An alternate agenda for elections

Netanyahu ought to know that being the head of the largest party by no means ensures his becoming the next prime minister.

Haredi man casts ballot elections 390 (R) (photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters)
Haredi man casts ballot elections 390 (R)
(photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters)
The Knesset and the local media have been abuzz these past few months with talk about the likelihood of a general election being held well before the designated date of October 2013. That buzz first became audible immediately after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced his surprise decision to hold the Likud primary at the end of January, sparking a flurry of speculation among politicians and journalists that this was a sign of the prime minister’s intention to call a general election as early as the second half of 2012.
Shortly thereafter, Yair Lapid amplified the buzz by resigning as the anchor of Channel 2’s flagship Friday evening news program and announcing his intention to form a party and to run for Knesset. At the end of March, Shaul Mofaz defeated Tzipi Livni to become the new chairman of Kadima and the formal leader of the opposition, further compounding the sense that momentum was building toward an early election.
This past week the volume of that buzz became even louder and more pervasive, with top Likud officials talking openly about a general election being held as early as this summer. Moreover, Avigdor Liberman, the leader of Netanyahu’s largest coalition partner, Yisrael Beytenu, contributed to the sense that the current government’s days were numbered when he said in an interview with Channel 2’s Meet the Press that his party’s commitment to the coalition was “over,” noting that the party also had a “commitment to the voter” and would not be held “hostage” to the coalition.
Recent poll results appear to indicate that Netanyahu would be wise to call early elections.
Most show increased support for the Likud, and divided support among the center-left parties, all of which trail far behind the Likud. Furthermore, Netanyahu commands a staggering lead over all of his potential adversaries on the question of who the public feels is best-suited to serve as prime minister. As many Israeli pundits and commentators have noted in response to those poll numbers, Netanyahu would be heading into elections from an extraordinarily strong and seemingly undefeatable position of power.
But who better than Netanyahu, the man who came from far behind to defeat Shimon Peres in 1996, knows that large parts of the Israeli public can be persuaded to shift their support from one party to another in the space of a few months? As Netanyahu clearly demonstrated in 1996, voter mobility becomes even more pronounced once politicians begin to campaign vigorously.
For three years Netanyahu enjoyed the luxury of facing an opposition that was led by an almost silent chairwoman, Tzipi Livni. Livni’s passivity allowed Netanyahu to control the public agenda. Almost unchallenged, Netanyahu placed the threat of the Iranian nuclear program at the top of the public agenda, and aggressively promoted the notion that the impasse in negotiations with the PA stemmed solely from Palestinian intransigence and was of scant real consequence to Israel. Livni did little either to challenge that narrative or to undermine it.
Almost curiously, it was former high-ranking security officials – Meir Dagan, Gabi Ashkenazi and most recently Yuval Diskin – who have spoken out in an attempt to debunk Netanyahu’s narrative, and not the elected opposition.
ONE OF the sole instances in which control over the public agenda was wrested from Netanyahu’s hands occurred last summer, when the social protest movement took to the streets. Once again, this occurred against the backdrop of a glaringly inactive and nearly silent opposition in the Knesset. It was the mass street protests that swept Israel in 2011 – and not the Livni-led opposition – that succeeded in dominating the news cycle for days and weeks on end, forcing the government to appoint and bow to the Trajtenberg Committee. But when the street protests waned, Livni failed to keep the flame of opposition alive.
To Netanyahu’s ill fortune, however, Livni is now gone. Her successor, Shaul Mofaz, has already taken a more proactive and vocal approach, and has begun to work assiduously to create an alternate agenda of his own. That agenda is designed to highlight Netanyahu’s perceived weaker spots, such as social justice in Israel, Israel’s deteriorating standing in the world under the current government, the absence of a peace process with the Palestinians and a nuanced attitude towards Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Yair Lapid has indicated that he too will champion issues that the incumbent premier would probably be less inclined to have in the foreground, focusing primarily on the sense of disgruntlement felt within much of the Israeli middle class over skewed political and social priorities, the unequal share of the burdens of citizenship and the unsavory reigning political culture in Israel.
The communicative and charismatic Lapid, once he steps out from behind his Facebook page and begins to campaign actively, will contribute to Mofaz’s effort to create an agenda vastly different from the one that Netanyahu was able to dictate in his first three years in office.
Lastly, the polls can be misleading. One the one hand, they show the Likud commanding an enormous lead over all over parties currently on the field, a lead that will certainly be very hard to bridge. On the other, the majority enjoyed by the right-wing bloc overall is far slimmer, a fact that is hugely significant in the Israeli parliamentary system of coalition governments.
A poll published by Yediot Ahronot this Sunday found that the right-wing bloc currently has only a 61 MK majority. In the event that the public agenda does shift thanks to vigorous campaigning by Kadima, the Labor Party and Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Netanyahu is liable to see that small majority worn down and ultimately dashed. Netanyahu ought to know that being the head of the largest party by no means ensures his becoming the next prime minister.
He need only ask Tzipi Livni.
The author is a veteran Israeli writer and translator.