Netanyahu faces corruption trial and party divisions as elections approach
JERUSALEM — As Israel prepares to hold its fourth elections in two years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a tough electoral battle amid divisions inside his right-wing Likud party.
Netanyahu also faces potential imprisonment if he fails to form the next government in light of his current criminal trial on charges of corruption.
While Likud is tipped to win the March polls, the chances of forming the next government remain a matter of debate.
Main challengers of the Likud party include the right-wing New Hope party of Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Benet’s New Right party. This conflict between the right-wing parties will further complicate the upcoming vote.
Netanyahu thrice failed to form a unity government since April 2019, while his coalition government with the Blue and White party led by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz in May 2020 collapsed last month.
No Trump to save Bibi
By the time of the Israeli polls in March, US President Donald Trump, who formed a strong bromance with Netanyahu, will be out of the White House.
Trump has promoted Netanyahu’s right-wing politics by relocating the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, legalizing Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.
In addition, Trump pushed for normalization deals between Israel and a number of Arab states – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.
While Trump’s “gifts” to Netanyahu have relatively boosted the Israeli premier’s popularity, particularly within his right-wing base, new US President Joe Biden might not do him much favor.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has pledged to accelerate the COVID-19 vaccination campaign to ensure that it is completed by the end of March, a move seen by many analysts as a campaign scorecard.
Divide and rule tactics
Israeli analysts believe that Netanyahu plans to divide the Joint List – a coalition of four Arab parties – and right-wing opposition parties, akin to what he did with the Blue and White party.
In May 2020, Netanyahu formed a coalition with the Blue and White party led by Gantz, consequently pitting him against his ally Yair Lapid who currently leads the “There is a Future” party.
According to observers, Netanyahu’s strategy for the upcoming elections focuses on dismantling the Joint List in order to weaken it and strike the Israeli right-wing parties to emerge victorious in the polls.
Last week, clashes erupted between Israeli security forces and Arabs when Netanyahu arrived in the northern city of Nazareth to hold talks with the Joint List. Several municipal chiefs boycotted the meeting.
Critics saw Netanyahu’s visit — his third to an Arab city in just two weeks – as an attempt by the Likud party to court Arab voters.
The Israeli premier has lately taken a U-turn in his rhetoric about Arabs in Israel as the vote looms, promising a “new era” for Arab citizens.
“Arab citizens should fully be a part of Israeli society,” Israeli daily Haaretz quoted Netanyahu as saying.
Netanyahu also announced a plan to nominate an Arab figure in a guaranteed seat on the Likud list in the upcoming Israeli elections.
However, Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of Knesset, is surprised by the “sudden love” that Netanyahu has expressed to Arab citizens.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Tibi said that Netanyahu is trying to “make us idiots” by working for him.
Recalling Netanyahu’s anti-Arab rhetoric in previous electoral campaigns, Tibi warned of the Israeli premier’s lies, describing his change of approach as a “sudden love” that is “temporary and will disappear after the elections”.
Arab citizens constitute 20 percent of Israel’s 9 million population.
Divisions among the right-wing
While the centrist and left-wing parties do not pose a serious threat to Netanyahu’s chances for reelection, his plan to forge a coalition for the next government with right-wing parties faces uncertainties amid heightened divisions.
Sa’ar and Bennett, the leaders of two main challenges to Netanyahu’s Likud party, announced plans of a coalition to form the new government, while Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Israel Our Home party, promised not to support a Netanyahu-led government.
According to Israeli journalist Yoni Ben Menachem, the competition between the right-wing parties will divide the right and weaken Netanyahu.
“Netanyahu seeks to obtain a coalition of 61 seats in the Knesset so that he can later pass the French law which gives him immunity from prosecution as long as he is in office,” Ben Menachem noted.
He added: “Public opinion polls in Israel indicate that it is difficult for Netanyahu to obtain 61 seats, as Sa’ar announced that he will not join the government, which is Lieberman’s position”
Netanyahu is facing a criminal trial by the Israeli Central Court in East Jerusalem on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.
Currently, Netanyahu has support from the right-wing Shas and United Torah Judaism parties and he hopes to persuade the New Right to join his coalition to form a government.
While there is a possibility that opposition parties will form a coalition to prevent this from happening, Ben Menachem noted that the ideological differences between the right-wing, centrist, and left-wing Jewish parties, and the Arab Joint List make such a possibility an improbable one.
“It is true that there are those in Israel who wish Netanyahu the same fate as Trump – defeat in upcoming elections – but it is still premature to make [such] conclusions,” Ben Menachem concluded.
— Anadolu Agency