Likud, Israel’s natural party of government

While Likud’s prospects look bright, some might assume that their continued success depends on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership.

By MICAH LEVINSON
June 16, 2018 22:15
4 minute read.
LIKUD CENTRAL COMMITTEE members vote to endorse exercising Israel’s sovereignty over Judea and Samar

LIKUD CENTRAL COMMITTEE members vote to endorse exercising Israel’s sovereignty over Judea and Samaria last night at Airport City.. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SHOSHANI)

 
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P olls suggest that Likud is a shoo-in to win the next Knesset election, which will occur no later than November 2019.

Although a week is an eternity in politics, Likud today boasts twice as much support as the runner-up, Yesh Atid, and enjoys systemic advantages that will prevent other parties from forming governments in the foreseeable future. The four factors likely to keep Likud in power include: (1) the Israeli political center-left’s fragmentation, (2) the decline of Shas, (3) the center-left’s alienation of religious Jews, and (4) the center-left’s reliance on the Arab parties to form a government.

After Knesset elections, the Israeli president invites the leader of the party most likely to be able to assemble a coalition representing a parliamentary majority to form a government. Because Israel uses a proportional voting system that guarantees a proliferation of parties across the ideological spectrum, the president, except for a unique case, simply invites the leader of the largest party to form a government.

Between 1973 and 1996, the Knesset contained only two large parties that could feasibly form a government.

On the right was the religion and settlement friendly Likud while the Alignment (renamed Labor when its constituent parties merged in 1991), secular and more invested in the “land-forpeace” concept, dominated the left.

In recent years, however, the centrist Yesh Atid has joined the rank of first tier parties, finishing second in the 2013 election and polling second now. Militantly secular, but more nationalistic than Labor, Yesh Atid poaches more votes from Labor than Likud. Simultaneously, Yesh Atid loses many centrist votes to the medium-sized Kulanu party and some strident secularists to Yisrael Beiteinu.

Conversely, Likud’s competition on the right is declining. Traditional Jews originating from Muslim countries are an integral part of the Likud’s base.

Consequently, former Sephardic chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef launching the Shas party in 1984 to represent the interests of religious Jews of Middle Eastern descent impaired Likud’s electoral performance. In 1999, Shas won 17 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats, only two less than Likud. However, since Yosef’s passing in 2013, Shas has been hemorrhaging voters to Likud, falling from 11 seats in the 2013 election to seven in 2015 and presently polling between four or five.

Although Shas’ influence is waning, the religious parties remain a potent bloc. To maintain majority support in the Knesset, Labor has always required the support of either Orthodox Jewish or Arab parties. Today, that poses an insuperable obstacle to the left gaining power.

Any government excluding Likud would require Yesh Atid, whose uncompromising opposition to draft exemptions for yeshiva students makes a coalition with Shas or United Torah Judaism impossible.

Up until the 1970s, the Alignment included affiliated Arab parties, such as Progress and Development and the Arab List for Beduin and Villagers, in their governments.

However, today’s Arab parties are explicitly anti-Zionist.

Rabin’s 1992-1995 government was the only one to depend on such parties to remain in power and it compromised his government’s legitimacy in many Israelis’ eyes.

The centrist Kulanu and probably even Yesh Atid would refuse to join a government reliant on these Arab parties, again making a coalition government excluding Likud impossible.

Theoretically, future breakaway parties from Likud could cancel out the effect of Shas’s demise. After Ariel Sharon created Kadima in 2005 to promote disengagement from the West Bank, Likud was reduced to just 12 seats in the subsequent election, the party’s worst performance in history. Likud also lost a few seats in the 1980s and 1990s to far-right splinter groups, such as Tehiyah and Herut, and centrist ones, like the Center Party.

Such fragmentation, however, is much less likely now for two reasons: (1) A higher electoral threshold makes small splinter groups unfeasible.

(2) Kadima’s establishment purged Likud of its moderates, making it nearly ideologically homogenous and immune from large splits.

Kulanu represents not so much a medium-sized centrist breakaway party from Likud than a case of a disgruntled ex-Likudnik founding a faction that includes no other Likudniks on its list and appeals to a different group of voters, namely lower-working class centrists who feel unrepresented by Lapid’s middle class centrist politics.

While Likud’s prospects look bright, some might assume that their continued success depends on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership.

For years, Netanyahu has topped polls asking voters which party leader they would prefer as prime minister.

Yet, some surveys show Likud winning even more seats with another leader at the helm. A Testnet poll released in April 2017 found Likud winning two more seats lead by Gideon Sa’ar than by Netanyahu and the margin increased to five seats in a November 2017 Maariv poll. It appears that, whether Netanyahu retires or is felled by the current corruption investigations, Likud will remain Israel’s ruling party for the foreseeable future.

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