The headlines in the left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz summed up the reaction of opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the latest twist in the lead-up to the country’s January Knesset elections. The consensus on the left is that the victory of right-wing candidates in the Likud’s primary to determine their Knesset slate spells doom for the PM. “Has the Likud gone too far right for Netanyahu?” was one. “Likud’s sharp shift to the right is political suicide for Netanyahu” was another, while a third read “Likud’s hawkish earthquake sparks new hopes for centrist alternatives.” Combined with the other major story in Israeli politics today — the return to electoral politics of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who is leading a new party called “The Movement” — you might think that Netanyahu’s critics are right to assert that he is in big trouble.
But despite the hoopla over Livni and the worries about the changing of the guard in Likud, Israel’s electoral math appears unchanged. Netanyahu and his newly enlarged Likud and its coalition partners remain on course to win a smashing victory next month.
The Likud primary resulted in some well-known figures in the party being booted from “safe slots” on its electoral roster (since the party is only expected to get in the vicinity of 40 seats, any candidate on the party list–whose order is determined by the voters–below that number isn’t going to get elected). That means veterans like Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, the son of Menachem Begin, won’t be back in the Knesset next year. This is because a new movement of younger and more right-wing candidates finished ahead of them. In particular, Moshe Feiglin, a nationalist gadfly who has been trying to take over the Likud from the inside for years, will for the first time gain a seat.
This will, as the Likud-bashers at Haaretz rightly point out, make the party’s parliamentary delegation much less moderate and more likely to make Netanyahu’s life hell as he attempts to keep relations with the Obama administration from collapsing. But the expectation that this will cost Netanyahu the election is merely the wish being father to the thought for his left-wing critics. This may cost Likud some centrist votes, which will go to Yair Lapid’s new party, or Livni or what is left of Kadima. But it could be offset by the votes picked up at the expense of the parties to Likud’s right.
It should also be understood that the driving force in any Knesset election is the person at the top of the ticket, not the one in the number 30 spot. Netanyahu remains the only credible candidate for prime minister in the field, and that is something that no primary will alter.
Even more important is the fact that Livni’s entry into the field will only further splinter the opposition to Netanyahu. Though she hopes to win Likud voters, her platform seems to center on two things only: her personal appeal and her belief that Netanyahu hasn’t done enough to further the peace process. Given her disastrous defeat at the hands of a lackluster rival like Shaul Mofaz in the Kadima primary last year, the idea that the public is clamoring for her doesn’t seem likely. The latest outbreak of fighting with Hamas in Gaza has only increased the perception among most Israelis that the peace process is dead. The Labor Party, which is likely to finish a distant second next month to Likud, has completely abandoned this issue and with good reason. It is hard to see how any candidate can win on such a platform. Nor, as Seth pointed out earlier today, is she likely to score points by trying simultaneously to run to Netanyahu’s right.
As the Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren points out, Israeli politics remains divided between two camps. On the one hand there is Netanyahu’s Likud and its right-wing and religious allies that form the current government. On the other is the so-called center-left as well as the anti-Zionist Arab parties. According to all the polls, the former’s strength should net them anywhere from 66 to 70 seats out of the 120 in the Knesset. The latter can’t seem to do better than 50-54.
This means that it doesn’t really matter whether Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich or Livni or Lapid or some other outlier emerges from the wreckage of the Israeli center-left after the next election as the head of the opposition. As Ahren says, it would take an “earthquake” or some completely unforeseen event to shake the country’s electoral math. Though the Haaretz pundits and American liberals who despise Netanyahu and reject the Israeli consensus about peace are hoping that Livni or someone else will pull an upset, the prime minister remains on cruise control. His next term will probably be stormy and his party will give him plenty of headaches. But so long as most Israelis agree with his stands on the Palestinians and Iran, and understand that his steady hand on the country’s economic rudder is exactly what is needed, the Likud’s hold on office is not in question.