Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

New term likely for Bibi, but on what terms?

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Amotz Asa-El


Though it was the first parliament in which the main opposition party was larger than the ruling party, Israel's outgoing Knesset will have served a full four years - the first since the 1980s to have done so - by the time the 19th Knesset is elected on January 22.

Not only did the Knesset prove durable, the six-party coalition Binyamin Netanyahu cobbled together proved stable, and faced no serious crisis. Even Labor's split in January 2011, in the aftermath of which Defence Minister Ehud Barak lost more than half his Knesset faction, proved meaningless from the coalition's viewpoint.

On policy, too, the outgoing coalition generally sailed on an even keel.

On foreign affairs, its members shared Netanyahu's high-profile handling of the Iranian problem, while its most hawkish component, the nationalist-Orthodox National Home party, stomached his public adoption of the two-state solution, and the principle of territorial compromise which it entails.

On the economy, Netanyahu kept the budget reasonably balanced, but also compromised his conservative convictions by extending free education down to age three, thus harmonising with his coalition's populist flank, led by the ultra-Orthodox party Shas.

On security, Netanyahu fenced the southern border, thus stemming an inflow of unauthorised immigrants from Africa. And on religious issues, Israel's 32nd government will bequeath to its successor the politically difficult question of new legislation that will expand conscription of ultra-Orthodox men.

In all, Netanyahu's second premiership has been largely overshadowed by external dramas: the Middle Eastern upheaval and the global recession. On both fronts Israel was in no position to shape events, and on both he responded with a caution that both won him respect and also kept his coalition together and largely content.

Understandably, then, polls indicate that Netanyahu arrives at his fourth prime-ministerial contest looking like the only viable candidate for the premiership, whereas back in 2009 he ran neck-and-neck with Tzipi Livni, then the leader of the Kadima faction. In that poll, Livni garnered 28 of the Knesset's 120 seats while Netanyahu's Likud made do with 27.

Then again, as the election season gathers momentum there is plenty of political turbulence and ideological fermentation with which Netanyahu must grapple, because the Israeli electoral system has voters pick parties rather than individuals, and the parties in the legislature in turn elect the prime minister.

International observers sometimes assume that the Israeli voter's primary concern is the Iranian threat, which has indeed topped Netanyahu's agenda while abroad. However, the Iranian issue is not a major part of this election season, first of all because the dilemmas surrounding it are essentially tactical rather than ideological, but more importantly because Israel's political discourse is now dominated by domestic issues.

Though the Jewish state's macro-economic performance has been far better than most others' in the developed world, the middle class's street protests last year made it plain that a critical mass of Israelis feel their country's success is passing them by.

Netanyahu's efforts to pressure prices down have been successful in some cases, like cell phone rates, and unsuccessful in others, most notably the housing market, where apartment prices have soared some 65% on average over the past five years. At the same time the business press has attacked the corporate elite's concentration of assets in several holding companies which benefit from insufficient competition, generally at the taxpayer's expense.

This social restlessness will be amplified by two parties: Labor, which has been careful to discuss little other than economics, and Netanyahu's strategic coalition ally - Shas.

Labor, once Israel's dominant political force, emerged from the last election with a mere 13 of the Knesset's 120 members, and then shrank to a mere eight, after former leader Ehud Barak seceded with a minority of loyalists to prevent a leadership challenge he seemed poised to lose. However, Barak's successor, former journalist Shelly Yachimovich, has earned respect as a social crusader, and is now well positioned to lead Labor to a significant electoral bounceback.

Though lacking executive experience, the eloquent and passionate Yachimovich is Netanyahu's rhetorical match and ideological inversion. The battle between the two over regulation, taxation, and spending will mark a turning point after decades in which Israel's key political contestants sparred mainly over issues of war and peace.

The primary electoral reservoir Labor will be looking to tap is Kadima, whose constituency was largely former Labor voters who had grown disillusioned with its peace agenda, and appreciated the pragmatism of Ariel Sharon and his successors - Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni.

