Israel’s elections: A referendum on Netanyahu

The coalition is falling apart, and the Knesset is likely to agree on early elections soon. Current polls suggest we are heading toward a fourth Netanyahu government, which will be even more right wing than the current one.

Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman thank their supporters at the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu headquarters, January 23 2013 (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills)
Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman n election night 2013. Netanyahu would like to form a new government with his old political partners (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills)

Netanyahu’s third government has reached its end. New elections, which seemed likely when the Gaza war ended, are practically inevitable at this point. UPDATE: The Knesset’s parties agreed to hold the elections on March 17, 2015.

The two central pillars of the government – Netanyahu’s Likud party and Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (comprising 18 and 19 seats, respectively, out of the Knesset’s 120) –  are not able to cooperate with each other any longer, with bad blood running especially high between the two politicians. Growing disputes led to Netanyahu firing both Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni from his government on Tuesday evening.

Theoretically an alternative coalition can emerge without elections. In recent days both Lapid and Netanyahu have tried to gain the support of Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), the two ultra-Orthodox parties. With that support, either one of them could have gathered the necessary 61 votes to become prime minister. But the ultra-Orthodox parties refused both Bibi and Lapid, believing that they will have better leverage after the elections, even if they end up winning fewer seats than in the current Knesset. Unless the ultra-Orthodox change their mind soon, the government will not have a majority in the Knesset and new elections will become inevitable.

Netanyahu will likely not resign, since the risk of seeing Lapid or Herzog assemble an alternative coalition is too great. Instead the Knesset will likely pass a quick bill on early elections – the way it does every time a government is about to fall. Netanyahu would like to have as short a campaign as possible – the common wisdom is that long election cycles hurt incumbent prime ministers running for reelection.

Netanyahu will run as the head of the Likud party. Avigdor Lieberman will run independently with his Yisrael Beitenu party (last election he combined his list with Bibi’s). Naftali Bennett will lead the Jewish Home party, though whether the extreme-right National Home faction splits from Jewish Home is yet to be seen. Tzipi Livni will seek to merge her Hatnua party – which is sinking in the polls – with either Labor or Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. There are even talks of a joint center-left bloc, though this is not likely to happen.

Former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon (who is polling well, between 8-12 seats) will lead a new centrist party. The Palestinian parties – United Arab List and Balad – will run on the same list, due to the raising of the Knesset threshold. The Arab-Jewish Hadash party may join them as well.

The unexpected element

If Operation Protective Edge was a war over maintaining the status quo, these will be the elections of the status quo. Put another way: these elections are akin to a referendum on Netanyahu and his signature policy, which is all about maintaining the current trends on the ground. Nobody can pretend any longer that Netanyahu is about to negotiate a peace deal or evacuate settlements. The prime minister attacked Mahmoud Abbas so vehemently in recent weeks that even if he were to suddenly cut a deal with Abbas, it would be impossible to sell it to the public.

There won’t be any new Bibi. Only the old Bibi, older. Netanyahu is closer than ever to Naftali Bennett and the settlers. As relations between Israel’s Palestinian citizens and Jews deteriorated over recent months, Netanyahu only fanned the flames, refrained from condemning attacks on Palestinians and threatened to expel protesters or revoke the citizenship of family members of terror suspects. This hardline approach reflects Netanyahu’s ideology as well as his political calculus.

Unlike other Likud leaders (Sharon being the prime example), Bibi is not looking for votes from the center. His strategy is more about rallying the base. Netanyahu won his 1996 upset against Shimon Peres by mobilizing a collation of forces: the settlers; lower-income, mostly Mizrahi Jews; much of the Russian vote; the ultra-Orthodox and the hawkish revisionists that dominated Likud in those days. The Israeli Right has seen a change of guard – the Likud’s revisionists were demoted and the national-religious (mostly settlers) are now in the driver’s seat – but the coalition around them remains mostly intact. Those same forces handed Bibi his recent victories in 2009 and 2013. All three victories were narrow: he won 50.5 percent of the vote in 1996; his coalition won 65 and 61 Knesset seats in 2009 and 2013, respectively. Never a landslide, but always enough. This is what Bibi will be aiming for this time as well.

The problem with the current government is that it didn’t comprise of Bibi’s regular coalition, since Bennett and Lapid forced him to leave the ultra-Orthodox out. This was the source of the instability: Bibi leading a government while drawing his political support elsewhere. Now he is running in order to return things back to normal: securing a majority of 61 votes or more for his coalition, while squeezing in a centrist party or two in order to balance the hard right and use them as a diplomatic buffer, the way Barak and Livni were used in Bibi’s two previous governments.

Polls suggest that Netanyahu will get what he wants. The center-left parties are not polling anywhere close to 60 votes, which is the minimum required to disrupt the prime minister’s plan. Furthermore there is a split between the centrist parties (Kadima, Livni, Yesh Atid, Labor and Kahlon) and the leftist parties (Meretz, Hadash and the Palestinian parties) which prevents them from operating as an effective political bloc.

Right now the most likely outcome is a shift of around 8-10 seats from Livni and Lapid to Kahlon, and another 2-4 seats to Meretz and Bennett. This will actually leave Netanyahu in a better position after the elections, as the right-wing bloc will slightly grow, and he will have easier time inviting Kahlon to the coalition than he did with Lapid or Livni. Kahlon was always rather hawkish in his views, though he is currently trying not to highlight this fact.

Having said that, there is always something unexpected in elections, especially in the fragmented Israeli system. Bibi’s next term is far from guaranteed, and there is always the option of a major upset, or of someone (Lieberman?) defecting from the right simply in order to get rid of Netanyahu. The likely scenario, however, is another term with Netanyahu. The Israeli public – or more accurately, the Jewish-Israeli public – is not likely to change course on its own, and the circumstances that would force such a change are not here yet.

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