December 5, 2014
Number 12/14 #03
Israel’s Knesset voted Wednesday to dissolve itself and call new elections on March 17. While a second and third reading are still required – scheduled to take place on Monday – early Israeli elections now look like a done deal. This Update deals with why the government was unable to complete even half its four year term and what might happen over coming months.
The first entry is a general backgrounder from BICOM, reviewing why Prime Minister Netanyahu called the poll, the electoral gamble involved and possible coalition complications which could follow the election. It notes that the current government has struggled with stability compared to Netanyahu’s last one, and has seen acrimonious debates about the budget and a controversial proposed law on Israel’s Jewish character. It notes that Netanyahu looks likely to be re-elected but will face challenges from both his left and right and the next coalition may also be very fragile. For the key facts behind Israel’s move toward an election, CLICK HERE.
Next up are ten points everyone should understand about this election from well-known Israeli journalist and blogger Shmuel Rosner. Rosner stresses this election is not going to be mainly about policies but about personalities, electoral math and identity groups in Israel. He also notes that, due to changes in the electoral threshold for this election, polls are likely to be less reliable than in the past, making predictions about the outcome particularly difficult. For Rosner’s valuable explanation of all these points and more, CLICK HERE. Rosner also had another worthwhile recent post discussing the limited options for centrist voters.
Finally, Yonit Levi and Udi Segal, two of Israel’s top television journalists, while agreeing that Netanyahu looks likely to be re-elected, canvass situations in which he could lose. They canvass three scenarios – a major split in the right-leaning vote costing Netanyahu the leadership of his own Likud party; a successful centre-left electoral coalition; or a new centrist bloc uniting outgoing Finance Minister Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid with Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman’s secular right Yisrael Beitenu party. While they concede that all three are low probability, they note that “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.” For their analysis in full, CLICK HERE. More scenarios in which Netanyahu could lose are discussed by Chemi Shalev of Haaretz (formerly of the Australian Jewish News.)
Readers may also be interested in:
- Israel’s latest political opinion poll.
- Haviv Rettig Gur of the Times of Israel suggests that the political instability which led to the collapse of the government may not be popular with Israeli voters, but nonetheless accurately reflects the democratic choices the voters made. But Israeli political scientist Prof. Asher Cohen warns that governments unable to complete even the majority of their term risk damaging faith in democracy.
- Former Middle East mediator Aaron David Miller looks at the history of US efforts to influence Israeli elections, and urges Washington to think twice before considering trying to interfere with this one.
- One possible major factor in the election looks likely to be a new, as yet unnamed, party being created by popular former Likud Minister Moshe Kahlon, focusing on anti-corruption and cost of living issues.
- Jonathan Toben calls for Israel’s critics to seriously think about and respect why Israel voters are voting as they do, even if they don’t agree.
- Video of a terrorist stabbing attack in Israel yesterday.
- Isi Leibler writes about increasing numbers of American Jewish Democrats disillusioned with Obama and especially his Middle East Policy.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Allon Lee writes about the incitement and recruitment of children to take part in recent Palestinian unrest.
- Sharyn Mittelman takes on the claim that there is something unusual or undemocratic in Israel’s identity as a “Jewish state” or “Jewish national homeland.” One of the points she makes is that religious symbols appear in the flags of dozens of countries – here are all 64 of them.
Why has Netanyahu called elections?
Israel looks set to return to the polls in a general election on 17 March. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his speech on Tuesday evening, made clear that he was returning to the voters to try and secure a stronger personal mandate and a more manageable coalition. He contrasted the relative stability of his 2009-2013 government with the current coalition which he found much harder to manage. He accused his coalition partners of an attempted ‘putsch’ to unseat him by forming an alternative coalition – an accusation they reject – and called on voters to back his Likud party to bring stability to the government.
