Netanyahu calls September elections, expected to win again

At least two new parties could enter the next Knesset, but polls show that the most important figure – the split between the two major blocs – is surprisingly static.

It’s official: The coalition has decided to call early elections, which are to take place on September 4, 2012. The final confirmation of the date is expected next week, once the Likud’s bill on early elections acquires the necessary Knesset votes.

Benjamin Netanyahu enjoyed a rather stable coalition, yet the government expected major hurdles in the coming Knesset session – most notably, the need to come up with a new bill regarding the service of the ultra-Orthodox in the IDF – and the prime minister concluded that it would be better to control his political fate by choosing the earliest possible date for the coming elections.

By going to the polls sooner rather than later, Netanyahu wishes to capitalize on his high approval ratings and not let possible challengers gain momentum. The prime minister would also like to avoid discussion on the 2013-2014 budget, which will include calls for increased government spending at a time when tax revenues are going down, and might prove too hard to control during an election cycle.

The prime minister may also be hoping that the election cycle will overshadow grassroots efforts to reignite last year’s social protest. Activism around common goals is almost impossible during election campaigns, when different parties try to distinguish themselves from one another.

Additionally, a victory by U.S. President Barack Obama in November could also hurt Netanyahu locally. The prime minister is probably hoping that the GOP takes over the White House, but would like to be prepared for a second Obama term in case it doesn’t.

Early September is considered a favorable time for the right, since many in the upper middle class take their vacations abroad. Israel doesn’t allow voting absentee or by mail or internet. In close elections, a few thousand votes could go a very long way.

The elections to the 19th Knesset, however, are not expected to be that close. Netanyahu is considered a decent leader by a majority of Israeli Jews, and support for the main opposition party – Kadima – has collapsed. These elections will be a sort of referendum on Netanyahu and the pillars of his politics: maintaining the status quo of the occupation, increasing war threats against Iran and continuing his conservative fiscal policy. Most people in Israel can live with that, and those who can’t – mainly the Palestinians in the West Bank – don’t get to vote.

Game of blocs

In the coming weeks, I will post updates on new polls, as well as analyses of political trends, candidates and issues. I will try to combine basic explanations with more in-depth material, so that readers who don’t follow the Israeli political news cycle closely can also make some sense of these reports. It is something that even Israelis are finding harder and harder to do, since the local landscape is becoming increasingly fragmented.

The Israeli political system can be roughly divided into two blocs, each one comprised of several parties: The first bloc consists of the parties formally known as “centrist,” the left and the non-Zionist (*); the other bloc includes the religious and secular rightist parties.

In the current Knesset, the center-left bloc includes Kadima, Labor, Atzmaut (a Labor breakaway party), Meretz, Raam-Taal, Balad and Hadash. The religious and secular rightist bloc includes Likud, Israel Beitenu, Shas, Yahadut Hatorah, Habayit Hayehudi and HaIchud Haleumi (Shas and Yahadut Hatorah are Orthodox parties; Habayit Hayehudi and HaIchud Haleumi are national-religious).

Governments usually take one of the following forms: A narrow government, consisting of the bloc that enjoys a majority of the Knesset’s 120 seats, or a “national unity” government, which is a combination of the larger parties at the system’s center. Netanyahu’s current government, just like his previous one in the 1990s, is the perfect narrow, right-wing coalition, with two exceptions: the centrist Atzmaut party, headed by Ehud Barak, is in the government, while the ultra-right HaIchud Haleumi is, at least technically, in the opposition.

While there will be some adjustments in the allocation of seats within the blocs (more so on the left), recent polls suggest the current distribution between the two blocs will be maintained – roughly 65-55 in favor of the right (the most recent poll has this exact result). This is somewhat surprising, considering Netanyahu’s high approval ratings and the lack of a dominant opposition challenger. One explanation could be that Netanyahu still has difficulties breaking into new demographics, especially in the Jewish secular middle class.

Who’s who in the coming elections

Like most ruling powers, the right will bring forth the same faces as in the previous elections. There is, however, one wild card: criminal charges against Avigdor Lieberman might force the leader of Israel Beitenu to sit this cycle out, which could result in a flow of voters to Likud. Also, the two national religious parties might try to unite again, especially if they sense a danger of not passing the 2-percent threshold.

The Orthodox Shas party is at the center of many speculations: the party’s former leader, Aryeh Deri, is expected to announce soon whether he will head a more dovish Orthodox party. But Deri doesn’t have the support of the legendary Shas spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and it’s not clear how strong his appeal is if not backed by the party’s powerful machine.

At the political center, Kadima’s newly elected leader, Shaul Mofaz, is struggling. Recent polls had him holding onto only 11 of the party’s current 28 seats. Most of the voters turning away from Kadima seem to be heading toward Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”), Yair Lapid’s new party. Labor, which got 13 seats in the last election, is polling well.

The problem is that no party but the Likud is expected to get more than 20 seats, and both Lapid and Mofaz have expressed in the past a desire to join Netanyahu’s government. This means that regardless of the actual results, the next government will be formed by the right, joined by a mid-size party to its left, which will shield it from the parliamentary opposition. This is exactly how the current Netanyahu government looked before the split in Labor. In short, the next government will be very similar to the current one.


(*) Many Israelis group Hadash, Raam-Taal and Balad into one bloc of “Arab parties.” I prefer to use the term non-Zionist, since Hadash is an Arab-Jewish party. “Non-Zionist” is not an ideal term either, since the Orthodox parties don’t consider themselves Zionist; but I think this is becoming more of a formality, as the political behavior of the Orthodox places them solidly within the right.