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Election 2024 looks likely —but don’t bet against Bibi

From President Biden to Israel’s polls, pressure is building on Netanyahu. The war, conflict over Haredi army exemptions and a fragile coalition may force him to the polls this year.
Shahar Burla
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Cartoon of Benjamin Netanyahu as a magician looking into a hat and surrounded by rabbits

Will Bibi pull another rabbit out of the hat? (Illustration: Avi Katz)

Published: 4 April 2024

Last updated: 4 April 2024

The first law of Israeli politics of the past decades is “Don’t bet against Bibi”. The political magician will always pull another rabbit out of the hat and make another empty promise to keep his base happy.

 Six months after the greatest disaster the State of Israel has ever known, this statement still holds up. There is no date for new elections, and the Knesset went into the spring break this week, during which it is difficult to initiate political processes.

However, the emerging political crisis over exempting ultra-Orthodox from army service and the new waves of protests by families of the hostages has made elections in 2024 seem much more possible.

Minister Benny Gantz, the most likely alternative prime minister, proposed on Wednesday that elections should be held in September, saying "an agreed election date will leave us time to continue the security efforts, let the public know we'll renew the trust between us soon, and it will prevent the rift in the nation."

The ruling Likud party responded in a statement that  "the government will continue until achieving all the war's goals".

Politics in a time of war

In the first weeks after October 7, the political consensus was that, as in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, after the initial shock and return of the tens of thousands of reservists, a wave of protests and anger would spread and bring down the government – and that would be the end of Netanyahu's political career.

Indeed, in all polls since October 7, an absolute majority of Israelis blame Netanyahu and his government for the intelligence failure. The government also got extremely low marks for its performance before and during the war. In addition, there is a large and stable majority supporting the opposition parties.

However, this feeling has not been expressed in a mass and effective protest that would exert sufficient pressure on the political system. Most of the reservists were released after more than a hundred days in Gaza or in the north and had to take care of themselves and their families. Attending demonstrations was not a priority for them. Unlike the Yom Kippur war scenario, the war in Gaza is not over yet and after six months there is a danger that it will even expand to Lebanon, which would see reserve soldiers again recruited for a long period.

Politically, Netanyahu has not changed his ways: he is consistently guarding his right-wing base and the political "bloc" that includes the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties and taking as much time as possible to make difficult decisions. Every political or military decision has been guided by how much the rope can be pulled with Religious Zionists Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. The entry of Benny Gantz and the Blue and White party into the government and the creation of the "War Cabinet" was the most difficult move for him, but it was under a difficult and shocked public atmosphere and with the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties, especially Aryeh Deri from Shas.

The first step towards elections will be Gantz's departure from the government, which could come against the background of the conscription law or a lack of movement in the hostage deal

Rafah and ‘total victory' as a political weapon

Netanyahu has also employed the use of the rhetoric of "total victory" and the threat of an invasion of Rafah as a political weapon. Any threat of an election by Gantz and his ally former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot would immediately portray them as those who undermine the war effort, jeopardise the possibility of invading Rafah, and hinder Israel from achieving "total victory" over Hamas. The war has put the opposition and Gantz on the defensive.

Netanyahu has used the same rhetoric against the hostages' families and the supporters of a hostage deal, labelling them as jeopardising the "total victory." A deal involving a massive release of terrorists and a long-term ceasefire could endanger his government.

Ben-Gvir has already issued threats of resignation if the "surrender" is too significant.

Therefore, in order to allow himself room to manoeuvre and the possibility of delaying a deal, Netanyahu has portrayed the demands of the families of the abductees in political colours.

Haredi exemption from IDF service

A year ago, Netanyahu fired Defence Minister Yoav Gallant following Gallant’s warnings that the judicial overhaul would endanger Israel’s security and strength. Under massive public pressure, Netanyahu left Gallant in office, but tension between the two continued and have increased during the war, as Gallant feels that Netanyahu is trying to place the blame for October 7 solely on the army.

Now, Gallant is identifying a political opportunity to topple Netanyahu over the Haredi exemption law. From a political standpoint, the law is a weak point for Netanyahu, whose tactics of stalling time and making false promises to the ultra-Orthodox have led to a deadlock.

The public understands the sacrifice of the soldiers and the IDF's manpower crisis and will not accept the free pass given to tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men, which leads to increased length of service of existing soldiers.

MKs from Netanyahu's own party are also uncomfortable about the Haredi exemption and will find it difficult to lend him political support in this matter.

For the first time since Netanyahu returned to power, ultra-Orthodox politicians are beginning to wonder whether the political alliance is serving them faithfully.

This sentiment is reinforced by the Attorney General and the Supreme Court, who feel liberated from Netanyahu's threats of a judicial overhaul that will no longer take place in the foreseeable future. The Attorney General opposes any further delay by Netanyahu and is preventing him from promoting "bypass" solutions that would allow the ultra-Orthodox to continue enjoying exemption from service and the continued flow of funds.

The Supreme Court surprised many when it announced that allowance payments to Haredim, amounting to 600 million NIS per year, would stop from April 1.

What now?

Netanyahu will continue to try to bide his time and buy off the ultra-Orthodox with promises of finding "magic solutions", but for the first time since he returned to power, ultra-Orthodox politicians are beginning to wonder whether the political alliance and the creation of the “bloc” are serving them faithfully. They understand that an acceptable compromise on the subject of the conscription law is only possible under a different government.

At the same time, protests by families of the hostages  are gaining momentum, and the US is increasing its pressure on Israeli politics Democratic majority leader Senator Chuck Schumer's explicit statement that new elections are needed.

The first step towards elections will be Gantz's departure from the government, which could come against the background of the conscription law or a lack of movement in the hostage deal, if Gantz feels he has exhausted the ability to influence the government.

Gantz, who appears to be the leading candidate for Prime Minister in the next election likely truly believes that his presence in the government balances Netanyahu and his extremist partners. He will  have to choose the right time to leave.

Since Netanyahu will still have a coalition of 64 members, Gantz’s goal will be to ride the crisis of the conscription law to set an agreed date for the elections. This could take place with a promise to the ultra-Orthodox parties that they will be part of his future government or by recruiting Gallant and several Likud MKs who object to the Haredi exemption law.

Currently, the signs point to an election before the end of the year in which Netanyahu would be defeated. However, we must not forget the first law in Israeli politics - we must not rush to “bet against Bibi.”

About the author

Shahar Burla

Dr Shahar Burla is a Sydney-based researcher, lecturer and Contributing Editor of TJI. Shahar holds a Master’s degree in political science from Hebrew University and a PhD in political science from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of Political Imagination in the Diaspora: The Construction of a Pro-Israeli Narrative (2013) and co-editor of Australia and Israel: A Diasporic, Cultural and Political Relationship (2015).


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