Analysis

Netanyahu Cruises to Reelection on Back of Vaccination Success

A few months ago, the conservative might have lost the election.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu tours Ben Gurion Airport, August 17, 2020 (GPO)

Parliamentary elections are held in Israel on Tuesday. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud is projected to place first with around thirty seats, down from 37. Twelve other parties are expected to cross the 3.25 percent electoral threshold, including two new parties on the right.

I asked our man in Tel Aviv, Ariel Reichard, for comment.

COVID success

Netanyahu has been charged with bribery and proposing to introduce legislation to hurt a friendly newspaper’s competitor in exchange for favorable coverage.

He has done little to alleviate the high cost of living in Israel, which has inspired various protests during his twelve years in power.

Neither played a significant role in the campaign.

“The prominent issue,” according to Ariel, “has been Netanyahu’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Even lukewarm Likud supporters credit him for Israel’s vaccination success. Half the population over 16 has been vaccinated, a higher rate than in any other nation.

It’s a recent success. Until a few months ago, Netanyahu was blamed for opening up houses of worship, markets, restaurants and stores too soon after the first, relatively mild wave of the virus in March 2020, triggering a more severe second wave and another lockdown.

If these elections had been held a month ago, or two months ago, as Netanyahu’s rivals wanted, he would have been in a much tougher position.

Right-wing rivals

The fact that Netanyahu has so many rivals also works in his favor: there is no obvious replacement.

Naftali Bennett tried to position himself as the new leader of the right with a new right-wing party, Yamina (Rightward). He campaigned hard against Netanyahu’s perceived COVID-19 failures and pulled into second place in the polls in September.

Now that the virus is on the wane, and life in Israel is returning to normal, Bennett’s popularity has plummeted. Polls give him at best ten out of 120 seats. In a last-ditch attempt to win over right-wing voters, Bennett committed not to join a government with the left in a signed pledge.

Ariel told me Bennett competes for the support of secular, right-wing voters, who are either disappointed Netanyahu didn’t annex the West Bank or appalled by his corruption, with Gideon Sa’ar, a former interior minister for Likud who split and formed his own party, New Hope. Polls give him seven to ten seats as well.

What about the Palestinians?

Ariel, who accurately predicted that Netanyahu would find a reason to walk back his promise to annex the West Bank, does not expect any change in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Netanyahu’s policy has been to “conduct the conflict under the radar” and let sleeping dogs lie.

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