The election gamble

Will Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to dissolve his coalition boomerang and usher in a new prime minister?

Netanyahu and Bennett (photo credit: REUTERS,MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Netanyahu and Bennett
DISMISSED BY many as an inconsequential do-nothing government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outgoing third administration presided over a tectonic shift in the balance of political power.
Partly through a hardening of right-wing attitudes in the Likud, partly through infiltration of its ranks by religious settlers and partly through the meteoric rise of Naftali Bennett’s national religious Bayit Yehudi, the West Bank settler movement – a relatively small, radical minority – was able to gain a large measure of control over the country’s diplomatic and ideological agendas.
The two-pronged settler assault on power, through the Likud and Bayit Yehudi, was underwritten for the most part, at least until recently, by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s largely Russian immigrant Yisrael Beytenu. The common denominator was a new vociferous Israeli right unencumbered by the democratic constraints of the old-style Likud under Menachem Begin: Old-style Likudniks, deeply committed to the rule of law, like Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, were unceremoniously dumped from the party’s Knesset list in the run-up to the January 2013 election that saw Netanyahu returned for the third time.
The center-left was partly responsible for the new right’s success. Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid forced Netanyahu to include Bennett in his government, paving the way for Bayit Yehudi’s prodigious growth. And by joining the predominantly right-wing administration as justice minister and lead negotiator with the Palestinians, Hatnua’s Tzipi Livni provided it with an element of international respectability it might not otherwise have enjoyed.
The new right’s main strategic goal is to extend Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank.
For them a two-state solution based on pre- 1967 Israel and a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank is anathema. Therefore they did all they could to undermine US Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace mission, announcing controversial new building plans at key junctures, and, more recently, making provocative visits to Jerusalem’s holy Temple Mount.
SOME OBSERVERS believe the proposed new Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People should be seen in this Greater Israel context: As a legal basis for denying Palestinians group rights and full equality in a unitary Israeli state stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.
All this happened on Netanyahu’s third watch. Some say Netanyahu, a weak prime minister, was dragged along by greater forces he could not control; others that he was a more than willing accomplice, even a behind- the-scenes-orchestrator of the rightward shift.
The implosion of his right-center coalition in early December, however, was not over ideological differences. Netanyahu, Lapid and Livni seemed to slide towards the point of no-return more because of deep personal antipathy and a mutual loss of trust.
Yet although none of the politicians seemed to want the new election scheduled for March 17, it is shaping up as perhaps one of the most important in Israeli history, nothing less than a referendum on the character of the Israeli nation state: with the centrist vision of a democratic country, committed to the rule of law and a two-state solution pitted against the new right’s jingoistic single state ready to ride roughshod over Palestinian national and individual rights.
It is also shaping up as a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership. For some he is the only leader with the requisite experience and leadership skills to handle Israel’s complex security, diplomatic and economic problems; for others he is the chief obstacle to making any headway towards solving them.
Indeed, his decision to trigger new elections could prove to be a huge miscalculation.
It will depend on the extent to which the op-position’s ABB – “Anyone but Bibi” – campaign gains momentum. Specifically, it will depend on Liberman and former Likudnik Moshe Kahlon, who is launching a centrist party of his own. Normally Liberman and Kahlon could be counted on to back the right’s candidate for prime minister, in this case Netanyahu. If they do, the election will probably be a walk in the park for the Likud leader. But both have strong reservations about Netanyahu and his capacity for leadership.
And both are trying to recast themselves as pragmatic center-rightists, ready for a two-state deal with the Palestinians.
Should they ally themselves with the center- left, it could turn the election result on its head. There could be a center-left/center- right coalition with a new prime minister and a pragmatic peacemaking agenda, with Likud and the settler right out in the cold.
This scenario is being taken very seriously on the far right. Some inside the Likud are urging former interior minister Gidon Sa’ar to return to politics and challenge Netanyahu for the party leadership – partly because he would have a better chance of securing Liberman and Kahlon’s support.
THERE WAS also an abortive eleventh hour attempt by Bayit Yehudi to defer elections altogether by splitting Yesh Atid and having a seven-member splinter group join a new Netanyahu-led government with the Haredim.
Bayit Yehudi leaders realize that even if the party has the outstanding electoral success polls predict, it could find itself withering in opposition and powerless to prevent the emergence of a significant two-state dynamic.
In an effort to secure his reelection, Netanyahu has made a number of tactical moves. Most importantly, he appealed to the Haredi parties to promise to support him for prime minister after the election results are in. It was Haredi support that tipped the scales in his favor in both 2009 and 2013.
But this time, although their natural tendency is to back the candidate of the right, they refused to make a hard and fast commitment.
