Why a March Election is Risky for Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution over corruption charges. Until fresh elections have been held in March, a trial will likely be delayed. This will be the third election Netanyahu faces in one year.

Why Was Netanyahu Charged?

Netanyahu is alleged by prosecutors to have accepted presents from wealthy businessmen and alleged favors to try and generate more positive press coverage. Because of these criminal indictments, on December 12, Netanyahu announced that he would drop all portfolios from his cabinet on January 1st other than his role of Prime Minister. Beside being Prime Minister, Netanyahu has served as Israel’s Social Welfare Minister, Diaspora Affairs Minister, and acting Agricultural Minister. Until Sunday, he was also Israel’s Health Minister.

Pros And Cons For Netanyahu

The Prime Minister has one factor going in his favor: a trial cannot commence once an immunity request is made and the Israeli parliament the Knesset – which has been dissolved because of fresh electionsis unlikely to rule on the request before then. Any Israeli prime minister must resign if they are convicted.

The cons of Netanyahu’s decision far outweigh the advantages. Elections held in April and September 2019 witnessed the Prime Minister’s Likud Party deadlocked with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party. They both gained 32 and 33 seats, respectively.

The Prime Minister’s impeachment charges were the biggest obstacle to coalition negotiations, despite his protests that he is innocent. Until Netanyahu faces trial for the crimes he has been accused of, it will remain almost impossible for him to form a functioning government, regardless of the result of March’s election.

His opponents have already made it clear that they will not vote to retain his position and they have reacted angrily to Netanyahu’s decision to call fresh elections. Both Gantz and Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu, have said they will vote against the Prime Minister’s immunity request.

Forced Compromise

Furthermore, the Israeli electoral system is designed to prevent a single party from gaining a working majority. Based on proportional representation, its intention is to ensure that smaller parties can influence the will of the ruling party, and trigger the dissolution of a newly elected parliament if necessary. Therefore, it does not matter whether Netanyahu increases the number of seats Likud currently hold, without being able to form a coalition, they will not be able to achieve anything until they compromise with their opponents.

Last month, Netanyahu defeated former aide and Cabinet minister Gideon Sa’ar in a Likud primary, winning 72 percent of the vote. Although he has succeeded in unifying the party’s base, he may find the next election a struggle. Polls indicate the March vote will produce a similar outcome to September’s, which will lead to another year of deadlock. The Christian Science Monitor’s Joseph Krauss referred to Netanyahu as a “political magician” who could transform this situation into an opportunity. His stance on the 2015 Iran Deal is popular with voters, but his political fortunes have waned and it is difficult to argue March will be any different for him.

Also, Sa’ar is unlikely to go anywhere. Polls show that 50 percent of Israelis believe that Netanyahu should resign and if he fails to increase Likud’s share of the vote in March, this will increase the pressure on him to step aside. Although the Likud’s structure demands complete loyalty from its members which prevents leaders from being ousted in a coup, the fall of Netanyahu and Sa’ar’s links to the Blue and White Party could be two factors that go in the latter’s favor, and could help create a functioning government.

The Prime Minister has bought himself short-term immunity, but this is the only factor in his favor when it comes to holding another election. His decision carries far more risks and if he fails to win a majority, he will find an unsympathetic Knesset will vote to impeach him. Likud’s luck could be running out.