In the current coalition, Netanyahu’s faction is in fact smaller with 18 seats than Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid faction with 19. The two leaders have been increasingly at odds on a host of issues. Netanyahu chose in his speech to highlight differences on diplomatic and security policies – issues which usually play well for him politically. But in recent weeks the tensions have been over the budget and controversial legislation to anchor Israel’s Jewish character in a new Basic Law.
Netanyahu will be betting on current polling numbers, which suggest that Netanyahu can hope to grow the Likud to over 20 seats, whilst Lapid drops in support. He can then hope to base a coalition after the election on an alliance with Naftali Bennett’s right wing Jewish Home party, which the polls predict will expand to between 15-20 seats, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party. Such an axis would be a basis on which to then make up a majority with a range of smaller factions from other areas of the political spectrum, including the ultra-Orthodox parties, Yesh Atid, Moshe Kahlon’s yet unnamed newly formed social issues party, or even Labour.
Will Netanyahu’s gamble pay off at the polls?
Netanyahu’s wager is no sure thing and there are many sources of uncertainty. The polls are sure to shift in the three and half months of campaigning, and election results in Israel frequently defy the pollsters’ predictions, with many voters undecided up until the last minute.
Currently polls show that Netanyahu is still the candidate considered by far the most appropriate to be Prime Minister, and that he will campaign heavily on his own personal leadership being vital for the country’s security and stability. But after nearly six years in office, and 20 years in the front rank of Israeli politics, there is fatigue among the electorate, and the voters may blame Netanyahu for dragging the country into a premature election. Some analysts believe the summer conflict and recent terror attacks have seriously dented Netanyahu’s public image as a guarantor of quiet and security. Certainly there has been talk among political commentators of a mood among rival party leaders of ‘anyone but Bibi’.
In 2013, centre-left factions were unable to unite around a single candidate to rival Netanyahu, but the possibility remains that they could do so this time. Certainly Labour leader Isaac Herzog would like to be that candidate, but Yesh Atid ministers are saying that this time round, their leader Yair Lapid is the credible alternative. Tzipi Livni will face a decision of whether to run with her own list as in 2013, and risk falling below the new 3.25 per cent electoral threshold, or to merge with a larger faction. Meanwhile Naftali Bennett has been surging in the polls, and could threaten Netanyahu’s mantle as the leader of the Israeli right.
Another perennial source of uncertainty in Israeli elections is the role played by new entrants. The most significant currently is Moshe Kahlon, the popular former Likud Minister whose new party is polling around 10 seats, without even having announced a list of candidates. However, all the parties will be looking to bring in new ‘star names’ – typically high profile figures from the security establishment or the media – to attract more voters.
Arab parties will also have to consider their approach to the elections. The higher threshold threatens their prospects of entering the Knesset, and will force them to consider a merger, though this could in fact improve their combined representation.
What will happen after the election?
As difficult to predict as the polling itself, is the coalition building process which will take place afterwards. Parties typically avoid making clear commitments in advance of the polls about who they will support to form a coalition, thereby maximising their leverage in coalition negotiations. As the outgoing coalition showed, the classic framework for looking at the Knesset in terms of left and right wing blocks is increasingly unhelpful, and unlikely pacts and alliances may emerge after the vote, just as they did in 2013.
Whilst the current most likely scenario remains another Netanyahu led-coalition, a change of Prime Minister is possible, with Isaac Herzog or Yair Lapid to Netanyahu’s left, and Naftali Bennett to Netanyahu’s right, possible contenders. A more left-leaning candidate who would be more conciliatory on the Palestinian issue would clearly be welcome in European capitals and with the current US administration, whilst the opposite can be said of Naftali Bennett.
Whatever government is formed, it seems unlikely that any one party will be strong enough to dominate, making whatever coalition emerges, likely to be another fragile beast.
