Israel’s Coming Elections: Netanyahu Looks Like a Winner–But There May Be Surprises

How the Israeli Prime Minister's bid for early elections could backfire

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Bernat Armangue / AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at a conference room at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, Oct. 9, 2012.

There was more suspense when the subject was still Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Tuesday announcement of early elections, probably to take place in January or February, carries with it an outcome widely anticipated by analysts and pollsters: the return of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. No one comes near Bibi in any survey of Israelis asked who is best suited for the job, and no existing party polls as strongly as Likud, the right-wing faction he leads. After four years in office, Netanyahu’s approval ratings are down lately, and the way forward more than a bit unclear, but the field is vacant of credible candidates to replace him.

“Netanyahu may be standing short of breath and worn out on the starting line, but he stands there alone,” Sima Kadmon wrote in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth Wednesday, articulating something like consensus. “Any way we look at it, at the moment Netanyahu has no real rival in the race for prime minister.”

And yet any election is like Wednesday at the Mickey Mouse Club: Anything-Can-Happen Day. Five months ago, King Bibi bestrode the narrow world like the Colossus, the governing coalition around him swollen to 94 seats in a Knesset that seats only 120. Opposition was not merely futile; it almost seemed non-existent for the two months the arrangement lasted. On the world stage, Netanyahu’s hard head and golden tongue has driven the global focus on Iran’s nuclear program for most of a year, until he began a slow pivot away from at the United Nations last month, when he announced the red line he was drawing on the cartoon bomb was located not in the coming hours, but perhaps in the spring, “at most by next summer.”

Just like that, the headlines in Israel ceased to forecast the odds of Netanyahu ordering a pre-emptive air strike on Iran, and shifted to domestic affairs.  Paramount among these was the budget shortfall that would drive him to disband his government.  To stay within central bank guidelines, Israel needs to slash $4 billion in spending, having already raised taxes. Rather than face elections as scheduled October 2013 with the memory of painful cuts still fresh in voters’ minds, Netanyahu opted to disband his right-wing coalition now, and  proceed with the unpleasant business of budget-making only after receiving (he surely estimates, just reading the polls he is often accused of ruling by) a fresh mandate. The premier would then be surrounded by coalition partners grateful to be in his government rather than what he has now: politicians angling for favor in the looming election by taking confrontational stands they can boast of to voters.

“Bibi continues to be the consummate politician in the short term, but things could come back to spite him in the long term,” says Reuven Hazan, who chairs the political science department at Hebrew University. “According to the laws of Israel you cannot call an election in less than 100 days, and 100 days in the Middle East is a long, long time.”  Indeed, Israeli electoral history is littered with incumbents who called “snap” elections and then proceeded to lose the job they expected to retain.

For Netanyahu, the threat lurks in Israel’s economy. Though unusually firm in the macro – the worldwide recession barely registered in the Jewish State – most Israelis feel battered by rising prices in a place that’s already extraordinarily expensive, and by what economists call income inequality: The rich getting richer, and everyone else feeling poorer.  Netanyahu comes to the issue with a reputation for enjoying the finer things in life and for very rich friends – Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson started a daily newspaper to help him get elected four years ago. He became more vulnerable to a populist surge when one actually occurred. In the summer of 2011, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in the kind of mass protests that the Occupy movement only dreams of.

The forces unleashed in those stirring weeks have yet to find full expression in electoral politics, which might well make the coming election — the first since the protests — less predictable than forecast. So far the Labor Party has gotten something of a boost, just a year after its political obituary was being written by the defection of its chairman, defense minister Ehud Barak. His successor, former television journalist Shelly Yacimovich, emerged a distant second to Netanyahu in a recent Haaretz poll, named by 16% to Bibi’s 35. “Netanyahu is going to elections in order to pass immediately afterwards a cruel and harsh budget,” Yacimovich told reporters Tuesday. “These elections will decide between a violent jungle economy and a fair economy and a just society.”

Netanyahu prefers to talk about Iran, and for good reason.  Security reliably trumps all other issues in Israel, and surveys indicate Israelis generally agree with Netanyahu’s galvanizing focus on the implications of Iran gaining a nuclear weapon (though there’s less support for his tactics, from invoking the Holocaust to risking alienating Washington, Israel’s one essential ally).

Still, anything can happen. Strange as it may seem, given the sheer number of political parties out there, nearly two out of three Israelis earlier this year told the Israel Democracy Institute that not one of them reflects their views. “This is one of the paradoxes – or lunacies – of Israeli politics, that in the last election we had almost three dozen parties running, one dozen of which made it into parliament,” says Hazan. “How can somebody say there isn’t somebody who represents them?”

But the finding might be taken as an appetite for a new party. Kadima, the centrist faction that won the most votes in the last election – but failed to gather the necessary coalition partners to gain a majority of the Knesset, while Netanyahu’s Likud did – remains in free fall, after briefly and disastrously joining Netanyahu’s government in May, only to quit two months later. Many of its onetime supporters are up for grabs, as well as Likud voters who feel less at home with a Likud that’s come increasingly under the sway of settlers and their supporters.

“There is a large reservoir of voters who are no longer connected to the hawks or the doves,” says Hazan. “They are not interested in building more West Bank settlements to protect me, because they don’t buy that any more. And they’re not interested in negotiations to bring peace, because they don’t buy that either. They want less war and more normal day to day life. This is a reservoir of voters who are truly centrist, and they are asking: ‘What are you going to do for me now?’’’