Netanyahu announces early elections, expected to hold Knesset majority

The political parties, along with media, will sell a story of a tight battle, but the Likud-led majority is as stable as it was four years ago. A quick breakdown of the upcoming elections, expected to take place in roughly ninety days. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: Avi Ochaion / Government Press Office)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, announcing his intention to have elections early in 2013 (photo: Avi Ohayon / Government Press Office)

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced Tuesday evening his intention to hold early elections in roughly three months. Elections were due to take place in November 2013 in any case, but Netanyahu estimates that he will have trouble passing next year’s budget in the current Knesset.

The following is an excerpt from Netanyahu’s statement tonight:

Today, I finished a round of consultations with the heads of the coalition parties, and I came to the conclusion that it is not possible at this time to pass a responsible budget. We are on the threshold of an election year, and to my regret, in an election year it is difficult for parties to place the national interest ahead of the party interest. The result of this is liable to be a budgetary breach and a massive increase in the deficit, which would very quickly put us in the situation of the crumbling economies of Europe. I will not allow this to happen here.


The State of Israel would prefer a short election campaign of three months over what, in effect, would be a long election campaign that would continue for an entire year and would severely damage the Israeli economy. And therefore, after four years, we will go to elections.

Having early elections involves Knesset legislation, which should not be a problem since the opposition parties always vote to dissolve the Knesset. The date for the new elections will be set in the coming days, and is likely to be somewhere between late January and mid-February. It is worth mentioning that Netanyahu has already announced early elections, only to change his mind after a couple of days. It won’t happen this time.

Here are a few quick takeaways:

1. It wasn’t only the budget that made Netanyahu call for early elections. The prime minister wants to block a potential comeback by the incredibly-unpopular-yet-relentless Ehud Olemrt and the forming of a new party by the legendary Shas leader, Arye Deri, who has announced his return to politics. Deri has been cleverly building a reputation as the dovish alternative to Eli Yishai, and given enough time, he might actually hurt Netanyahu’s base among Sephardic right-wingers. 90 days will not allow him to compete with Shas’ formidable machine, even if he does chose to run on his own.

2. Netanyahu is Israel’s next prime minister. In the Israeli system, party sizes don’t matter that much. The name of the game is blocs. Likud is likely to be the biggest party in the next Knesset, but even if it ends up coming in second place, it won’t matter. Since the previous elections, I haven’t seen one poll – not a single one! – which shows a pro-Netanyahu coalition of Orthodox and right-wing parties with less than 61 seats. If you check out our poll tracking page, you will see that changes take place only within the blocs. Netanyahu’s coalition has a floor of approximately 62 seats and a ceiling in the low 70s. That is all that matters.

Both the media and the parties prefer the illusion of tight elections where “everything is possible.” It’s a good story, and it helps the politicians rally the base. But this story is also false. The math is very clear: Yair Lapid will not be the next prime minister, nor will Yachimovich, Olmert, Livni, Mofaz, or any other name being tossed right now. Netanyahu will.

3. Thought the Jewish center-left got blown away 4 years ago? You aint seen nothin’ yet. In the previous elections, Kadima was able to draw a surprising number of votes from the Jewish middle-class, resulting in a large party that could have challenged Netanyahu, had it any ideological backbone. This time, the votes which previously went to Kadima will be spread on no less than five major parties: Yesh Atid (led by journalist Yair Lapid), Yachimovich’s Labor, Barak’s Azmaut, Meretz and Kadima itself, which currently polls in the single digits. Add to this some votes which will be lost on smaller parties that will not pass the Knesset threshold, and you get the total collapse of the center-left, both as a political power and as an ideologically coherent idea.

4. The fragmentation of the center will lead to a prisoner’s dilemma. All the center fractions together could have some bargaining power, but every party will be afraid that another one will join the coalition, as Barak did in 2009, and leave the rest out in the cold. The result will be a rush by Mofaz, Lapid and Yachimovich to Netanyahu’s arms. All three have already made it clear that they “don’t rule out” entering a Likud-led government, in the name of the national interest. Read: They will do everything in their power to serve under Bibi.

5. Who will Netanyahu take? This is an interesting guessing game. Barak is the first option, naturally. If Barak fails to enter the Knesset, Netanyahu’s choice will be much less pleasant – he probably had enough of Mofaz, whose politics are beyond weird. Being the paranoid the prime minister is, Netanyahu might not want the likable Lapid on his side. Thus, he could end up with Yachimovich or with a narrow government of only right and orthodox parties. I would have taken Lapid though. The man has no more than hot air in him. Once in government, he will be as loyal as his dad was to Sharon a decade ago.

6. The effect of the American elections. Many wonder how the presidential elections will affect the Israeli one. My guess is that when all is said and done, they won’t matter that much. If Obama wins, Netanyahu’s base will feel that the prime minister is the only man who can stand up to “the hostile administration,” while his opponents will claim that Bibi’s support for Romney has cost Israel enough. The same goes for a Romney victory: the right will celebrate it, but it could also wake up the opposition, whose members won’t be able to hope for “pressure from Washington” that would do their job for them in the next Knesset.

I will post more on the elections in the coming weeks, including my own endorsement.