It is conventional wisdom that Israel’s election on Tuesday is a referendum on Prime Minister Netanyahu after a decade of rule and with indictments for bribery and breach of trust looming. In this case, conventional wisdom is right, but it also does not go far enough. It isn’t simply that Israelis casting votes will be largely voting on Netanyahu. It is that the campaign has been shockingly devoid of issues other than Netanyahu; that after the elections, the smaller parties that pass the threshold will be calculating whether it makes sense to recommend to President Ruvi Rivlin whether Kachol Lavan or Likud should form the government depending on what happens to Netanyahu; and that the makeup of the next government should Kachol Lavan emerge victorious will hinge entirely on Netanyahu’s presence. To say this election is all about Netanyahu is actually an understatement.
This Israeli campaign has not been one where issues have been hotly debated or clear lines drawn between the leading parties on a host of policies. Netanyahu from the first day decided to run a campaign based on personal grievance and the charge that various allegedly leftist deep state institutions – the courts, the attorney general and state attorney, the media – were all determined to replace him through nefarious means because they couldn’t beat him at the ballot box. Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid decided to campaign on the very simple argument that the problem with the country is the corruption and contempt for state institutions that are a hallmark of Netanyahu and his governance, and that replacing Netanyahu himself is what is required to put the country on the right path. Both sides have decided that they are best off campaigning on the future of a single person rather than on a set of policies.
That is not to say that there are not genuine policy differences, because there are, and Kachol Lavan released a detailed platform covering a range of positions. But anyone who was hoping for a campaign that would be a debate over how to lower housing prices, or how to improve the overcrowded state of Israeli hospitals, or whether Israel can afford the costs in blood and treasure of annexing the West Bank, has been left sorely disappointed. Even when the fight has shifted away from Netanyahu, it has only transformed into a fight about Gantz and whether there is evidence of adultery on his cell phone or whether he is mentally unstable. The last five days of the campaign are shaping up to be a battle over whether or not Netanyahu controls an army of social media trolls that can be activated at his – or his son’s – beck and call. It is all Netanyahu, all the time.
For anyone who is sick of the focus on Netanyahu, the election is not going to be the medicine that brings relief. Once the votes have been tallied, the decision that each of the smaller parties makes as to whom to recommend to form a government is also going to depend in large measure on Netanyahu rather than whether a party is more at home with Kachol Lavan or with Likud. A Likud government led by Netanyahu likely means new elections within a year, since despite Netanyahu’s protestations to the contrary, it will be impossible for him to continue as prime minister after his hearing on criminal charges and his indictment by the attorney general, both of which are coming after a new government is formed. For someone like Moshe Kahlon or Avigdor Liberman, both of whom served in the last government and are naturally at home on the right but who are currently in danger of missing the Knesset threshold of 3.25 percent, recommending Netanyahu as prime minister knowing that you will have to face voters again so soon is risky. Were anyone else at the head of Likud, it would be an obvious choice, but as the Kulanu and Yisrael Beiteinu vote shares slip with each successive election, it means that Kahlon and Liberman may be tying their own fates to Netanyahu, which is a dicey proposition. And that is before one even factors in the variable that for Kahlon, Liberman, and Moshe Feiglin (whose pro-marijuana, pro-annexation, and pro-Third Temple construction Zehut party is improbably polling at around seven seats), there is a fair amount of personal animosity toward Netanyahu that may make all of them want to contribute to his political downfall.
If Kachol Lavan receives a mandate from Rivlin to form the next government, its options will also hinge on Netanyahu. For all of the vote counting between the two blocs that has consumed analysts of Israeli politics, there is no guarantee that the blocs that form for the purpose of making recommendations to Rivlin are the blocs that will end up constituting the government and the opposition. It is widely assumed that Kachol Lavan’s preference if it wins is to form a unity government with Likud, irrespective of the fact that the bloc that may recommend the party to Rivlin will not include Likud. Forming a unity government allows Kachol Lavan to govern with a broad mandate and base of support, removes the politically thorny question of whether to rely on Arab parties in creating a coalition, and enables legislation that begins to separate religion and state by leaving the Haredi parties in the cold. Yet the only possible way to do this, if it is doable at all, is if Netanyahu is gone from Likud. Not only will it be next to impossible for Gantz to create a government with Netanyahu after campaigning on the central idea that Netanyahu must go, Netanyahu himself is not going to want to sit in a government where he is not prime minister. If Likud finishes far enough behind Kachol Lavan, it is possible that it will create the impetus for Likud MKs to show Netanyahu the door, creating an opening for a Kachol Lavan-Likud unity government. But this scenario, like everything else, revolves not around the parties but around Netanyahu himself, whose singular presence will determine whether this option is available to Kachol Lavan in the event of a win or not.
While my hunch is that Netanyahu is ultimately going to be at the head of a far right-wing government after everything shakes out, predicting what will happen on Tuesday with any degree of certainty is impossible given how many parties are polling right at the threshold. Hayemin Hehadash, the Union of Right-Wing Parties, Yisrael Beiteinu, Kulanu, Zehut, Gesher, Shas, Meretz, and Balad-Ra’am could all make or miss the Knesset depending on how the last few days of campaigning unfold. The one thing that has surprised after a few days on the ground in Israel is how comparatively low enthusiasm seems to be and how few Israelis seem to view these elections as high stakes. Perhaps that benefits Netanyahu as complacency generally favors incumbents, or perhaps it works to his detriment since it is a marker of Israelis being fatigued after a decade of him at the helm. Whatever happens, there is no question that Tuesday and its aftermath will be all about Netanyahu in every conceivable way.