Since then, however, Kadima has lost altitude, and polls indicate that under its current leader, Lt-Gen (res) Shaul Mofaz, the outgoing Knesset's largest faction might not even pass the electoral threshold of three seats. The main reason for this expected demise is the party's failure to detect in time the public's growing quest for a social agenda, and the mainstream electorate's diminishing faith in the feasibility of a deal with the Palestinians, which recent Kadima's leaders celebrated more than all others.

Even so, the centrist electorate remains sizeable, and also fluid, as it is where the swing votes are concentrated. With Kadima on the decline, this part of the field is now eyed by Yair Lapid, a columnist, screenwriter, TV presenter and amateur boxer whose father, the late Tommy Lapid, was Ariel Sharon's justice minister after leading another centrist party to a handsome 15 Knesset seats.

Lapid the son's agenda is much like his father's, championing free enterprise and demanding the full conscription of ultra-Orthodox men, as well as political reform. There is talk of Livni, Kadima's former leader, joining his Yesh Atid ("There is a future") ticket, but chances are low she will agree to be Number Two, as Lapid will surely insist. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was the elder Lapid's best friend and could fit into this configuration, is expected to probably sit the election out, as he is standing trial on a bribery charge from his time as Mayor of Jerusalem, and has recently been convicted of a minor charge of breach of trust relating to his term as Minister of Trade and Industry.

The fight for the centre, therefore, is a three-way battle between Lapid, Yachimovich, and Netanyahu, who will all be wooing that quarter of the electorate who are secular, middle class, better educated, and pragmatic on foreign affairs.

Netanyahu and Yachimovich, unlike Lapid, will also be fighting for working class votes, in a battleground where they will also meet the ultra-Orthodox and populist Shas, which emphasises its leaders' and voters' roots in Middle Eastern countries.

On this front, Netanyahu seems suddenly vulnerable, for two unexpected reasons:

First, Likud's most popular non-European leader, 52-year-old Communications and Welfare Minister Moshe Kachlon, announced he is taking "a break from politics." That leaves Netanyahu surrounded by politicians and aides of European and relatively wealthy backgrounds, with the exception of former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom - with whom he has a longstanding rivalry.

And secondly, Shas's former leader, the charismatic Aryeh Deri, has returned to the party's leadership alongside his successor, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, after a 13-year absence in the wake of a bribery conviction which led to a 20-month jail term.

When the managerially-gifted Deri last led Shas, it won a staggering 17 seats, as opposed to its current 12. Now 53, Deri promises to try and restore those votes by challenging Netanyahu on economics. "There are two Israel's today," he claimed in a TV interview, "one of the haves and one of the have-nots. We will target all the have-nots."

Added up, this will put Netanyahu on the defensive, as Deri depicts him as representative of the "haves", and an engine of their perceived privileges.

Lastly, Netanyahu and his party will be challenged by a well-organised settler bloc within Likud, and the settler-inspired "Jewish Home" party outside Likud.

The Prime Minister is believed to prefer that Moshe Feiglin, a Likud member who is perceived as Messianic and extremist but who has a well-organised faction backing him, will not make it into its Knesset faction. However, Feiglin's chances are quite good, and he might land in Netanyahu's faction despite the party leader's preferences. If that happens, Netanyahu might lose centrist votes to Lapid.

Meanwhile, the "Jewish Home" party has aligned with the far-right National Union party, a combination where observant right-wing voters may feel more comfortable than in the more moderate Likud.

Add to these Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's solid grip on the predominantly Russian-speaking electorate that gave his Yisrael Beitenu party 15 seats in 2009, and you get a prime-ministerial candidate who is personally unrivalled, but who is shackled to a party that is threatened from left, right, and centre.

It follows, that to emerge strengthened from January's election Netanyahu will have to frontally attack some of his prospective coalition partners: Shas, for its leader's criminal record; the far-right, for what he sees as its adventurism; Lapid, for his inexperience; and Labor, for its spending plans.

Netanyahu has earned a reputation as Israel's most effective speaker abroad. Now he will have to demonstrate this ability at home, lest he emerge from the upcoming election as a shackled PM - prisoner of a rainbow coalition of factions and parties.

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