National unity gov’t splits; PM likely to call, win early elections

After only 70 days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mega-coalition shrank back to 66 members of Knesset yesterday. Kadima, the Knesset’s biggest party, decided to leave the government over the failure to reach an agreement on national draft reform.

A few takeaways:

1.    The entire maneuver that resulted in the national unity government was a mistake by the prime minister, who had been about to announce elections on September 4, and win them easily. Currently, elections are scheduled to take place in October 2013, but common wisdom says they will happen six to nine months from now, in the winter or spring of 2013.

Time will work against Netanyahu: opposition parties are organizing, former Channel 2 anchorman Yair Lapid is gaining momentum, and Ehud Olmert might be back as well, though he still needs to survives the fourth charge against him (regarding his involvement in the Holyland real-estate project). Personally I believe that Olmert is weaker than people think, but there is no doubt that his return will add to Netanyahu’s woes.

Other problems for the prime minister include what looks like an expected victory for President Obama in November. I think that this aspect is exaggerated as well, since the administration has lost all will to confront Jerusalem, which I don’t think it will gain back until the last two years of the presidency. Netanyahu might even gain some support, running as “the only man who can twist the arm of a hostile American president.” It worked for him in the past.

2.    There is one issue though that is overlooked and could really hurt Netanyahu, and that’s the economy. The current slide toward recession could soon turn into a free fall. The shekel lost almost 20 percent to the U.S. dollar this year, exports are dropping because of the euro zone crisis, and most alarming is recent data on a drop in investments in start-up high-tech companies, which has reached their lowest level in a decade.

Netanyahu will want a tight budget next year, cutting social services and government expenses. With J14 protesters in the streets, that won’t look good. The economy is Netanyahu’s greatest vulnerability, because his voters come from weaker economic background and they are the first to get hurt. So the prime minister will probably want for the new budget to be formed after elections – which means going to the polls in February.

3.    Other winners and losers: Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) is a dead horse (too many flip flops even for an Israeli politician); Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) didn’t take part in the draft debate and lost some momentum – she also made a weird statement of support  yesterday for turning the college in Ariel into a university, which might alienate her base further – that’s the reason she wants elections ASAP; Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert have regained some respect and so has Yair Lapid. But the last man standing is Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman was the first to understand that there would be no draft reform and that the government would split, so he left the talk on the reform and submitted a Knesset bill on mandatory draft for everyone – including Palestinian citizens – at the age of 18. The bill is not likely to pass, but the secular public loves it. Lieberman has polled way ahead of all other politicians on this issue in the last week.

4.    There will be no draft reform. The current arrangement (the “Tal Law”) expires at the end of the month, but the defense minister will issue an order exempting the ultra-Orthodox from service. The organizations supporting the draft will turn again to the High Court, but a new verdict will take years and might be very different from the previous one, which annulled the Tal Law. Today’s Chief Justice Asher Grunis ruled with the minority in favor of upholding the Tal Law, and he is not very likely to force the Knesset to come up with a new system right away.

There will be no major reform because Netanyahu doesn’t want one. After flip flopping back and forth he decided to stick with his base, making sure that any new law would satisfy the ultra-Orthodox parties. They will be on his side after the next elections, and that’s all Netanyahu wants.

>> Check out +972’s new poll tracking page at this link, with the latest polling numbers for all Knesset parties.

5.    As I have written before, there is currently zero chance that anyone but Neyanyahu will be the next prime minister. I have yet to see one poll since the last elections in which his Knesset bloc, consisting of the religious and the right-wing parties, fall beneath 60 Knesset seats. It’s true that he doesn’t go far above that threshold either. I would estimate a minimum of around 62-63 seats (and a maximum in the low 70s), which means that no other person can form the next government. Add to that the fact that the center and the left will be very fragmented in the next elections, leaving the Likud as the only party that could actually lead a government. In short, political change can only come from outside the Knesset, and perhaps from outside Israel altogether.