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Yes, the elections are most probably coming soon. Yesterday evening, a source close to the men in charge told me they were examining dates toward the end of March. Not that Israel needs these elections. Not that there are such huge differences between the ideologies of the parties of the current coalition and the potential partners of the next coalition. Not that we should expect new and exciting policies to come out of a new coalition. Like in every election, the heads of parties are going to work hard in the coming weeks and months to sharpen the appearance of polarized worldviews – so as to give the voters a reason to vote for them rather than vote for the other groups – but the coming election will not be about policies, it will be about the following three things:
A. Math – the way the parties assess their chance of having a successful round of voting. That is the reason for the current timing.
B. Personalities – the person that Israelis would like to see as the next Prime Minister, and the people they’d like to see at the top.
C. Belonging – which camp the voters feel more comfortable with, and more at home with.
Let’s talk first about B – personalities, especially the one of the Prime Minister: Netanyahu has been Israel’s Prime Minister for a very long time. Quite possibly too long. Public support in him is somewhat in decline (take a look at the latest Haaretz poll), and this could have been a reasonable opening for a serious challenger to be able to really test him. Many voters, surely on the left but also on the right, are tired of Bibi, and would gladly shop around for a “new car smell”, to borrow an expression from President Obama. If there is such a car to be found, though, it is more likely to be found to Netanyahu’s right, not to his left. Naftali Bennett is the new car that makes the PM worried. The opposition to his left doesn’t have a car – it has barely a carriage. So the voters are likely to stick with Netanyahu (it is elections, so I am obligated to issue the usual warning: surprises are always possible).
Do the math (our poll trends tracker can help you): the right is expected to get enough mandates with which to have a choice of several potential coalitions. It is most likely going to choose to have one with the Haredi parties (I’ll explain why later). The Haredi parties are angry with Netanyahu because of what happened in the last two years – his supposed “abandonment” of the alliance with them and his supposed cooperation with what they consider an anti-Haredi agenda. So theoretically, the Haredis can still decide to ditch Netanyahu and help the center-left form a coalition. Except that A. the center-left doesn’t really have an agreed-upon figure that the public trusts to be the Prime Minister, and, more importantly, B. the Haredis never form a coalition with the left when they have the key to forming the coalition. Haredi parties only go with the left-of-center coalition when the left-of-center bloc has a 61 plus majority that can prevent the right from forming a coalition. Currently, a 61 seat bloc seems unreachable.
Of course, things can change, both for the bloc and for the Haredi parties. But Haredis tend to be traditional, so I’d be surprised if they change their, well, traditions. Haredi leaders are in stormy waters when they start flirting with the idea of a left-of-center bloc. They risk losing their right-of-center voters.
What do I mean by “belonging”? In every election, people vote by social affinity. If you are a secular Tel Avivian, you are likely to vote for the parties that your friends vote for (center, left, secular). If you live in a settlement, you are also likely to vote for someone that speaks the language you speak and is from the same environment. There is nothing new about this in this election – except that since the real ideological differences between the parties are so small, the social considerations become more pronounced. After all, a voter must somehow decide whom to vote for – and if all parties say they believe in more or less the same things, the only way for the voter to make a decision is to pick the party that looks like him and talks like him. The result will be a Knesset of many mid-size factions of more or less the same size. My colleague Tal Schneider called it not long ago “the twelve tribes scenario”. A good, catchy name, even if the number of sizable tribes is likely to be a little less than twelve.
I know that some readers might take issue with my view that the differences between the parties are not great, so let me clarify and amend this argument: there are great differences between Merertz of the left and the right wing of the Habayit Hayehudi party. But neither is likely to head the next coalition. Thinking about the more likely main building blocks of the next coalition – Likud, Labor, Yesh Atid, Lieberman, Kahlon, even the Bennett faction of Habayit Hayehudi – I just don’t see a great difference.
