and the Palestinians.

Then the plot gathered pace and Netanyahu started to build momentum. He promised he would apply Israeli sovereignty to settlements in the West Bank ‘within days’ and sidestepped awkward questions about the Trump plan proposing a Palestinian state and a limited settlement construction freeze. Gantz gave the plan a cautious welcome and said he would put it, in its entirety, to a Knesset vote. But this clever ruse to flush out the plan’s opponents in Likud and Yamina and cause a split on the right ended up exposing the fault lines in Blue and White’s big tent. The Knesset vote never materialised.

BICOM poll of polls 14-24 February 2020

Netanyahu then kept the viewers entertained as he brokered a deal to free Naomi Issachar from a Russian prison, securing a pardon from President Putin for her drug smuggling conviction. Next he popped up in Uganda, at Entebbe airport no less – the site of Israel’s most daring counter terrorist mission and the place where Netanyahu’s brother was fatally shot at the end of the operation – to meet with the Sudanese leader to talk about establishing diplomatic ties.

Attentive viewers will remember that Netanyahu’s promise to apply Israeli sovereignty to settlements appeared in episode one and he promised to apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley in episode two. He also did the African Muslim country scene at the end of episode one when he visited Chad.

What about Benny Gantz? His character has started to fade and he has lost the fresh mystery that made him so appealing in episode one. His lines are not great, his media interviews have been lacklustre and, as opposition leader, he lacks the resources of the State to create his own momentum. The decision of the new State Prosecutor to ask Police to launch an investigation into a cyber security company Gantz chaired was an ingenious piece of last-minute crime drama that put him on the defensive and allowed Netanyahu and Likud to accuse Gantz of corruption.

In a brilliant plot twist no one could have predicted, three polls this week predict Likud will win one more seat than Blue and White on 2 March. That kind of gap is well within the margin of error but if Gantz fails to win more seats than Netanyahu he loses the advantage he had in September of leading the largest party. The reality is that Israel’s political stalemate is likely to continue. Netanyahu’s impending trial and his third failure to build a coalition could force him to change roles. If he has to resign as Prime Minister, he could easily morph into a political Godfather role, staying on as Likud leader cossetted with his lawyers working on his criminal trial by day, but pulling the strings of state behind the scenes, like a mafia don by night. That could pave the way for a Likud-Blue and White national unity Government.

The alternative is not good. A fourth election, like films that run into four or more episodes, always end in a very dark place. Look no further than Fast and Furious, Terminator, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

About the Author
James Sorene is CEO of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, Executive Editor of Fathom Journal and an analyst of Middle East political and security issues. He appears regularly on UK TV and Radio and writes for numerous newspapers and websites. He was previously a Senior Civil Servant, Deputy Director of UK Government Communications and Head of Communications for Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg from 2011 to May 2015.
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