JC: Election contenders in Israel’s single-horse race

The wait has been long and often excruciating but we finally have a date: Tuesday, April 9, 2019. In 102 days, in the week before Passover, Israelis will vote in a snap election that will be all about one man: Benjamin Netanyahu.

Individual parties do not win outright majorities in Israel and, unless there is a colossal shift in attitudes, Mr Netanyahu is not going to change that trend this time. But opinion polls all agree his Likud party will win the most seats and an historic fifth term in office.

Whether he will be able to cobble together a majority in the Knesset is a different question.

It has long been clear that much of this campaign will be fought over Mr Netanyahu’s suitability for the top job.

He is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust based on a portfolio of allegations that Israeli police consider sufficiently serious for him to face charges. But it is not up to them: the final decision to indict Mr Netanyahu rests with Avichai Mandelblit, the attorney general.

It is not inconceivable that Mr Mandelblitt will make up his mind over the next three months, during the campaign. If he decides to indict, this election could become a plebiscite on whether voters think Mr Netanyahu is guilty.

A grim outlook for the prime minister, perhaps, but he retains two significant advantages: the security situation and a fragmented opposition.

This election comes at a time of uncertainty in Israel’s neighbourhood: Iran is increasingly assertive in Syria and Lebanon, while Hamas remains in command of the Gaza Strip.

Mr Netanyahu argues his methods — using the military to strike Iranian targets in Syria, and diplomacy to strike a ceasefire deal with Hamas — have kept Israelis safe over the last four years.

While true, that assessment overlooks huge discontent in the West Bank, where Mr Netanyahu has largely ignored the Palestinian Authority and cast away any talk of a two-state solution.

Left and centrist-minded figures are deeply critical of the prime minister’s refusal to countenance talks with the Palestinians, while politicians to Mr Netanyahu’s right say he does not use enough military force against them.

They include Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, a one-time ally who resigned from the coalition over the issue last month, and Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett, who thought the same but dithered. Both will use this election to paint themselves as credible right-wing alternatives to Mr Netanyahu.

Against them is a divided array of left and centrist parties burdened with the seemingly impossible task of distinguishing themselves not just from the prime minister, but each other.

Avi Gabbay’s Labour Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah have already announced they will retain their election alliance under the Zionist Union banner but they are far from the only contenders for voters dissatisfied with the status quo.

After a tumultuous 18 months as Mr Netanyahu’s finance minister, former TV news anchor Yair Lapid has kept his centrist Yesh Atid firmly in opposition for four years. He too will present himself as an alternative prime minister — as will Mr Lapid’s replacement as finance minister, Moshe Kahlon, the leader of Kulanu. Neither has a genuine hope of taking the job.

Instead, most opposition leaders will vie for enough Knesset seats to secure an influential place in the next Netanyahu cabinet. Some will demand policy concessions. Others will seek senior jobs —the defence ministry, for example — that could leave them better placed to succeed the prime minister if a vacancy were to emerge.

But in an election with so many moving parts, others could prove crucial in shaping the next Knesset.

The last election in 2015 was the first time all of Israel’s major Arab parties ran on a single list, becoming the third largest faction in the Knesset. If the alliance runs again, it will capitalise on Israeli Arab anger at Mr Netanyahu’s Nation State law, which its voters see as a tool to establish Israel as a Jewish state at their expense.

In contrast to Arab unity, Strictly Orthodox and Charedi parties have vast differences to bridge. The parties, which include Mr Netanyahu’s partners Shas and United Torah Judaism, were bitterly divided during last month’s mayoral contest in Jerusalem, allowing a secular candidate to come within touching distance of victory in the largely conservative city. They may not repair the rift in time for April 9.

And then there are the possible wildcard entrants, like Benny Gantz, the former IDF Chief of Staff toying with a career in politics, and even former prime minister Ehud Barak, who is said to be mulling a return.

It is set to be a fascinating 14 weeks.