Netanyahu’s campaign will be built on a sharp turn to the right. He will paint the center-left as feeble defeatists, who won’t support the Jewish nation state bill, who will rush to give up settlements, who can’t be trusted to deal with a volatile Middle East in a state of upheaval and who won’t be able to fight Palestinian moves to force an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank through a UN fiat.
The strong right-wing messages will be crafted mainly to discredit the center-left, but will also enable to Netanyahu to encroach on the Bennett vote. In the battle against Bennett, he will also argue that only by backing Likud and increasing its size can voters be sure of getting a strong right-wing prime minister at the head of a government able to govern. The upside of the strategy is that it will enable Netanyahu to take votes from both the far right and the center-left.
The downside is that it will open him up to attack from all quarters.
Indeed, the main tactic of the center-left will be to build a wide anti-Netanyahu front.
It will probably be three-pronged – with Lapid’s Yesh Atid appealing to the more right-tending centrist voters, Herzog’s Labor, probably backed by Livni, to the classic center-left and Meretz’s Zehava Galon to the more ideological left. Although they will likely run separately, the three parties will form an electoral pact, and avoid one of the big mistakes of the 2013 election when then Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich and Lapid disdainfully rejected Livni’s call for a united front around a single alternative candidate for prime minister.
This time Livni’s support could be crucial in determining the leader of the center-left, Herzog or Lapid, depending on which party she decides to link up with. An early December poll by the respected Smith Institute showed Labor with Livni surging dramatically from 15 to 24 seats.
This is hugely significant, as Herzog and Lapid will probably agree as part of their electoral pact to back for prime minister the center-left leader whose party polls the most seats.
The key for national success for Herzog and/or Lapid will be to establish themselves as leaders with genuine prime ministerial credentials. In the public mind in 2013, only Netanyahu seemed to have the requisite gravitas; this time round the situation is different. Netanyahu has lost much of his luster, Lapid is no longer the neophyte, and Herzog is far more experienced a politician than Yacimovich was. As with Ehud Barak in 1999, if Herzog and/or Lapid are perceived as worthy contenders for the top job, the ABB bandwagon could begin to roll.
On the face of it, Herzog seems to have several advantages as a potential coalition- builder over Lapid. He is the more experienced politician, he is known in Labor circles as the great conciliator able to bring disparate parties together, and he has excellent ties with the Haredim.
HERZOG CAN also expect significant outside support from security heavyweights: If, as expected, Livni’s Hatnua joins Labor as a bloc, she will bring Amir Peretz, a former defense minister credited with the Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system, and Amram Mitzna, an ex-general, with her; Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, a former chief of staff and defense minister, Amos Yadlin, a former head of military intelligence and Yuval Diskin, a former head of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), are also all expected to hook up with Herzog.
The center-left campaign will focus on what it sees as the dire implications of Netanyahu’s pact with the far right: a commitment in practice to a vision of Greater Israel that is destroying any remaining chance for peace with the Palestinians, undermining a golden opportunity for regional accommodation and leading Israel into a nightmare one-state reality; anti-democratic legislation that is destroying relations with Israel’s Arab minority, upsetting even the fiercely loyal Druse community; and the heady brew of Greater Israel coupled with the anti-democratic bias eroding Israel’s international standing.
Netanyahu himself will be a major target.
He will come under attack as a weak leader who has lost his way – “out of touch” in Lapid’s refrain, “an insecure prime minister without a vision or a plan,” according to Herzog.
In announcing his decision to call new elections, Netanyahu gave one of his weaker performances as leader. From day one, he complained, Lapid and Livni had conspired against him, so he couldn’t lead. It begged the question of what kind of leader would allow that to go on for nearly two years? And what kind of leader would try to blame everyone but himself for the self-acknowledged failures of his government? Netanyahu also claimed that Lapid and Livni had plotted to form an alternative government in this Knesset without him – and called it an attempted “putsch.” They insisted that they hadn’t. But even if they had, it would have been quite legitimate in the Israeli system, which provides for a change of prime minister through a vote of constructive no-confidence, in which an absolute majority of at least 61 Knesset members supports an alternative candidate.
Netanyahu’s main reason for going to the people was his argument that to govern effectively, he needs far more than the 18 Knesset seats he has in the current Knesset.
But this too sounded like an admission of deficient leadership skills. He recalled that in December 2000, he had turned down a chance of becoming prime minister because in his view the then Likud faction was too small. But with just 19 seats, Ariel Sharon, the strong leader who took on the job, did just fine.
At the starting point in the current Knesset race, there are at least six parties with national leadership pretensions in the 10-22 seat zone. There are no clear winners and there are key players without clear right or center-left bloc affiliations. Therefore, the campaigns and political alignments will be crucial. Over the coming three months, someone as yet unidentified could suddenly gain momentum and take the prize. And this time it might not be Netanyahu.