Though it is poised to remain the largest party in the Knesset and Benjamin Netanyahu will almost certainly have the first crack at forming the next coalition, this election season has been unkind to the Likud party.
Merger of the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu election lists failed to produce a bump in the polls. Rather, it seems nationalist voters moved further rightward. In the last round of polls before the election, the combined Likud-Beytenu list got about 33 seats, compared to the 42 seats, the two parties together controlled in the outgoing Knesset. As a result of the merger, the Likud component of the joint list will seat fewer MKs than the 27 it currently holds. Most of the lost seats likely shifted to the nationalist Orthodox-religious Jewish Home party. The loss of those seats could constrain Netanyahu in the kind of coalition he will be able to form.
Likud strategists may feel particularly galled since the Likud primaries generated a list that already moved the party sharply to the right. Likud candidates include controversial settler leader Moshe Feiglin. Excluded are well-known moderates Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, and good-government advocate Benny Begin.
A loss of clarity may explain the drop in numbers. Without a party platform, Likud has no stated policy on any of the three main public debates in this election season: security, economy and religion/state relations. In his famous 2009 Bar Ilan speech, Prime Minister Netanyahu endorsed the two-state solution and made it a pillar of his government’s proclaimed policies. However, Likud MK Tzippi Hotoveli declared at a recent political gathering that “the Bar Ilan speech was simply a tactical speech. It is not part of the Likud platform.” Netanyahu stands by his recognition of the two-state solution but has not reprimanded any of several MKs who have suggested otherwise.
In its economic policies, Likud has always been capitalist but also a populist party bringing together wealthy advocates of a competitive open economy with lower middle class and poor. The current Israeli economy creates tension between these two constituencies. Once a country that boasted some of the lowest levels of economic polarization in the non-Communist world, Israel now has some of the highest. Netanyahu’s public discussion of his economic policies remains fuzzy. He is proud of staving off the kind of long-term deficit-generated economic catastrophe seen in Southern Europe. Nevertheless, he strikes a seemingly deliberate note of haziness when it comes to explaining how his policies will improve the lives of ordinary Israelis, many of whom have not participated in the impressive growth of the economy.
In the arena of religion/state relations, Likud is in a bind. While most coverage has focused on the issue of Haredi participation in national service, the Likud faces another problem. Having merged with Yisrael Beytenu, a party with a constituency of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and a history of tension with the Chief Rabbinate, Likud has not clarified its own approach on matters of conversion and other problematic aspects of Israel’s established religion. At the same time, Likud always attracted a constituency of nationalist Orthodox Jews, many from the West Bank settlements. By institutionalizing its connection with Yisrael Beytenu, Likud may have lost many of its nationalistic Orthodox Jewish supporters who have ideological and political concerns to protect the current status of the Chief Rabbinate.
Netanyahu seems acutely aware that being too definitive can cost dearly in the future. Long known for his fervent opposition to concessions toward the Palestinians, the Likud right-wing turned against Netanyahu when he offered such compromises for peace during his first term in office in the 1990s. That brought down his first government. This time around, Likud (and the combined Likud-Beytenu list) are running without a shared formal platform. A certain fog surrounding Netanyahu’s real intentions may be a political tactic for the Likud. Why else refrain from creating a platform, a document that outlines the positions of the party?
The outcome of the actual voting could render this conversation moot if it turns out that the polls are completely inaccurate. However, failing that, Likud strategists will be asking themselves if at some point, lack of clarity is a self-limiting political strategy. You avoid messy and seemingly unnecessary internal debate but you may lose voters to parties that have less difficulty stating clearly their beliefs and policies.