Despite great dissatisfaction on the part of voters, early elections will likely mean a stronger right and reelection for the PM.
A majority (about 52%) of Israelis are dissatisfied with Prime Minister (PM) Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and his government. At least one poll conducted by the Jerusalem Post shows 60% of Israeli voters no longer wanting Netanyahu as PM.
With early elections now scheduled for the Ides of March, one might expect that Bibi, like Caesar, is finished. His political career after decades may have finally wound down to its end. If this is what you expect, then you may very well be mistaken. On March 17th, when voters go to the polls just 2 years after the previous election, it is entirely possible that Netanyahu will win yet again.
Recent polls by several Israeli polling agencies vary, but here is approximately where the parties stand:
Balad and Kadima would not reach the 3.25% threshold for earning seats in the Knesset.
These polls were taken before any campaigning has taken place, so these numbers will certainly change, but they do reflect the current mood of voters. The picture painted by these polls is that Bibi Netanyahu will be elected to his fourth term as PM and the Israeli right will come out stronger.
Yair Lapid, who was recently fired as Finance Minister when Netanyahu pushed Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) Party out of the coalition along with former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and her Hatnuah (The Movement) Party. These centre-left leaders have suffered a falling out with the PM that has brought about the coalition crisis and the upcoming elections. Some 55% of Israelis, according to one poll, oppose early elections, but every alternative has been exhausted.
Avigdor Liberman, Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beteinu (Israel is Our Home) Party leader, explained that the coalition had become too fractious. “We’ll argue for months” he said in a recent speech at an Institute for National Security Studies conference. “It’s no secret that the people of Israel don’t know why we’re going to elections after less than two years.” Polls show voters blame Netanyahu and Lapid for the breakdown.
In a last minute effort to avoid early elections, Bibi attempted to bring the eager Haredi Parties, Shas and UTJ into the coalition. It is said Avigdor Liberman vetoed the move.
The Jerusalem Post Poll cited earlier found that economic problems lead the list of concerns for voters at 34%, with the security situation following closely at 30%, social justice rang in at just 14%, and religion and state matters came in fourth with 10%.
In the aftermath of Protective Shield Israelis feel insecure. They are also concerned about the economy. The chilling of the US-Israel relationship is also disconcerting, although in all fairness the greater burden of blame there belongs to the White House. Many voters want a stronger national security posture: they feel Bibi has been ineffective at weakening Hamas. There is also a sense that the economy is not as prosperous and inclusive as it could be.
Israeli voters are discontent and frustrated, but also uncertain as to what should change. There are also few alternatives to Bibi. It seems everyone is all dressed up with nowhere to go.
How Did The Coalition Fall?
For his part, the PM blames Lapid and Livni for undermining his government:
“[Lapid and Livni] tried to overthrow me. The government was under constant threats and ultimatums. The country cannot be run in the current situation. Elections are not a good thing, but a government that is attacked from inside is seven times as bad.”
Bibi and Yair Lapid collided over the budget recently. The cost of Operation Protective Shield means that next year’s budget would either host a deficit greater than 3% or require tax increases. Lapid staunchly opposed raising taxes. His obstinate behavior began to unravel the coalition. In a political move, Yair Lapid recently launched an attack on the PM for focusing on petty politics within his own party rather than addressing national issues. Lapid also attempted to form an alternative government.
Commenting on another last minute attempt to avoid elections by dividing the Yesh Atid Party, that party to replied:
“The prime minister is panicking. He knows he is going to lose his [office] in the next elections and is making every effort to prevent them.”
Another major cause of the coalition’s failure is the “Jewish State Bill,” which would enshrine Israel’s Jewish status in the Basic Law, Israel’s semi-constitution. Lapid and Livni are opposed to the bill in its current form, concurring with a strong plurality of Israeli voters that the bill would weaken rights for Israel’s non-Jewish citizens and hurt Israel’s position relative to the international community. Naftali Bennet, Transportation Minister and Bayit Hayehudi (Home for the Jews) Party leader, has championed the legislation.
The Jewish State Bill does command the support of a greater plurality of Israeli voters, but the issue is highly divisive: 43% of voters support the current version and 39% oppose. The supporters are, however, the very right-leaning voters whose support Bibi needs to be reelected.
How Will The Next Government Be Formed?
Yair Lapid claims to be running for Prime Minister himself, even though his party polls at about 1/12 of the Knesset and head to head he polls behind Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog. The latter is a popular alternative to Bibi. Head to head Netanyahu and Herzog receive 45% and 44% respectively. Unlike an independent President, the Prime Minister is not directly elected. Herzog’s Labor party is polling well behind Likud and that will seriously hamper his efforts to lead the next government. Coalitions have to be formed among the parties in the Knesset. When enough parties agree to unite that they equal an absolute majority of the Knesset, or 61 of 120 seats, then they can choose a Prime Minister and Cabinet. This process can be complex and confusing.
Israel’s cabinet system is very different from that of the US. The Prime Minister does not simply appoint whom he or she prefers to the ministerial portfolios, and cannot fire them without risking early elections. Ministers can be from within the PM’s party, from among other coalition parties ,and often include political opponents of the PM. The PM does not make policy decisions by himself as the President of the United States does. The cabinet as a whole body votes on significant policy questions. The Prime Minister must influence, discuss, compromise, and cajole in order to see his policies enacted. Netanyahu certainly cannot issue executive orders that would, for example change the immigration laws, without an act of the Knesset.
