Jewish Journal

The no-alternative Israeli elections

by Shmuel Rosner

Posted on Jan. 16, 2013 at 11:09 am

Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu is expected by virtually all to continue as prime minister. Photo by Reuters/Abir Sultan/Pool

Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu is expected by virtually all to continue as prime minister. Photo by Reuters/Abir Sultan/Pool

The story of the upcoming Israeli elections, which will take place on Jan. 22, can be written in many different ways. 

One is with an eye to the small numbers, a story of preserving the political status quo: Back in 2009, the Kadima Party got 28 mandates. In 2013, if polls are to be trusted, most of those mandates will be divided among former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni’s new party, Hatnua (“The Movement”), and the new centrist Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”), with the rest going to Kadima (“Forward” — at this point, it isn’t clear whether Kadima will be totally eliminated or will somehow survive with very few mandates) and to the reinvigorated Labor Party. Some two to four mandates from former Kadima voters might return rightward to the Likud (“Consolidation”) Party. With such marginal change, it is no wonder that the bigger picture — the one of political blocs — looks the way it does. Call it Kadima, Hatnua, Yesh Atid or any other name — the center is the center. It likely will shrink a little, but not much, and still leaves Israel’s political landscape essentially unchanged.

The story can also be written with an eye to dirty politicking and disloyal party membership — and become the story, as I have dubbed it in previous columns, of the “election cycle of no shame.” Just consider this partial — yes, partial! — list of moves preceding the elections. In a stunning surprise, Kadima joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, then quickly left it; Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel Our Home”) — the No. 2 and 3 parties — merged; Habayit Hayehudi (“The Jewish Home”) and the National Union also merged on the right; Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid’s party), Hatnua and Am Shalem (“Whole Nation”), all new parties, were formed; seven Kadima members joined Livni, others (Tzachi Hanegbi and Avi Dichter) joined Likud; still others (Nachman Shai) joined Labor; Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich moved from Kadima to Likud to the Calcala (“Economics”) Party all within months; Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was thrown off the Israel Beiteinu list by party leader Avigdor Lieberman in a last-minute unexplained shocker; Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz left Labor to join Livni; Ehud Barak, the Labor leader, left the party to form the Independence Party, then decided to quit politics. In fact, all three previous leaders of Labor are no longer members of the party; Haim Amsalem quit Shas (an acronym for “Of the Torah”) to form a new party; former Gen. Elazar Stern flirted with Am Shalem, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi before landing in Livni’s lap; convicted felon Aryeh Deri threatened to form a new party, then rejoined Shas to become its No. 2 (but is actually de facto No. 1, so he says) — and the list goes on and on.

It can also be written with an eye to the Office of the Prime Minister — and become the story of no alternatives. Netanyahu has never been truly challenged in this election cycle. And to the extent he has been, it was either by candidates whom the public doesn’t consider fit for the top job, such as Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich — a woman who has never held an executive job, never managed an office (not even a small one), never participated in a government meeting, a woman who even most of her supporters admit isn’t yet ready to be prime minister (if she ever will be) — or improbable: Livni was once a serious candidate for prime minister, but her current claim to the job seems quite pathetic considering the number of mandates she’s likely to get — around 10. Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz, a man with the proper record — he has served as Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff, defense minister and a member of the cabinet — also was once considered a possible candidate for the office of prime minister, but to do this he’d need to be a Knesset member, and currently it is doubtful he can get Kadima the needed number of votes to pass this low threshold.

