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Netanyahu expected to win in elections unlikely to change Israel’s left-right balance

by Ben Sales, JTA

October 10, 2012 | 9:15 am

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announcing early elections in Israel at a news conference at his office in Jerusalem on Oct. 9. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announcing early elections in Israel at a news conference at his office in Jerusalem on Oct. 9. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

It wasn’t the call for early elections that was unusual about this week’s announcement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel will move up its next election to early 2013, from its scheduled slot in October 2013.

After all, only a few governments have served a full term in Israel’s 64-year history.

What was unusual was that seemingly everyone on Israel’s political spectrum – from left to right – appeared to agree that there was no real contest about who would be the next prime minister. Barring any major surprises, Netanyahu is expected to win a third term handily.

“Netanyahu looks like an authoritative and experienced statesman, with no present alternative,” Aluf Benn, Haaretz’s editor in chief, noted in an Op-Ed.

It’s not that there’s no opposition to Netanyahu in Israel.

Shelly Yachimovich, leader of the center-left Labor Party, has called his conservative economic policies a “violent jungle,” according to Maariv. Shaul Mofaz, leader of the centrist Kadima Party, criticized Netanyahu’s “lack of judgment” on a potential attack on Iran’s nuclear program.

Zahava Gal-On, leader of the leftist Meretz Party, asked in a Facebook post on Tuesday whether voters “want four more years of trampling democracy, damaging human rights, freedom of expression, free assembly and protest?” Even Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister and Netanyahu’s coalition partner, has been sparring with the prime minister over U.S.-Israel relations.

But none of these political leaders represents a formidable challenge to Netanyahu. Nor is the current balance of power between right and left – which, at present, favors the right –expected to change. The seats split between Israel’s center-left and left parties may change configuration, but the right-wing bloc in Netanyahu’s coalition is expected to keep its dominant position.

Kadima, the six-year-old party started by Ariel Sharon that won the most seats in the last election, in February 2009, is likely to cede the most ground. Some polls predict Kadima will win as few as eight seats.

The Labor party is likely to pick up many of the voters defecting from Kadima. Polls show Yachimovich could lift the party to as many as 20 seats, up sharply from the eight it currently controls but significantly down for the party that historically dominated Israeli politics.

As a sign of Netanyahu’s strength, both Kadima and Labor are seen as potential coalition partners for Likud, and neither Yachimovich nor Mofaz have ruled that out. The only non-Arab party that has vowed not to join Netanyahu in a coalition is Meretz, which controls just four seats.

“Every single party except for Meretz… and the Arab parties are potential participants in the next government,” columnist Yossi Verter wrote in Haaretz. “It will be entertaining to watch them fight for their place in line.”

Netanyahu cited his coalition’s failure to pass a budget as the reason for calling the early elections now.

As it has for his entire term, the issue of how to stop Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program could dominate the campaign. In addition, the Arab Spring and the regional instability in Egypt and Syria may work to Netanyahu’s advantage, according to Hebrew University political science professor Avraham Diskin.

“If people see there’s a threat, people always go to the right,” Diskin told JTA.

The only real threats to Netanyahu’s third term are not in Knesset right now. They include Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister from Kadima who recently was cleared of the corruption case that prompted his resignation in 2008; Livni, who resigned from the Knesset after her defeat to Mofaz in Kadima primaries in March; and Yair Lapid, a journalist turned politician who has founded a new centrist secular party called Yesh Atid, which translates as There is a Future.

But Olmert still faces corruption charges in other trials, and he has not yet said whether he will try to make a political comeback. He said he will come to a decision in a few days. At least one Likud Knesset member, Tzipi Hotoveli, reportedly is looking into legal options to ban Olmert from running, given the indictments he still faces.

It’s also unclear whether Livni will run at all, or which party she’d join if she does. Livni has failed twice to form the coalition government that would have made her prime minister: once when she inherited Kadima’s mantle after Olmert’s resignation, and then when Kadima beat out the Likud by a single seat in the 2009 elections.

As for Lapid, while his entrance into politics was greeted by much hype – he’s also the son of the late secular politician Yosef “Tommy” Lapid – he has no experience whatsoever in government and is not considered a viable alternative to Netanyahu when it comes to Israel’s foreign policy challenges.

Yachimovich and Lapid could try to swing the campaign back to the economy, playing to the economic liberalism Israelis advocated in the mass socioeconomic protests of the summer of 2011. But even there Netanyahu is seen as having significant advantages: The economic crisis that hit the United States and Europe hard largely passed Israel by, so far.

Netanyahu “has the ability to say there’s a world crisis and it’s only hit Israel lightly,” Gideon Rahat, another Hebrew University political science professor, told JTA. “The social protests did not succeed in topping the agenda.” 
In his speech announcing the early elections, Netanyahu touted the stability of his current coalition, which has – excluding this year’s brief unity government – fluctuated between 64 and 68 members since 2009, without any real coalition crises.

Netanyahu owes that stability to a solid block of right-wing parties including the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu headed by Avigdor Liberman; the religious nationalist HaBayit HaYehudi; the Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party and United Torah Judaism.

These parties, polls show, will not grow or shrink substantially, with one possible wild card: Aryeh Deri, the former Shas leader who left politics in 2000 after being convicted of corruption. Deri may run again, even if it means starting a rival party to Shas. Should he win a small bloc of seats, he could become a kingmaker to either a right-wing or left-wing coalitions.

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