Israel’s political system is highly collegial and that is the magic of its democracy. No one individual controls the policy making apparatus. At any time a coalition partner can depart the coalition and bring the government down, or vote for an alternative government. Any government that does not have popular support, is ineffective, or wherein the major leaders cannot get along will be quickly replaced or early elections will be called.
So Who Are The Alternatives?
For the moment, at least, talk of Gideon Sa’ar challenging Bibi for the Likud leadership is no more than talk. Even the eminently qualified and impressive Sa’ar would have difficulty unseating Netanyahu. The young Danny Danon has already failed at such an attempt, although he is admittedly much less qualified than Sa’ar.
Isaac Herzog seems the most likely choice. Despite his best efforts to grow his Labor Party, it continues to poll between 13 and 15 seats (the party currently has 15 seats). One obstacle to his success is the fractious nature of Israel’s left. With Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party and Livni’s Hatnuah Party there are many options on the left. No one should discount the indefatigable Zahava Gal-On of Meretz.
Tzipi Livni is rumored to be considering a joint list with Labor, which might bring the party’s faction above the 20 seat mark. Livni has not performed as well as Lapid in recent elections and only stands to earn 4 or 5 seats in the next Knesset. According to the polls cited above, Labor would need to earn at least 25 seats, preferably closer to 30, in order to have a shot at leading the next government. Even with those kinds of numbers they would require the collaboration of Lapid, Kahlon, Liberman, Gal-On, and probably also one of the Haredi parties in order to be successful. Even then, that government will need to achieve quick results and must maintain harmony within the coalition or it too may fall victim to infighting.
The fact is, Israel has few seasoned statesmen who have the experience and public confidence that Netanyahu has embodied up to this point. Is it possible that Labor will prevail? Yes, but then it is also possible to have a profitable night at the blackjack table, it is just not all that likely.
If Not the PM Then What Will Elections Change?
Perhaps the greatest change awaiting the Twentieth Knesset that will take office following these elections will be the birth of a powerful new party. Moshe Kahlon’s List will thrust onto the scene with up to 12 seats, possibly more if late breaking voters turn to him for systemic change. Having remained outside of the fray, Kahlon can play the role of the outsider and reformer. His centre-right politics represent a refreshing new perspective on the right. He supports a strong national security posture and also engagement in the peace process.
Kahlon is best known for his policies as Communications Minister where he was credited with lowering cell phone costs and thus the cost of living for average Israelis. His record proves that he has what it takes to address economic concerns to the broad satisfaction of the Israeli public, no small feat.
Kahlon may choose a coalition with Bibi Netanyahu or he may venture to the left and join a government led by one of Bibi’s opponents if they have enough numbers to form a government. The shrewd Kahlon will seek out the best leadership to address Israel’s challenges.
Based upon the current polls, it is quite possible that a coalition could be formed between Likud, Yisrael Beteinu, Bayit Hayehudi, and Kahlon’s List. Haredi parties may be unneeded, but Bibi may invite one to the coalition anyway to broaden his constituencies.
One interesting aspect of the Israeli political system is that it allows voters greater nuance in their political choices. A voter who is primarily concerned about the special privileges of the Haredi and religious freedom, can choose a party that focuses its platform on those issues. A voter primarily concerned with the interests of settlers can likewise find a party that caters to that interest group. In this way, voters can reelect a government and still have a powerful impact on policy outcomes in the new government. They are not just forced to vote for party A or party B.
Speaking of two party systems, an interesting side matter in these polls is the question of larger party blocs. In the most recent election Likud and Yisrael Beteinu ran as a joint bloc, they shared a list that doled out seats for each party such that Likud ended up with 18 seats and Yisrael Beteinu with 13. The result, however, was that these two parties have fewer seats in the Nineteenth Knesset (31) than the sum of their two factions in the Eighteenth (42). Polls in the recent past have suggested that the two parties would earn more votes running apart from one another.
Suppose they should turn in the opposite direction? A poll suggests that some 33% of Israeli voters would support adding Bayit Hayehudi to the Likud-Beteinu joint list, while 43% oppose such a move. When asked, 44% of voters would probably vote for the new bloc and another 18% would consider voting for it; compared to 23% who would not. 44% of the vote would mean about 53 seats in the Knesset.
I have explored this notion before, albeit never here on Times of Israel. There has been talk for years of Israel forming large ideological political parties with broad appeal across many segments of society. Not unlike the UK’s Labour and Tories, or, Hashem forbid, America’s Republicans and Democrats. I prefer to call a right uber-bloc: Yisrael Yemin (Israeli Right). Yisrael Yemin would have a religious component balanced with powerful secular interests, it would be nationalist but pragmatic, neo-liberal but progressive.
How likely is this eventuality? Not very. Liberman plans to run Yisrael Beteinu independent of Likud this election. Would Bayit Hayehudi consider it? Many of their supporters are those who are discontented with Likud. Joining up with Likud may not be the best way to serve them.
There is also talk of a similar left uber-bloc. There has been a desire on the left for a Social Democratic Party not unlike that of Germany, although in recent history such notions centered on a merger of Labor and Meretz. With Livni considering a joint list with Labor, this prospect is more promising. A left wing uber-bloc made up of Labor, Meretz, Yesh Atid, and Hatnuah would be a powerful contender. A greater plurality support the notion than would support a right uber-bloc: 42% support and 37% oppose. The bloc would likewise have the support of 44% and an additional 29% would consider supporting it; 22% would not. The challenge is that it would be much more difficult for Herzog and Lapid to get on the same page than their counterparts on the right. Which of them would lead the uber-bloc?