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To Bibi or not to Bibi, that is the question

If Benjamin Netanyahu loses the premiership it will be for one of three reasons
PM Netanyahu in Jerusalem, November 05, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
PM Netanyahu in Jerusalem, November 05, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel is headed to elections – yet again. In theory, when Israelis go to the polls, they vote for a political party, a team of people they believe in who will hopefully become part of the governing coalition. In practice, though, the upcoming elections will be more about one man, the sitting prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, than any faction.

These elections will decide whether he will continue for another term, or whether he will go home. In Israel, every issue – whether security-related or economic, diplomatic or political – is first and foremost a personal matter. This time around, it’s extremely personal, and for Netanyahu, it’s even about his persona.

In the coming weeks, there will be plenty of analyses and speculation about the political and psychological factors that drove Netanyahu to call early elections. Odds are, and polls show, that he is likely to remain prime minister and that Israelis tend to vote for right-wing parties. The revolutions across the Arab world, the rise of the Islamic State and the summer war with Hamas in Gaza have done little to change that, or to arouse hope that peace is around the corner. The Israeli public is skeptical, bitter and assumes that things can – and probably will – get much worse. That’s why they vote for Netanyahu. But in politics, and particularly in Israeli politics, anything can happen.

Here, we present three scenarios that could see Netanyahu end his run as prime minister in March.

1. Losing the party

Since Netanyahu is essentially running against himself, his Likud party has set a minimum of 20 Knesset seats it must win for him to be re-elected. If he can’t bring the party those 20 seats in parliament, he won’t be prime minister, one senior Likud minister told us following a meeting with Netanyahu. With less than 20 seats, Likud will no longer be the largest faction within the right-wing bloc, and Netanyahu is likely to be toppled as party leader shortly after the election and might end his political career. That is why he unabashedly urged people to vote Likud and keep him in office during the press conference at which he announced his firing of Ministers Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni.

The greatest threat to Netanyahu is for right-wing votes to split between Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi, or Jewish Home party), who is surging in the polls, his former partner Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu), and Moshe Kahlon, the former Likud communications minister who is forming his own party. This is by far the worst-case scenario for Netanyahu, because it means he is no longer the right-wing camp’s leading representative.

2. A Center-Left Bloc

The second scenario entails the formation of a center-left bloc – something that failed to happen in the previous election. The only way that Labor party chairman Isaac Herzog could replace Netanyahu is if, following the elections, Labor forms an alliance with Livni’s Hatnua party (if it still exists), Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Meretz. Such a bloc, which would outnumber Likud and Jewish Home combined (although recent polls don’t support this scenario at all), would have room to negotiate with the ultra-Orthodox parties – who are no longer obligated to back Netanyahu after he dumped them from the last government – and with Kahlon, who shares their view on social issues, or even with Liberman (at the cost of losing Meretz), depending on the results.

3. Lapid-Liberman

The final scenario that could see Netanyahu pack his bags and head home to Caesarea depends on a strong centrist bloc. Considering the anger with and disappointment in Lapid, the chances of that happening are slim. However, the public forgets quickly and, frankly, Israelis are angrier with Netanyahu. All this could lead to an unexpected alliance between Lapid and Liberman.

The latter has been trying to paint himself as more of a center-rightist, or as he puts it, a pragmatic rightist versus Bennett’s dogmatic rightist. Liberman needs Lapid’s “all-Israeli” stamp of approval and that of his supporters, while Lapid needs Liberman’s power and the support of the Russian sector. The two men bonded during the last coalition, have plenty in common, and seem to think more highly of each other than either thinks of Netanyahu. A strong centrist bloc could negotiate with the left-wing factions, and even with Likud assuming Netanyahu is ousted following the elections if he can’t form a coalition.

* * *

The chances of any of these scenarios playing out may be small, but if Netanyahu does not form the next coalition it will be because of one of them. Netanyahu is aware of these hazards, which is why he deliberated, tormented himself and took a chance by calling elections. Not a huge chance, but a chance nonetheless.

And in Israel, where anything is possible, elections can provide a small jolt and shake up the existing reality – or, like a typhoon, they can wipe it out entirely.

About the Author
Yonit Levi is the anchor of the Evening News on Israel's Channel 2; Udi Segal is the network's senior diplomatic correspondent
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