In truth, the best way to write the story of the 2013 election is with an eye to the public — a public that will go to the polls even when everyone knows that it is all much ado about nothing. Netanyahu will be prime minister again. He’ll have to establish a coalition and isn’t likely to abandon his “natural” allies on the right, nor the religious parties. Netanyahu needs his bloc, and would like to add Lapid’s or Livni’s parties or both to the coalition (Labor already announced its unwillingness to join a Netanyahu coalition, and Yacimovitz would need a very good excuse to be able to flip-flop on such a matter). The problem for Netanyahu, then, is obvious: Lapid and Livni both have party members who are very critical of the prime minister’s presumed foot-dragging on the peace process — but his allies on the right, especially the Zionist-religious Habayit Hayehudi are all about preventing Netanyahu from going in the direction of a peace process of the sort that we’ve seen in the past (the party supports annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank). So the likely conclusion would be one of two choices: Netanyahu will either be forced to head a right-religious coalition, which will make him very uneasy and is likely to result in a lot of international pressure and an early date for yet another round of elections. Or, alternatively,  Netanyahu will somehow find a way to broaden his coalition, but it will not be a stable political marriage of opposite worldviews, and, yes, it is likely to result in a lot of international pressure and an early date for yet another round of elections.

So, it is unlikely that the upcoming elections can result in a stable coalition, and what we’ve seen in recent months is the repositioning of leaders and parties that all are gearing toward the next round. And this is yet another story line through which to look at Israeli electioneering in the current slate. It is a story of resurrection for the two more rooted, more established and more ideological parties — the Labor Party on the left and the Zionist-religious Habayit Hayehudi, which is really the reincarnation of the old Mafdal (the National Religious Party, only much more radical on several key issues, as its supporters have moved to the right in recent decades). Currently, it seems almost certain that Labor will again become the second-largest party — just like the old days of the great rivalry between Likud and Labor (HaAvoda). And it is also likely — if not yet certain — that Habayit Hayehudi will become the third-largest party, surpassing the Sephardic-Charedi Shas Party and benefiting from the elimination of the Russian-secular Israel Beiteinu that merged with Likud.

The merger of Likud and Israel Beiteinu — really a decision to tie the knot by two leaders, Prime Minister Netanyahu and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — is gradually emerging as the watershed event of the 2013 election. Was it a success or a flop? As we were following the graphs of the rival political blocs (provided exclusively to the Jewish Journal by renowned Israel pollster professor Camil Fuchs), we’ve seen evidence of both failure and success — all depending upon one’s definition of the ultimate goal.


THE CONTENDERS: Clockwise, from top left: Tzipi Livni: The former leader of Kadima started a new party, Hatnua (“The Movement”). Avigdor Lieberman: The former foreign minister and leader of Israel Beiteinu (“Israel Our Home”) joined Netanyahu in a last-minute surprise coalition. Yair Lapid: Established a new centrist party, Yesh  Atid (“There Is a Future”). Yulia ShamalOv-Berkovich: Moved from Kadima to Likud to the Calcala (“Economics”) Party within months.

Until the merger, support for the two separate parties was equivalent to 43-45 combined mandates. But after the merger came a constant and significant decline. If Likud/Israel Beitenu was once expected to reach 44 mandates, as they were running separately, recent polls give the merged list as low as 33-34 mandates. 

This decline was predictable, and the reason for it is simple: The number of voters who did not support either of the two parties, but would gladly support the merged party, was likely to be tiny if not nil. On the other hand, it was clear as soon as the merger was announced that among the supporters of each individual party there would be a number of voters unhappy with supporting the other party — and therefore reluctant to support a merged party that includes the component not to their liking. Such is the case with religious supporters of Likud who don’t like Lieberman’s secular agenda on civil marriage, and also the case of Russian immigrants who supported Lieberman and feel that some issues of importance for them are now going to be ignored because of the merger. Pollster Menachem Lazar of Panels Politics provided us with the following nugget: Traditionally, Likud voters tend to be very loyal to the party — as many as 80 percent of them could be counted upon to vote for Likud. But in a poll immediately following the merger, that number dropped to just 52 percent (the less loyal Israel Beitenu voters dropped to 30 percent). 

If this drop was to be expected then, why would such shrewd politicians as Netanyahu and Lieberman still choose this path? For Lieberman, the likely explanation for his decision to go for the merger is that Lieberman is a marathon runner. He will be busy for a while now with his trial for breach of trust, but he is already thinking about the post-Netanyahu days and wants to position himself as the future leader of the main party of the bloc — the party by which one can get to the prime minister’s office — the Likud Party. 

