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Q&A with Dr. Liron Lavi on Israel's next election

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Israelis head to the polls March 23 in an election that will determine the country's next prime minister. Dr. Liron Lavi discusses the upcoming national election and the challenges facing the government under longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Lavi is a research fellow at the Nazarian Center and is teaching a course on Israeli politics in Spring 2021.

UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, March 2, 2021 – Nazarian Center Research Fellow Dr. Liron Lavi answered questions about the upcoming national elections in Israel. Hovering over the election are the policies and future of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been leader of the country since 2009. Netanyahu is facing a criminal trial for breach of trust, bribery and fraud.
On March 23, 2021, Israelis will go to the polls for the fourth time in two years and less than one year since the last election. How come there is another election?

Israel is known for its frequent elections, but in the past two years we have witnessed a political deadlock that prevented the formation of a government and brought about repeated elections. Three consecutive elections – April 2019, September 2019, and March 2020 – led eventually to the formation of a national unity government in May 2020. However,‌ ‌it‌ ‌was‌ short-lived. The government was established after Benny Gantz and his Blue & White party joined Netanyahu and the Likud party to form a national unity government. Earlier, Gantz pledged to remove Benjamin Netanyahu from office.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the government also experienced internal tensions ‌and‌ ‌the‌ ‌external‌ ‌challenges‌. At the same time, the government suffered increased criticism from the public as well as its own members. In December 2020, only several months after the coalition government was formed, the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) failed to pass a national budget, leading to the government’s collapse and the Knesset dissolving. A new election was set for March 23, 2021, in accordance with‌ ‌Israeli‌ ‌law.  
Benjamin Netanyahu is the most influential figure in Israeli politics and the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. This election, he will have‌ ‌several‌ ‌challengers. Who are they?

Netanyahu has served five terms as Israel’s prime minister, winning over prominent political figures such as Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni. This election, for the first time, he is facing three opponents – rather than one – and his opponents come not just‌ ‌from‌ ‌the‌ ‌center-left‌ ‌but‌ ‌also‌ ‌from‌ ‌the‌ ‌right. Yair Lapid, chairman of the centrist party Yesh Atid, is leading Netanyahu’s center-left opposition. Yesh Atid's alliance with Gantz's Blue & White in the three electoral rounds of 2019-20 prevented Netanyahu from forming a government until Gantz broke from the alliance and joined Netanyahu's‌ ‌national‌ ‌unity‌ government.

Yesh Atid is running alone this time, and while it is expected to lead the center-left bloc once again, it is also likely to face substantial difficulties‌ ‌in‌ ‌forming‌ ‌a‌ ‌government after the election. Netanyahu’s most prominent opponent from the right is former Likud Knesset member, Gideon Sa’ar and his new party, New Hope. Sa’ar held senior ministerial positions and lost to Netanyahu in the 2017 Likud primary election. A handful of Likud politicians followed Sa’ar and joined his party. They have openly called for the replacement of Netanyahu, and stressed their refusal to sit‌ in‌ ‌a future‌ ‌government with him.

A third contestant, Naftali Bennett, is challenging Netanyahu from the right. Bennett served as the minister of Defence in Netanyahu’s government between 2019-20 and is known to have a volatile relationship with Netanyahu. He has been critical of the government's handling of‌ ‌the‌ ‌Covid-19‌ outbreak‌ ‌in‌ ‌Israel‌ ‌and‌ ‌the‌ ‌ensuing‌ ‌economic‌ ‌crisis‌ ‌for‌ ‌the‌ ‌past‌ ‌year.

What are the main issues on this election's agenda?

Many in the political community, as well as citizens, consider the election as being single-mindedly concentrated on “Only-Bibi” vs. “Just-Not-Bibi”. Netanyahu’s prolonged tenure as prime minister and his centrality in Israeli politics has made him, his leadership, and his policies the main issues on the election’s agenda. This is coupled with Netanyahu’s legal situation. After getting indicted in April, 2019, Netanyahu now faces a corruption trial. Over the past year, large-scale demonstrations gained prominence and protesters have called Netanyahu to resign from office due to the legal proceedings against him. Although these protests don't have a particular leader or party affiliation, the issues that they highlighted keep looming ‌high‌ ‌on‌ ‌the‌ ‌election‌ ‌agenda.

The handling of the Covid-19 pandemic by the government is another prominent issue on the election agenda. Israel, like many countries around the world, is facing not only the public health repercussions, but also the economic and societal effects of the pandemic. The Israeli government has enforced strict national lockdowns, and been subject to criticism for questionable decisions to freeze courts activities and track citizens through their mobile phones. Social cleavages have surfaced and intensified as Haredi and Arab communities have suffered disproportionally higher numbers of cases and the government has been accused of legitimizing their low compliance.

Economically, unemployment rates reached unprecedented levels and businesses struggled in the face of the repeated lockdowns. Alongside these challenges, Israel’s vaccination program is considered to be extremely successful, and has been praised for its rapid rollout and efficiency. Israel now eases some of the restrictions as it approaches a post-vaccine reality. As Israelis head to the polls next month, these dramatic developments – some negative, some positive – are expected to influence them significantly. 

JOIN US: The Nazarian Center will host two post-election webinars:

Analyzing the 2021 Israeli Election: Results and Prospects, oWednesday, March 31 (11 AM - 12 PM Pacific Time). In this webinar, an expert panel will discuss and analyze the most recent national election in Israel and address a range of issues, based on the results, including what the election means in terms of Israel's political stability. For more details and to RSVP, click here.

Israel's Four Recent Elections: Policy, Ideology and the State of Israeli Democracy, on Wednesday, April 7 (12 PM - 1:15 PM Pacific Time). Israeli political analyst Dahlia Scheindlin will discuss the last four Israeli national elections since April 2019 and changes in Israel's political landscape. For more details and to RSVP, click here.