Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Political Tempest

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Amotz Asa-El

 

Autumn ended early for Israelis this year, as winds were ruffling Jerusalem's foliage already in October and by November heavy rains poured down on Tel Aviv. Still, by early December the politicians had stolen winter's thunder, having rushed into an unseasonable election blanketed in a thick fog.

Israel has had 33 cabinets during its 66 years, but its legislatures have on average been almost twice as durable as its governments, ordinarily lasting at least three years, and in seven cases surviving their full prescribed four-year terms. One of Israel's 19 parliaments lasted just over, and another just under, two years, but both of those were in the 1950s. The outgoing Knesset's departure next March after barely two years' incumbency is therefore premature even by Israeli political standards.

At the same time, the reasons for this early election are as enigmatic as its outcome is unpredictable. What is certain already now is that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has taken a big gamble involving his career, his party, and the credibility of the entire political-system.

Technically, the early election is about fiscal policy. Netanyahu dragged his feet while Finance Minister Yair Lapid struggled to launch a program that would have waived the 18% Value Added Tax for young couples buying their first apartment. It was the flagship policy for the centrist Lapid, whose political constituency is mostly middle class, secular, liberal, and young.

Faced with Netanyahu's non-cooperation, Lapid blocked various budget transfers to the Defence Ministry. Meanwhile, Netanyahu was being attacked by his other centrist partner, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, for what she described as Netanyahu's boycott of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. In addition, both attacked Netanyahu's bill defining Israel as the state of the Jewish nation, saying its wording would alienate Israel's non-Jews.

Eventually, Netanyahu fired Lapid and Livni, alleging in a televised address that the two had "plotted a putsch" with other parties, a charge both ministers flatly denied. As the two led parties providing between them 25 of the coalition's 67 lawmakers, their dismissals meant the Jewish state was heading for its earliest election in 64 years.

Behind these immediate mechanics lurk deeper causes.

Netanyahu's move - about which he consulted no formal forum, not even his fellow Likud ministers - can be viewed as reflecting a mental refusal to accept the last election's results. Back then, after polls had predicted he would win some 40 of the Knesset's 120 seats for the Likud and temporary electoral allies Yisrael Beteinu ("Israel, our home") led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu ended up with a mere 31. He lost much of the balance to the young and fresh Lapid - until then a popular talk-show host, news anchor, and columnist - and his Yesh Atid ("There is a Future") party.

The way Netanyahu sees Israeli politics, its natural configuration is a solid Likud at the government's centre surrounded by several conservative satellites, some religious and some secular, with the possible addition of a centre-left component as an ornamental fifth wheel.

Such was Netanyahu's previous coalition, which governed from 2009 to early 2013, in which he installed a Likud loyalist at the Treasury and faced no challenge to his leadership on most policy issues. His motivation in calling an election is therefore clear. His calculation is not.

Netanyahu's apparent assumption - that Lapid will fail to maintain his electoral momentum and end up in the next Knesset's opposition - may or may not transpire. What is clear is that the conservative bloc, which Netanyahu apparently sees as fixed in its electoral size and immovable in its political location - appears in fact splintered, fluid, and unpredictable.

One dark horse in this pack is Moshe Kahlon, a former auto-parts importer who was raised with his six siblings by their Tunisian-born parents in a poor neighbourhood south of Haifa before working his way through law school and becoming a Likud activist. Now 54, the affable Kahlon earned popularity as Netanyahu's communication minister when he deregulated the cell-phone industry, multiplying competition and prompting a sharp fall in prices.

A lifelong Likud supporter, Kahlon never explained why he broke up with Netanyahu. It is also not yet known who else will join his new party, called Kulanu, which means "all of us." Even so, polls consistently promise him about a tenth of the electorate.

Such a following would have to emerge at least partly from Netanyahu's electorate, particularly in the working class, thus multiplying the threat Lapid already poses to Netanyahu on his middle-class flank.

On top of these constituencies, Netanyahu is also vulnerable on the secular, conservative, Russian-speaking front, following the breakup last summer of his alliance with Lieberman and his Yisrael Beteinu.

Lastly, polls indicate Netanyahu might also lose votes to the nationalist religious Bayit Yehudi Party, whose leader, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, is popular beyond the modern-Orthodox public that has constituted his party's historic constituency.

In short, Likud will be arriving at this election with three mid-sized factions threatening to bite into its core electorate, in addition to the centrist Yesh Atid.

Set against this backdrop, the election's main issue appears to be, for now at least, the man who triggered it.

 

Netanyahu arrives at his sixth prime-ministerial contest in 19 years challenged on two fronts: in terms of his personality and leadership style and in terms of his responsiveness to public concerns.