As for Netanyahu, many believe that his main reason for supporting the merger was his insistence on chairing the largest party in the next Knesset — and not the second largest, as happened to him in 2009 when Kadima surpassed Likud in the number of mandates. True, Likud was already the largest party at the time of the merger (Kadima is just a tiny fraction of its former self, and most of its members moved to other parties), but there were a lot of rumors about the possibility of other mergers among the parties of the center-left bloc. Netanyahu wanted an insurance policy against any such development — he wanted an insurance policy that would leave President Shimon Peres, not a huge fan of Netanyahu’s policies, no choice. Peres would have to let Netanyahu to be the one burdened with building a coalition. So, insurance Netanyahu wanted, and insurance he got. The price, a decline in the number of Likud Knesset members, will be negligible — the important thing for Netanyahu — the much bigger prize — is the Prime Minister’s Office. 

Peres would probably do it somewhat reluctantly, judging by the things he was telling visitors in recent months and even more so by his decision to go public with his criticism of Netanyahu. “If there is no diplomatic decision,” he said in an interview with The New York Times earlier this week, “the Palestinians will go back to terror. Knives, mines, suicide attacks. The silence that Israel has been enjoying over the last few years will not continue, because even if the local inhabitants do not want to resume the violence, they will be under the pressure of the Arab world.” This is the second time in two weeks that Peres publicly clashed with Netanyahu — rare occasions when Israelis had to ponder for a moment the real issues they face (most of the campaign has been pretty much devoid of serious discussion of any of the issues — as is customary for campaigns around the world). 

Indeed, the clash is good for both sides: Peres can remind himself and those around him that he still has a voice and is still the one leader left of Netanyahu to whom  people might listen. For his part, Netanyahu can remind the voters that he is the only man capable of stopping the Pereses of the world — he did it when he beat Peres back in the 1996 election and he’ll do it again in 2013. Peres is Netanyahu’s favorite rival. Battling with him put him on a pedestal higher than the one on which smaller leaders, such as Livni and Yacimovitz, can stand.

And besides, even as Netanyahu was ensuring that he will head the largest party — and as he was weakening his own party — he did pretty well for his political bloc. Looking at the graphs, one can easily identify that the date of the Likud-Israel Beiteinu merger isn’t only the beginning of the Likud-Beiteinu decline, but also the date on which the bloc stabilized itself. Before the merger, the two political blocs were closer — not close, but closer. After the merger, the right-religious bloc jumped from the previously projected 64-65 mandates to the upper 60s (in this week’s projection by Fuchs, it is 67). The center-left bloc declined respectively. 

A reasonable explanation of this phenomenon would point to the merger as the watershed political event of this campaign. When Netanyahu and Lieberman announced their joint venture, the lines were drawn, and the voters could finally make a decision — right or left. Evidently, more voters fluctuated rightward, but not to the merged party. They chose Habayit Hayehudi over Likud-Beiteinu, thus making the intra-battle among right-wing parties the most intriguing story of this campaign. And apparently, this was not an easy choice for many of them. As late as this past week, about 25 percent of voters were still “undecided” — and 29 percent more (among “decided” voters) were not yet “certain” of their choice.

Such a high percentage of people still willing to change their minds might give one pause before making a final call on the projected outcome of the election. However, a word of caution should be added to this barrage of data: The vast majority of the voters that are still “uncertain” of the party for which they’d vote contemplate other options only from within the “bloc. So, a Likud voter might still shift to Shas, and a Habayit Hayehudi voter might still decide to go back to Likud. As we’ve said: A stable coalition is an unlikely outcome of this coming election. 

And, one wonders whether, perhaps, that is exactly what the voters currently want. Maybe the lack of options is a cause for them to settle on something for now, in the hope that soon enough they’ll go back to the polls with more options to choose from, feeling that they had an opportunity to feel that their vote might really account for more than just having an impact on intra-bloc maneuverings.

Shmuel Rosner is the Journal’s senior political editor. Read more political analysis on Rosner's Domain.

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