‘Netanyahu — yes or no?’: the looming choice for Israeli voters

It was not the first threat by Itamar Ben-Gvir to quit the Israeli government, but it was one of his most direct. As Israel and Hamas edge closer to a new hostage release deal, the ultranationalist national security minister warned he would not accept concessions to the Palestinian militant group.

“I say this clearly,” Ben-Gvir said in the Israeli parliament on Wednesday. “A reckless deal means the dissolution of the government.”

Israel does not have to hold elections until 2026. But Ben-Gvir’s comments were the latest indication that, even as the war with Hamas rages in Gaza, the country’s political class is positioning itself for a vote much sooner — as the veneer of unity that has covered Israeli politics since the outbreak of the war begins to fade.

Gadi Eisenkot, the former armed forces chief of staff who joined Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet at the start of the conflict, said two weeks ago that a vote should be held within months, as Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel had led to a loss of faith in the government. Last week, opposition leader Yair Lapid called on the Israeli prime minister to “set a date”.

“There’s no doubt that everyone is getting ready — really everybody,” said Aviv Bushinsky, a Netanyahu adviser from 1996-2004 and now a political analyst.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national security minister: ‘A reckless deal means the dissolution of the government’ © Ronan Zvulun/Reuters

For now, Netanyahu and his coalition have little incentive to trigger an election, given that most of its constituent parties would lose seats. Analysts also doubt a vote will be held while Israeli forces are fighting in Gaza. But even people close to the government concede that once the fighting reduces in intensity, the clamour for elections will mount. A new hostage deal could accelerate the process.

“Either Netanyahu secures an achievement on the battlefield and himself initiates snap elections,” said a person familiar with Netanyahu’s thinking. “Or elections will be forced in the coming months, including because of mass demonstrations and the fact that many of the security chiefs will have resigned by then.”

A dramatic battlefield success could strengthen Netanyahu’s hand. But opinion surveys suggest his chances are slim. An average of recent polls implies that if elections were held now, his Likud party’s coalition with ultrareligious and extreme right groups would win 45 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, well below the 64 it currently holds.

The National Unity party led by Benny Gantz, another member of the war cabinet, would win the most seats as things stand. But given the trauma of the past year, analysts say the coming election is likely to be a “change” election, and the political map could yet shift. This would be particularly true if figures outside politics, such as ex-Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and former prime minister Naftali Bennett, entered the fray.

Even some within Likud acknowledge that Netanyahu, like the rest of the Israeli leadership, would need to be held to account for the failures on October 7 once the war ended. “I don’t blame anyone personally, but where I grew up, wherever you have authority, you have responsibility,” said Danny Danon, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN who is now a Likud MP.

“I was an officer in the military — when you’re in charge of a base and a driver drank on a Friday night and [had] an accident, then the head of the base is responsible.”

But other allies warned against writing Netanyahu off, given his long record of political comebacks, and reputation as the most formidable campaigner in Israeli politics. “For anyone else [October 7] would be the end of the road. But this is Bibi,” said the person familiar with Netanyahu’s thinking, referring to the prime minister by his widely used nickname.

Netanyahu has in recent weeks repeatedly portrayed himself as the only Israeli leader who can prevent the creation of a Palestinian state — a move widely seen as an attempt to draw up the battle lines for the next election.

“As long as I’m prime minister, I’ll continue to strongly insist on this,” he said at a press conference last month. “If someone has a different position, they should show leadership and candidly state their position to the citizens of Israel.”

Playing on Israeli fears about concessions to the Palestinians, and portraying himself as the guarantor of Israeli security, is something that has worked for Netanyahu in the past.

National Union party leader Benny Gantz consoles Gadi Eisenkot, former Israeli army chief, at a funeral in Herzliya © Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

He fired up his voters in a knife-edge 1996 vote by claiming that leftwing rival Shimon Peres wanted to “divide Jerusalem” — which is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians. Nearly 20 years later, he infamously tried to motivate supporters by telling them that Arab-Israelis voters were “coming out in droves”.

But analysts said that given the catastrophic failings over which Netanyahu presided on October 7 — widely seen as Israel’s biggest ever security disaster — he would struggle to replicate those successes.

“Netanyahu always runs a fear campaign, because it’s what works,” said Bushinsky. “Now he’s in a more complicated situation. He’s no longer ‘Mr Security’ and he knows it.” The prime minister’s chances of staying in power depended on “a real tangible victory over Hamas . . . and even then he would face many hurdles”.

His critics are even blunter. A group including Dan Halutz, another former head of Israel’s military, and ex-Mossad chief Tamir Pardo last week wrote to the country’s president branding Netanyahu a “clear and present danger” to Israel.

“Netanyahu can talk about a Palestinian state all he wants,” said Alon Pinkas, a former senior Israeli diplomat who signed the letter, but “he owns October 7”.

Gideon Rahat, a political-science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he expected the culpability for October 7, questions around a future Palestinian state and attempts to normalise relations with Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, to be prominent topics in the next election.

But at its core, the next poll would revolve around the same question as the five in Israel since 2019. “Once again, we’ll have elections in which the main issue is: ‘Netanyahu — Yes or No?’”

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