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Will 2019 see a third Knesset election? This question is going rounds in Israel as it faces the second parliamentary election on 17 September and given the fractured verdict in the 9 April vote, one cannot be definite about anything. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's strategy of advancing the 21st Knesset election, which was due only this November, boomeranged. Both to tide over the crisis over the drafting of the ultra-orthodox Haredi population and to shore up his authority, he pushed it forward to April. As the Israelis were watching the cliff-hanger exit poll, Netanyahu was quick and even brash, in claiming a premature victory.

The Likud headed by him secured the same number of seats—35 in the 120-member house—like its immediate challenger Blue and White, led by former general Benny Gantz. The difference between the two parties was 14,489 out of 4.34 million voters. This small difference resulted in Netanyahu being asked to form the government and he almost cobbled a narrow Right-Religious coalition, but he fell short by one seat to ensure a simple majority of 61 seats.

With five seats, Avigdor Lieberman, a one-time aide of Netanyahu—became the potential kingmaker. Yisrael Beiteinu headed by the former Defense Minister was not prepared to join the government without the Haredi population doing military service. When Lieberman stood his grounds, Netanyahu could not form the government within the legally stipulated time. To prevent others, both within and outside the Likud, from staking claims, Netanyahu settled for dissolving the Knesset, forcing a second election within six months.

This is the first time in Israel's history re-election became necessary because a new government could not be formed after the popular vote. Despite all fractions and divisions, Israel always had an elected- government. When political stalemate continued after the 1984 and 1988 elections, both Likud and Labour Party came together and formed a national unity government. This did not happen after the April election.

While it is too early and hazardous to predict the outcome of the 17 September election, one cannot ignore certain harsh realities. The ruling Likud party is in a deep crisis over its future. Since the pre-state years, the party had seen only four leaders, namely, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu and the Labour Party on the other had over a dozen during the same period. While there are a few contenders for the Likud leadership, all of them lack Netanyahu's national and international stature and the party would be muddling along for quite some time after Bibi, as the prime minister is fondly called.

Two, Netanyahu's troubles with the law is far from over and the Attorney General has set 2 October for pre-indictment hearing, just two weeks after the Knesset election, over bribery charges. This means that Netanyahu cannot bring in a legislation that would prevent the filing of charges against an incumbent prime minister. Thus, even if Likud emerges as the largest party, the chances of Netanyahu heading the next government gets slimmer.

Three, ever since he entered parliament in 1988, Netanyahu had dominated the Israeli political landscape. Even in his caretaking capacity, on 16 July he overtook David Ben-Gurion and became the longest-serving prime minister of the country. At the same time, there is noticeable fatigue even among the right-wing voters about Netanyahu's three-decade-long political career. There is a genuine yearning for change, even if the outcome is less clear and more uncertain. This might work against Netanyahu who mastered political survival as an art.

Four, part of Netanyahu's domestic popularity is also due to his proximity with President Donald Trump and his success in securing a spate of diplomatic victories. The American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the shifting of American Embassy out of Tel Aviv and recognition of the Golan Heights as an Israeli territory are Netanyahu’s remarkable achievements. These moves are controversial and much of the international community has not accepted them as legitimate, but within the Israeli domestic contest, they are Netanyahu's diplomatic accomplishments. At the same time, are they a result of Netanyahu-Trump personal bonhomie or an Israeli-US interest convergence? Will President Trump be showering similar concessions, if the next Israeli leader is not Netanyahu?

If one considers these, the forthcoming Knesset election faces more questions than answers and would be the most crucial one in recent times.

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy