Israel’s coalition government is facing persistent internal divisions and mounting public pressure.
Saturday night marked months of weekly protests against the government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, is currently on trial for fraud, bribery and breach of trust in several cases.
He denies the charges. His opponents, both within the coalition government and in the opposition, see every decision he makes marred by his personal interests. It has divided the country.
Protestors say Netanyahu cannot govern while on trial. In addition, they are criticizing his mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout.
“After eleven years of Netanyahu rule and three indictments, this country is too polarized to find common ground during a crisis,” said Reuven Hazan, a professor from the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
In addition to the public discord, the country has still not approved a budget for 2020. If such a budget is not approved, the Knesset will dissolve automatically, leading to elections as early as February. “This shows you just how much this coalition government can’t find common ground to even pass a budget to keep the economy going in the midst of a crisis. So basically, sometime between now and the summer of 2021, we’re likely to have an election,” said Hazan.
Many Israelis, who went to the polls three times within one year, seemed to have resigned to the fact that the only way to extricate the country from the crisis is to hold yet another election. The political instability is fueled by several factors, including Netanyahu’s trial, the pandemic and the economic fallout.
The current coalition government was formed after Netanyahu failed to form a right-wing alliance in three consecutive elections. The pandemic crisis pushed him and his main partner Benny Gantz from the Blue and White party to form the coalition government.
According to the power-sharing agreement, Netanyahu is supposed to hand over power to Gantz in a year. When the agreement was signed, many believed Netanyahu would not hold up his side of the bargain and do anything to avoid handing over power to Gantz.
“Netanyahu will try everything not to handover to Gantz and if there’s any opening at all. Netanyahu may well take a risk because once Gantz is prime minister, Netanyahu’s ability to prevent his court case and to stop himself from going to prison will go down dramatically,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a professor with the Political Studies Department at Bar Ilan University.
Gantz’s popularity has also suffered a major blow. Once considered a potential threat to Netanyahu, his move to enter a coalition with him under the pretense of a major national crisis disgruntled many of his supporters.
In an interview on Saturday, Gantz signaled he was not making political considerations and said he would not allow Netanyahu to postpone the budget vote any longer. Netanyahu, who appears to be stalling in order to find a better timing for a referendum, will then have no choice.
The budget is the only loophole in the coalition agreement that would cause the government to collapse. It is the only way Netanyahu can remain in power for now without giving Gantz the keys.
The protests against Netanyahu appear to be growing. As a result of the pandemic, the unemployment rate soared as did the budget deficit.
This came after over a year of political instability, three election campaigns and no budget. In several interviews, Netanyahu and other Likud party members have said they are unfazed by the demonstrations. It is difficult to tell whether Netanyahu’s dip in the polls is further fueled by the protests or merely a reflection of public sentiment on the crisis Israel is facing.