Just 18 months after the last election, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is going back to the voters to seek a new mandate. But far from facing a crisis that leaves him unable to govern, Netanyahu has picked this battle, well aware that he’ll likely be the biggest winner in a new election expected to be staged early next year.
An election, in fact, offer what may be a welcome respite from a litany of failures in Netanyahu’s third term. Despite his strong electoral position, the Israeli prime minister is perceived in Israel to have failed in his efforts to prevent U.S.-Iranian nuclear rapprochement and in launching a costly but inconclusive war in Gaza last summer. And he suffered an embarrassing personal defeat in his Likud party when he failed to prevent the nomination of archrival Reuven Rivlin to Israel’s largely ceremonial presidency.
Even Netanyahu’s primary electoral asset — his promise of maintaining security and stability without ending the occupation of Palestinian territories — has depreciated with the recent turmoil in Jerusalem.
But what has prompted Netanyahu to take the initiative by calling an early election rather than see out the duration of a term of office that ends in 2017 is the desire to outflank a growing number of potential challengers: Naftali Bennet, the right-wing settler leader who polls show as the only current coalition partner likely to gain rather than lose seats in a new election; Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister who used the Gaza war to formally split with Netanyahu and is now trying to supplant him as a hawkish pragmatist; and the No. 2 in Likud, Gideon Sa’ar, who openly backed Rivlin during the presidential election and recently quit the Cabinet. While Sa’ar insists he is taking a break from politics, many observers believe he is distancing himself from Netanyahu ahead of a potential challenge for the Likud leadership (which would make him the party’s candidate for prime minister).
Finally, there is Moshe Kahlon, a firebrand former Likud minister who quit the party ahead of the 2013 election and is in the process of putting together a new technocratic party that will play on the socioeconomic discontent with Netanyahu but still place itself conveniently center-right.
An early election gives Netanyahu the chance to take on these challengers before they find their feet and fortify an electoral base.
Latest polls show an imminent election would not only maintain Netanyahu’s hold on power but strengthen it. The man who came closest to Netanyahu in the 2013 voting, the centrist Yair Lapid, is polling at 11 seats, a decline of eight seats that doesn’t eliminate him entirely from the power game in the 120-seat legislature but certainly demotes him from kingmaker. According to a Haaretz poll published two days ago, assuming that Kahlon ran on his own, the right-wing religious bloc on its own would be able to muster many more than the 61 seats it needs to govern, without seeking token centrist representation. In that poll, Likud got 24 seats, Bennet’s Habait Hayehudi, 16; Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, 11; and the religious parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, 8 and 6, respectively — totaling 65 seats.
For appearance’s sake or potentially to balance the more right-wing inclinations of some of those allies, Netanyahu could then have his pick from the main centrist parties — Kahlon with 12, Lapid’s Yesh Atid with 11 and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah at 4. If Netanyahu’s handling of Lapid after the 2013 election offers a guideline, he would likely pick Kahlon to discredit his oppositional credentials by making him co-own the policies of the new government.
And in further evidence of the steady drift of Israel’s political median to the right over the past 14 years, the center-left block obviously loses ground. Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog sees his party slump to 13 seats, down from 15. Meretz retains its six seats, which in the current political climate is remarkable for the most left-wing of the Zionist parties but is still a far cry from the days when Meretz attracted most of Lapid’s disaffected voters and polled as high as 12. Hadash, the Jewish-Arab leftist party, rises to five seats, Ahmad Tibi’s Raam-Taal polls at four, and liberal-nationalist Balad does not pass the electoral minimum and wins no seats.
The new minimum of 3.25 percent of the vote required win a seat in the Knesset raises the most intriguing question of the coming election: Will the parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel, among which Hadash is traditionally included, sink their differences and field a common slate, given that the new electoral minimum raises the prospect of a parliament in which their community has no voice at all? Negotiations to that end are underway, and polling shows that a joint list would be stronger than than the sum of its parts, gaining as many as 17 seats and becoming the second- or third-largest party in the Knesset.
That doesn’t mean they would be invited into government, since Arab representation in the governing coalition remains a taboo, even for Israel’s left-wing parties, despite the fact that Palestinian citizens of Israel account for one-fifth of the population. Still, such a strong showing raises the possibility of a centrist minority government governing with support of the Arab parties in the Knesset, although it’s questionable whether the self-described Zionist parties would risk their legitimacy in the eyes of an overwhelmingly nationalist Jewish electorate to take that option.
Some of these scenarios remain hypothetical: The Arab unity project has failed before. Kahlon’s intentions are not clear, and if he choses to run, he could attract defectors from other parties, including Likud, which would do Netanyahu’s prospects considerable harm.
For now, however, the new election looks likely to be an exercise in old politics, by old politicians — with the most likely outcome set to take Israel even further to the right and even further from an international community whose impatience with the failure of the peace process was mostly recently signaled by the French parliament’s vote on Tuesday to symbolically recognize a Palestinian state. Rather than any new prospect for an end to the occupation, the best hope Palestinians would probably see in the results of a new election would be a government whose policies are more likely to accelerate than to reverse Israel’s growing international isolation.