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Third time’s a charm? Unable to form a government, Israel forced to hold 3rd round of elections. Vote set for March 2. And Netanyahu suddenly has a serious new challenger. Here’s what we know.

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(Washington, D.C.) — It’s Groundhog Day in Israel, again.

Remember the hilarious 1993 movie in which Bill Murray plays a local TV weatherman from Pittsburgh who keeps waking up in the same hotel and every day he’s required to cover the Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and it’s a loop from which he can never seem to get out? 

Welcome to the election cycle in Israel. Except that it’s not quite so funny.

GroundhogDay-poster

Here’s what we know at this hour: Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East — we love elections so much we’ve had two rounds in 2019. That’s never happened before in Israeli history. Now we are going to a third round — on March 2

Here’s why:

  • Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu — Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister — is losing his political hold on the country.
  • Twice this year, Bibi has failed to secure enough seats for his Likud Party and his center-right allies to form a governing coalition.
  • After Bibi failed the second time, Bibi’s main opposition party challenger — former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz — was given the opportunity to form a governing coalition, after Bibi failed. However, Gantz failed, as well.
  • Meanwhile, Israel’s Attorney General recently indicted Netanyahu in three separate cases involving alleged bribery, fraud and breach of trust. 
  • Polls show that Israelis overwhelmingly want two things.
  • First, they want Netanyahu to step down to focus on his legal troubles, not serve as PM will under indictment.
  • Second, they want the two major parties — Likud and Gantz’s Blue & White party — to form a national unity government in which Gantz would serve as PM for two years and then rotate to the head of Likud being PM for two years.
  • Bibi, as you can imagine, doesn’t want to step aside.
  • But Gantz refuses to create a deal with Bibi while Bibi is under indictment.

Now, enter a new dynamic: Bibi suddenly has a serious new challenger within Likud.

  • Gideon Sa’ar, one of Likud’s most popular and effective Members of Knesset who has served as Education Minister and the Interior Minister, has called for snap leadership primaries.
  • But shrewdly, Sa’ar is not focusing on Bibi’s legal troubles.
  • Rather, he is making the case to fellow Likudniks that Bibi needs to be replaced because he has lost two elections in a row, has failed to form a governing coalition two times in a row, and has no better prospects of winning an election and creating such a coalition via a third election.
  • Indeed, Sa’ar is arguing that Likud could get shellacked in March, punished by voters for driving the nation to a third election.
  • [Here’s an interesting new interview with Sa’ar — worth reading to become more familiar with him.]

It’s too early to say whether Likud party members are ready to say goodbye to Bibi. However, here are two last things you should know.

  • First, it appears that Likud is going to have a leadership primary on December 26. Bibi’s allies are understandably trying to scuttle that. But if the primary does happen, we’ll know very soon whether Bibi will lead Likud going forward, or whether Sa’ar (or someone else) will emerge on top.
  • Second, a new poll does, in fact, suggest that in the next election, public support for Likud may drop significantly, and support for Gantz’s party could surge. “According to Channel 13, if the election were held today, Blue & White…would win 37 seats, compared to 33 for the Likud.”  
  • Watch for a rash of more polls to come out in the coming days. If evidence grows that the public is turning against Likud with Bibi’s at its helm, this could significantly influence voters in the Likud internal primary. 
  • That said, Likudniks historically are very loyal. Bibi has been their guy for the last 10 years, and been one of the most popular officials in Likud for three decades, having also served as PM from 1996 to 1999. Bibi is also a very effective political infighter. He hasn’t stayed on top this long for no reason.

Bottom line: Please pray for Israel during this vulnerable, volatile season. We do not have an effective, functioning national government. We have a very experience Prime Minister who is suddenly under indictment and in real political trouble and thus at risk of becoming distracted. And we have very real and dangerous enemies angling to take advantage of the situation. May the Lord have mercy on us at this time.

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