World·Analysis

What's at stake as Israel awaits the results of its 3rd election in less than a year

Ahead of Israel's third election in less than 12 months, no single issue seems to have moved the needle significantly enough to swing voters in one direction or another — leading to predictions of a fourth poll in the fall.

No single issue seems to have moved the needle, leading to predictions of a 4th vote

A Likud election poster featuring Benjamin Netanyahu is seen near a shopping mall in Sderot. 'Likud voters,' it reads, 'go out and vote. My victory depends on you.' (Lily Martin/CBC)

If ever there were a case for voter fatigue, Israel's third election in less than 12 months is surely it.

One Israeli newspaper actually ran a headline last week describing fears about the coronavirus as "The Most Exciting Thing about Israel's Boring Third Election."

The two main contenders in this endurance contest — Israel's longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and former military chief Benny Gantz — are still standing.

The mention of the coronavirus is not a random one. With polls consistently pointing to the possibility of yet another stalemate, campaign strategy has been all about getting the vote out. Fears of a pandemic could get in the way of that.

Netanyahu and Gantz won 35 seats each last April, while Gantz edged ahead in September with 33 to Netanyahu's 32.   

Israel's system of proportional representation means parties usually have to rely on coalition partners to gain the 61 seats needed for a majority in the Knesset. 

No single issue seems to have moved the needle significantly enough over the past several months to swing voters in one direction or another, leading to predictions of a fourth poll in the fall.

"Voting is not about any rational policy. It's about identity," said Gideon Rahat of the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.

"We have very clear and strong predictors. The more religious you are, the more you are right wing; the least [religious], the more you are left wing or at least centre." 

There is certainly some truth to that along Israel's border with Gaza in the south. Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party has traditionally done well in so-called development towns like Sderot, built in the 1950s to house Jewish immigrants arriving in the recently established state.

The city's mayor, Alon Davidi, a Likud member, wants to see a tougher government response to persistent rocket attacks by Palestinian militants in neighbouring Gaza.

Alon Davidi is a Likud member and mayor of Sderot, a southern town near the Israeli border with Gaza. Last week, a children's playground in Sderot was hit by a rocket fired from Gaza. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Netanyahu has had a decade to deal with what the mayor describes as a worsening problem. But he still supports him, he says, because Netanyahu understands offering concessions to the Palestinians doesn't work.

"Netanyahu, I think, is the best prime minister that we have [had] in there beside maybe [David] Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. 

"If you go all over the south, you will see that everyone [votes] Netanyahu," he said, with the exception, he added, of people living in kibbutzim who typically don't vote to the right. 

And he's right — at least in Betty Gravi's case. She has lived on the Nir Am Kibbutz for nearly 60 years.

"We arrive to a time that he [has] to finish," she said of Netanyahu. "I am convinced that it's impossible to continue for years in the same way." 

Betty Gavri looks towards neighbouring Gaza from a hill top near her home in the Nir Am Kibbutz. 'We can see them and they can see us,' she says, 'and for a long time we [could] also visit each other and we did.' (Lily Martin/CBC)

The Nir Am Kibbutz is right next to the Gaza border, with clear views into the 41-kilometre-long strip. Part of Gavri's job is to record any damage to kibbutz land from Gaza rocket fire in order to be able to claim government compensation.

She plans to vote for Benny Gantz's centrist Blue and White Party, even though his policy isn't much different than Netanyahu's on security issues.

Gavri hopes a change in Israel's leadership might offer a little hope for people living on both sides of the Gaza border. Some two million Palestinians have been living under a punishing Israeli and Egyptian blockade for 12 years, imposed after Gaza was taken over the militant Islamist group Hamas.

Matthias Schmale, Gaza director of the UN's Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), says Israel – and the international community — should be concerned about the levels of despair in the strip.

Matthias Schmale is the director of UN Relief and Works Agency operations in Gaza. UNRWA feeds more than one million people in Gaza. (Lily Martin/CBC)

"It's sometimes called the world's biggest open-air prison and it often feels like this," he said. "This is an increasingly fertile ground for extremist groups to take hold and to influence people. If you have nothing left to lose, you will go to the fence knowing you might be killed and shot or do things that are worse." 

Schmale says the UN is providing food aid to half of Gaza's population. Unemployment is at around 50 per cent and higher still for young people, many of whom have never once left Gaza.

People joke that if the coronavirus ever did make its way to Gaza, it would turn and run.

Few Gazans believe the outcome of Israel's election will make any difference to their fate or those of Palestinians living in the occupied territories.

Children are seen playing in a Gaza City alley. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Back across the border, Gavri clearly believes that Israel needs to re-engage with the Palestinians, especially given all the talk of Israel annexing the Jordan Valley and settlements in the occupied West Bank.

"I don't know" of any situation where you would only negotiate with yourself, she says. "This is something quite problematic."

But so is a country so deeply divided that it has been unable to elect a working government.

Netanyahu is due to stand trial on corruption charges later this month. But even that doesn't seem to have shifted any significant numbers in terms of support one way or the other.

"Most of the parties in the world would already say: 'Mr Netanyahu, we really liked you, we really admired you, but if you could, step down and let another person come in,'" said Rahat. "Netanyahu has succeeded over the years to convince people that he is not replaceable. The wonder is [this belief] really held on for three elections. That's remarkable."

It certainly adds to the sense of déjà vu.

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.

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