Benjamin Netanyahu is only the second prime minister in Israel’s history to win three elections in a row, but could ‘Bibi’s’ time finally be up? When Israel’s PM called a snap election – due to take place in April – initial polls suggested that his Likud party would win twice as many seats as any other party. His victory now looks somewhat less inevitable: a new party run by former army chief Benny Gantz is gaining ground; and Netanyahu, who has been in power almost ten years, is facing a series of corruption probes that could derail him.
Netanyahu’s endurance has been a testament to his ability to divide the left and keep the right guessing as to what he will do next. Bibi might be a divisive figure, particularly overseas, but a good number of Jewish Israelis still prefer him above any rival. Last month, 46 per cent of those asked by the Israel Democracy Institute backed Netanyahu. Yet Bibi is now paying the price for Gantz’s growing popularity: a poll out this week showed support for Netanyahu tumbling to 41 per cent, with support for Gantz rising to 28 per cent.
Gantz, who served as chief of staff in the IDF from 2011 to 2015 during two major conflicts in Gaza, is more than a match for Netanyahu on the security front, which has been his strongest asset. Born in 1959, Gantz was a paratrooper, commander of the elite Shaldag commando unit and played a key role in southern Lebanon until Israel’s withdrawal in 2000. Now, he has turned his hand to politics: in December, he formed his Resilience Party.
There is nothing unusual about a new political party in Israel; each election brings nascent political outfits. Until now, this has actually helped Netanyahu. In 2015, there were two dozen parties vying for votes; of these, ten made it into the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. By further splitting voters, Bibi was able, once again, to divide and rule, forming a coalition from these parties because many of the centrist, right wing and religious outfits would not coalesce around a left wing coalition leader. But Gantz changes this dynamic. Fears over security – a perennial topic in Israel – are a growing concern for Israelis. The country came to the brink of war recently after 460 rockets were fired by Hamas in November. Yet despite his reputation as something of a hawk, Netanyahu has recently appeared more restrained than many voters would like him to be in the wake of this threat. Last year, he chose to focus instead on an operation against Hezbollah’s tunnels in the north and tried to cool tensions with Gaza. He has also sought out new connections with Arab countries, travelling to Oman in October. Netanyahu also prioritises Iran and its encroachment in Syria as the bigger threat facing Israel. But Gantz disagrees: for him, solving the conflict with Palestinians is more important. Many Israelis would seem to agree.
Gantz’s success is still far from certain and Netanyahu remains the favourite to win when Israelis go to the polls. Bibi hopes that his experience will ultimately pay off and is attempting to appear as the only responsible person who can guide Israel through the rough waters of Middle East politics. Netanyahu – who recently met Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton – is reported to be seeking a meeting with the president in a bid to shore up his credentials for keeping his country closely allied with the United States. But given the looming corruption probes Netanyahu is facing – and a rival who can match him on his greatest strength – security – is Bibi’s time at the top of Israeli politics coming to an end?
Seth Frantzman is oped editor for the Jerusalem Post