The differences are mostly differences in style. The right is blunter with its nationalistic messages, the left is blunter with its calls for engagement and negotiations and equality. The current debate over the nation-state law is a good example: all parties support a Jewish-democratic state, all support equality for all citizens. The debate is over few nuances that aren’t likely to make much practical difference. And yet both sides have an interest to present their differences as ones between “fascism” (an expression attributed by some opponents to the proponents) and “disloyalty” (an expression attributed by some proponents to the opponents).
On one issue the next coalition might be very different, and this is an issue that for world Jewry is high on the agenda but for many Israelis is much lower on the agenda: that is, religious affairs. If the coalition of old – right plus religious – is coming back, then one could expect a more conservative approach to religious affairs and a policy that is less considerate of progressive sensitivities.
Examples: the new conversion arrangement is not likely to hold; the Haredi draft arrangements will be amended and lose steam; if the close-to-finalized agreement on the Western Wall arrangement is not done by election day, chances are that it might have to wait several more years. That is the price of giving more power to the Haredi parties – a price that Netanyahu seems willing to pay in exchange for political stability.
The main asset that the Haredi parties bring to the table is political stability. These are sectoral parties. Give them what they want – money for Yeshivas, control of the rabbinate, child-rearing subsidies, exemption from military service, etc. – and they’ll be the most loyal coalition partners. The heads of Haredi parties do not vie to become Prime Ministers, so they have no interest in getting stronger at the expense of the ruling party. All they want is their interests taken care of. For a Prime Minister with a full plate and a lot to worry about, such a simple formula of cooperation is a lot easier than the one offered by the ambitious Bennett, Lapid, and Livni.
There was something refreshing about the current coalition when it was formed. It had promise, but it failed to deliver much. Why? I think it’s mostly for one reason: the ambition of the leaders of Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi. Many of the voters were initially satisfied with the prospect of having a center that includes religious and secular, urban and settler, hawkish (but not too scary) and dovish (but still realistic). But you can’t hold such a union with two leaders such as Lapid and Bennett – two young leaders who constantly think about becoming Prime Minister, and about how to make sure that the other guy doesn’t benefit from a union more than they do.
Bennett is the only party leader that should be eager to have new elections. His ascendance is remarkable, but his real test will only come in the next round. Lapid failed because Netanyahu tricked him into getting the unforgiving job of finance Minister, and because Lapid failed to understand that the rules in the big league are different. He thought he was still a columnist with a knack for what the public feels – when the public started feeling that the job is too big for his abilities. Bennett has not really been tested. He got a job that the public doesn’t really understand (Minister of Commerce) and could invest a lot of his time in airing his refreshingly-daring-sounding views without having any responsibility for the consequences. If he wins big in three months or so, a more serious test will come. And as Lapid can tell him, a fall can be even quicker than a rise.
All Israeli polls are problematic. The system was changed – the threshold of entrance to the Knesset moved up to 3.25% (from 2.5%) of the vote – but both the parties and the public have not yet digested this change. Several parties, notably all the Arab parties, will have to merge or risk elimination. Voters will have to understand that the new rules mean that three projected seats in the polls mean nothing. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, which is around 4 in the polls, could barely pass the test or disappear. Hatnuah voters will have to internalize the dilemma: insist on voting Livni and you might lose your vote, or ditch Livni and contribute to her disappearance from the scene.
Surely, Livni has no plans to be ditched. She is looking for a political deal with another party. Similarly, Kahlon’s new party is still in search of the ideal list of candidates, Lapid will have to decide who stays and who goes, and Bennett can add new members to his team and has to decide what to do with the more extreme faction of his list. All this means that what we see in today’s polls is an incomplete picture: we don’t have the exact list of parties and candidates that will be running. When we do, the voters might see things differently and could rapidly amend their preferences. Netanyahu understands that – it is a risk that he is taking in tilting towards new elections, because he believes that things will get even more complicated in the coming months.
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Yonit Levi and Udi Segal
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.
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.
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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.
Yonit Levi is the anchor of the Evening News on Israel’s Channel 2; Udi Segal is the network’s senior diplomatic correspondent.