Voters are heading to the polls in Israel for the fourth time in two years. And with few signs that this vote will break the cycle, many are already bracing for a fifth.
JERUSALEM — When an Israeli prime minister was investigated for corruption in 2008, he resigned after pressure from colleagues to avoid a conflict between his personal interest and that of the state.
“If you stay in position and you’re the prime minister,” that leader, Ehud Olmert, said in an interview last week, “and you have been investigated and possibly also indicted, then the confrontation becomes a lot hotter and sharper.”
Thirteen years later, Israel is experiencing just how sharp that confrontation can get.
Israelis will vote on Tuesday for the fourth time in two years, in a do-over election for a do-over election for a do-over election. The seemingly endless loop is the most prominent symptom of the polarization that has paralyzed Israeli politics since Mr. Olmert’s successor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, began to be investigated for corruption in 2017.
Unlike Mr. Olmert, Mr. Netanyahu refused to resign. That decision has split the country, almost down the middle, and divided voters less by ideology than by their support or antipathy for Mr. Netanyahu.
The polarization has been exacerbated by Israel’s multiparty system, which virtually guarantees that no single party will win an outright majority in Parliament, forcing the construction of wobbly coalitions with disparate small parties.
Now, even the right-wing coalition that kept Mr. Netanyahu afloat for 12 years has fractured, mainly over question of the acceptability of a prime minister under criminal indictment.
In the last three elections, Mr. Netanyahu did not win enough support to form a stable government. But neither did his opponents, which allowed him to remain prime minister, first in a caretaker role, and then, for the past year, as the head of a fragile coalition.
Polling suggests that next week’s vote is unlikely to break the deadlock, leading many Israelis to brace for yet a fifth election later this year.
“Is Israeli democracy broken, given what we’ve seen over the last couple of years?” asked Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a research group in Jerusalem. No, he said, it was “flawed but not broken,” and for that he credits the Civil Service professionals who have kept it going.
But if the system is not yet broken, it is deep in dysfunction.
Parliament did not pass a state budget for either 2020 or 2021, despite the extraordinary costs of the pandemic, forcing government agencies to go month to month. Cabinet meetings have been postponed or canceled because of disputes within the coalition, and cabinet approval of critical foreign policy decisions has occasionally been bypassed altogether. Key government positions remain unfilled. The executive branch is at war with the judicial branch.
And the prime minister, who denies the charges against him and dismisses the prosecution as a coup attempt, is trying to run the country even as he stands trial.
To his critics, Mr. Netanyahu has trapped the country in an electoral limbo for one main reason: to win enough seats in Parliament to allow him to change the law and circumvent his court case.
This time, he is accused of sabotaging budget negotiations to collapse the coalition government and trigger next week’s elections. The action upended a power-sharing agreement that would have allowed Benny Gantz, Mr. Netanyahu’s centrist coalition partner, to replace him as prime minister this fall.
The maneuver was reminiscent of one that Mr. Netanyahu pulled off three elections ago, in May 2019, when he led a push to dissolve Parliament and start a new election cycle. The move prevented the president, Reuven Rivlin, from giving Mr. Gantz an opportunity to try to form a coalition that could have removed Mr. Netanyahu from power.
“He basically needs a majority in order to avoid the legal proceedings,” Mr. Plesner said, “and until he achieves this majority, this crisis will continue.”
Even then, Mr. Plesner added, “We could very well see drastic steps taken that curtail the independence of the judiciary, sending Israel into the dangerous tailspin of a constitutional crisis.”
Mr. Netanyahu would disagree.
His office declined to comment for this article, but senior members of his right-wing party, Likud, said that he sought to remain in office out of patriotic duty. Though he once tried to persuade Parliament to grant him legal immunity, they said that he would not use his power to dodge his trial in the future.
Despite the turbulence of Israeli politics, they point out, he has presided over a world-leading vaccination campaign that has given a majority of Israelis at least one vaccine dose. They say the stalemate over the budget and other key decisions were Mr. Gantz’s fault. And they believe Mr. Netanyahu remains the only Israeli leader smart enough and hawkish enough to confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“There is nobody in the opposition now that can really understand the historic moment when it comes to the Iran nuclear program,” said Tzachi Hanegbi, a Likud cabinet minister. “It’s probably the main reason for his perseverance and resolve to keep on going.”
“Netanyahu came to terms with the fact that he is on trial a long time ago,” Mr. Hanegbi added. “All those accusations are far-fetched.”
Mr. Netanyahu is nevertheless a frequent critic of the judicial system and has lately proposed limiting the influence of the Supreme Court. And the fact that he remains both in office and on trial has contributed to the sense of a government in crisis.
So, too, does the list of unfilled positions within senior levels of the Israeli Civil Service. Israel has no permanent state attorney and no senior Civil Service executive at the Finance or Justice Ministries; Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz could not agree on the replacements. Permanent heads of the national police force and prison service were only appointed in January, after a delay of more than two years.
Mr. Netanyahu was also accused of prioritizing his own political survival when he sought to limit the fines given to those caught breaking antivirus restrictions. Those penalties would have disproportionately affected ultra-Orthodox Israelis, some of whom have regularly flouted lockdown rules. The main ultra-Orthodox political parties are part of his coalition now and he will need their support after the coming election.
His rivals also argue that Mr. Netanyahu has circumvented standard cabinet procedure by making unilateral decisions on matters of national importance. When he recently announced plans to distribute thousands of vaccines to foreign allies, he was criticized for not consulting with the cabinet before donating such scarce national resources.
“Nothing is of any significance to him except his own personal fate,” Mr. Olmert said in a recent interview. “This is the only thing that he cares for.”
Expecting a tight race in which every vote counts, Mr. Netanyahu has sought support from an ideologically incoherent set of partners.
Repeating a move he made during the first round of elections, he has forged an electoral pact with the far-right politicians who were once ostracized by mainstream parties, including Likud.
In exchange for its support, Mr. Netanyahu has offered a cabinet post to an ultranationalist alliance that includes a party led by Itamar Ben Gvir. Mr. Ben Gvir advocates expelling Arab citizens who are not loyal to Israel, and until recently, he hung in his living room a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish extremist who massacred 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994.
Paradoxically, Mr. Netanyahu is also chasing the Arab vote. Arabs form about 20 percent of the electorate and have typically been ignored or scorned by mainstream leaders like Mr. Netanyahu.
But he has been campaigning in Arab towns and even promised a cabinet post to an Arab member of Likud.
Jewish leaders once “treated us like the untouchables,” said Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, the main Arab alliance in Parliament. Now, he said, “the stone that the builders threw away has become the cornerstone of the building.”
But beyond this unexpected development, political discourse in Israel has been largely limited to a debate about one man: Mr. Netanyahu. The political map is no longer clearly divided between right and left, but between those who want him to remain in office and those who don’t.
Only one of his main rivals for the premiership, Yair Lapid, is from the political center. The other two, Gideon Saar and Naftali Bennett, are right-wingers with few ideological differences from the prime minister. Mr. Saar is a former Likud interior minister, while Mr. Bennett is Mr. Netanyahu’s former chief of staff.
And some fear that the myopia of this discourse has distracted Israelis from more existential issues. As Israel’s 54-year occupation of the West Bank appears less and less temporary, there is little discussion about the effect that permanent occupation will have on the character of Israeli democracy, said Tzipi Livni, a former leader of the opposition and erstwhile cabinet minister.
“Nobody’s speaking about the nature of Israel as a Jewish democratic state,” Ms. Livni said.
“Nobody is speaking about the conflict with the Palestinians, nobody’s speaking about the substance,” she added. “It’s about yes or no Bibi.”