Israel is in the midst of a severe political crisis. Two parliamentary elections, held in the spring and fall of 2019, ended in a draw, with neither political camp able to form a government. A third election has been set for March 2, 2020. A third failure to produce a government would throw the country into a deep, dangerous crisis.
The stalemate is the result of several forces at work: a genuine division into two coalitions, the indictment of Prime Minister Netanyahu for corruption, and the unique role played by Avigdor (Ivette) Lieberman in Israeli politics.
Like other Western democracies, Israel is divided between a right wing, nationalist religious coalition and a centre/left one. Until recently, the right wing had a majority but one of its pillars, Avigdor Lieberman, refused to join Netanyahu after the spring elections, thus preventing him from forming a coalition and a government. The magic number in Israeli parliamentary politics is 61, a majority in a parliament with 120 seats. Lieberman has a small faction, but he can still tilt the balance.
Lieberman is a native of Moldova and his party mostly attracts Israelis who emigrated from the former Soviet Union. He is a right-wing nationalist and a secularist and is antagonistic both to the ultra Orthodox Jewish parties and to the Arab List.
The issue of Netanyahu’s culpability has hovered over Israeli politics for more than three years now, but Netanyahu has now been indicted and the March elections will be the first to be held with the current PM formally indicted in three cases. Israeli law requires a minister under indictment to resign but allows an indicted prime minister to serve through the final phase of his legal process. An interesting issue has now arisen: can an indicted member of parliament form a new government (as distinct from staying in office)? The matter may be put before the Supreme Court.
So far, the other camp, headed by the former chief of staff of the IDF, is leading in the polls but a lot can happen by March 2. Two important issues to watch are the challenge to Netanyahu in his own party and the mobilization of Israel’s twenty percent Arab minority, that discovered its potential power in the last elections.
So far the domestic crisis has had a limited impact on the country’s international and regional policies. The region and the world seem ready to allow Israel to sort out its domestic politics. Should the centre/left coalition win in March, a more moderate policy on the Palestinian issue can be expected.
In late January, President Putin is expected to arrive in Israel to participate in the events of Holocaust Memorial Day. This could place him in a delicate position. He and Netanyahu have had a good working relationship, which manifested most clearly in the Syrian arena. One of the main themes of Netanyahu’s campaign has been his successful foreign policy. He takes pride in his ability to get along with both Putin and Trump, should the US president decide to come to Israel; but this particular time, the Russian president will have to walk on a political tight rope.