On the latter front, Netanyahu will be accused by critics of having failed to grasp the public's new agenda as it emerged between 2010's social protest movement and last year's election. Lapid's poll success last year was attributed, even by his rivals, to a growing quest for domestic reform, following the street protests demanding cheaper housing, education, and food.

Ironically, Netanyahu had once personified the economically oriented politician, when he introduced sweeping, and successful, market reforms as Ariel Sharon's Finance Minister.

As prime minister since 2009, however, he failed to successfully implement his own plan to lower housing prices by selling state-owned land. Clinging to the ultra-Orthodox parties as a preferred strategic partner even though the budgetary costs of that alliance are anathema to those who took to the streets, Netanyahu risks seeing many of his former voters flock to Kahlon now, the way so many turned to Lapid last year.

On the personality and leadership style side of the equation, Netanyahu, who has won three prime-ministerial elections and lost two, arrives at this one with an image problem.

Having long been criticised for what his opponents portray as poor social skills, Netanyahu now must explain why so many people he once hired have ended up in the ranks of the rivals he is now confronting. This list includes Tzipi Livni, who was his privatisation czar in the 1990s; Avigdor Lieberman, who was Director-General of the Prime Minister's Office during Netanyahu's first premiership; Moshe Kahlon, who was Netanyahu's communication minister; Naftali Bennett, who started off as Netanyahu's bureau chief; and most recently, Gideon Saar, who was Netanyahu's education minister in one cabinet and interior minister in another, before resigning abruptly three months ago and then reportedly considered challenging Netanyahu for the Likud leadership.

This is a potentially damaging record in terms of personal relations for any public figure, but even more so for a Prime Minister of Israel, where friendship and personal loyalty are cherished as national values.

 

Faced with the right's apparent fragmentation, further dramatised by a schism in Shas, an ultra-Orthodox pillar of Netanyahu's prospective coalition, the centre-left has made spectacular efforts to unite.

Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog, who has only 15 out of the 120 Knesset seats, stunned the political system on Dec. 10 when he and the newly fired Livni held a joint press conference and announced they are not only merging their parties, but will rotate as prime ministers if elected. The rationale, explained the two, is to set egos aside and show that issues are more important than personalities.

Pundits responded sceptically, noting that Herzog's generosity to Livni - whose Hatnua ("The Movement") party might have otherwise struggled to even make it into the Knesset according to polls - might be interpreted as weakness.

Moreover, Livni's arrival in Labor's electoral list along with two of her dovish colleagues who were previously Labor leaders might put off some centrist swing voters. In any event, the jockeying within the centre-left, which includes both Labor and Lapid's Yesh Atid, is probably merely about its internal arrangement, not about its overall size. This will likely remain roughly what it is, about a third of the Knesset, with another 15% going to Arab and Jewish factions to their left.

Labor's aim is to emerge from the election with the Knesset's largest faction, garnering its two leaders' current 21 seats as well as several more they hope to snatch from Lapid's 19. Yet even if they succeed, the election will be decided not primarily by the Likud-Labor ratio, but by the performances and preferences of those posited between that pair, specifically Lapid on the centre-left, and Kahlon and Liberman on the centre-right.

Ominously for Netanyahu, Kahlon has been tempering his previously hawkish views on foreign affairs, insinuating he might join a Labor-led coalition. Similarly, Liberman has been trying to move to the centre, for instance by backing Palestinian statehood. Even the ultra-Orthodox parties are not necessarily in Netanyahu's pocket, as Herzog, whose grandfather and namesake was Chief Rabbi in the 1950s, has been seeking to nurture close relations with ultra-Orthodox politicians.

Netanyahu's many rivals think they are sniffing a whiff of defeat about the veteran Prime Minister. If they are right, the debacle will be comparable to Netanyahu's upset victory over Shimon Peres in 1996, a drama that also began when an over-confident prime minister called an early election.

Still, Netanyahu's prophets of doom may yet be disappointed - he remains the front runner, and during the three months that are left to election-day many things can happen, at home and abroad, that will alter the situation drastically. Even so, chances are high that the next Knesset will be even more fragmented, and the next government even more dysfunctional than the ones which Netanyahu so eagerly disbanded on Dec. 4.

Meanwhile, there is a growing sense of alienation from the political system among younger voters, warns political scientist Dave Nachamias of the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, in an interview with the business daily The Marker. Recent events are unlikely to have helped and another dysfunctional or short-lived government risks seriously exacerbating the problem.

Winter had matured by the time the Knesset assembled on Dec. 8 to finally set the next election's date - after thunderstorms had roared between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean, and flash floods gushed down the normally dry creekbeds of the Judean Desert. The political tempest, it was decided, will be unleashed on March 17.

 

 

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