Israel is in a political deadlock, and it is unlikely the parliamentary elections in March 2020 will change the situation. But there are chinks in the armor of PM Netanyahu's own party, says Peter Philipp.
Israelis head to the polls on March 2, 2020, to vote for a new parliament. It will be the third election within just 12 months, following parliamentary elections in April and September 2019. Then, like now, it is hoped the vote will finally deliver a clear political outcome, and give the government a strong majority in parliament. For the past 11 months, after all, Israel has been ruled by a caretaker government that could have lost power, or gained new legitimacy, through the previous two parliamentary elections — but didn't. It has been headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving head of government — and the first Israeli leader to face corruption charges while still in office.
Netanyahu leads Israel's right-wing nationalist Likud party, and he is determined to keep things this way, no matter what. So when news broke that he would be formally charged for corruption, he attacked the move as an intrigue aimed at toppling him. Until the new election date was set, Netanyahu continued peddling his conviction that he alone can save the country from its political quagmire and portraying the charges as a witch hunt. And while Netanyahu has taken flak from some fellow party members, a majority of Likudniks share the prime minster's view that he is being unfairly singled out.
Netanyahu has adhered to a staunchly nationalist agenda like no other head of government before him, for instance with regard to settlements built on lands occupied by Israel in 1967. He has taken an uncompromising stance on Palestinians, even those who are Israeli citizens, and also towards Iran, which Netanyahu has long treated as public enemy number one.
The prime minister has also taken a hard-line position on domestic matters, decrying the Blue-White opposition alliance as "left-wing radicals" and branded the camp a threat to Israel's security, despite the claim being patently untrue and being criticized even from those within his own ranks. Netanyahu has, in short, taken the gloves off. He has not even shied away from lambasting critics from his own political camp as "traitors."
Likud youth branch wants Netanyahu gone
Several hundred members of Likud's youth branch, for example, felt Netanyahu's wrath when they suggested a new party leadership should be voted in and a candidate list agreed upon on December 26 ahead of the polls. As punishment, some were thrown out of the party, while others had their membership status reviewed.
Now, they are setting their sights directly on Netanyahu. Because for the first time in years, the Likud leader faces a serious internal rival: Gideon Sa'ar. Sa'ar has been a Likud member and MP for years, and even served as minister. Now, he is aiming to replace Netanyahu as the party leader.
Unchanged status quo
Experts are projecting that the March 2020 election will deliver a similarity muddled result as the previous two: Unless there is a dramatic development, such as Netanyahu's trial, Israel's political impasse will drag on. Hopes some event might finally lead out of the deadlock have existed for a year now, but so far, nothing has changed.
Indeed, nothing has changed in the Palestinian territories, either. The last Palestinian legislative elections were held in 2006. Now, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has announced he plans to hold fresh elections, demanding that Israel ensure Arabs in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem can cast their ballot, too. So far, Netanyahu's government has not responded to Abbas' request — though many expect it will refuse.
The writing is on the wall
Nobody, however, believes Sa'ar has a realistic chance of succeeding in his bid to topple Netanyahu from within. Likud has never in its history ousted or voted out an incumbent party leader. The pro-Sa'ar momentum among the younger faction nevertheless indicates that, sooner or later, the Netanyahu era is slowly coming to an end. And some observers are already envisioning a post-Netanyahu era — in which Israel could once again regain its status as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East.