The agreement between the Israeli Labor Party led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua to form a joint list for the Knesset has, at least for the moment, seemed to change the dynamic of the election campaign. The first poll taken immediately after the merger shows Labor-Hatnua winning one more seat than Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Theoretically that would place Herzog in position to be tapped to lead the next government provided he could put together a coalition of parties. But while this survey has to set the hearts of the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s many critics racing, it is probably a mistake for them to jump to the conclusion that the PM’s days are truly numbered. While the possibility of a genuine alternative to the present government is generating some good numbers for Herzog, the math of Israeli coalition politics and the dynamic of an election in which the notion of two major parties may be revived may cut short his dreams of victory.
Prior to the announcement of early elections, Labor seemed to be continuing on its historical arc from once dominant party of government to irrelevant minor party. The first polls indicated Labor would be losing seats. As for Livni’s party, every poll showed it would be wiped out leaving the former foreign minister out of the Knesset. Ever the pragmatic opportunist, Livni drew the correct conclusion from the data and began marketing herself to the other larger parties for a merger. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid wanted her badly but Livni rightly saw that her arrival wouldn’t do much to halt its slide with polls showing it losing close to half of its seats. Nor did Livni feel comfortable sharing a platform with Lapid. Those two big egos were not going to work well together.
Labor was a much better fit in that the mild-mannered Herzog seems more like a team player and that choice would enable Livni to approach the elections by campaigning on her hopes to strike a peace deal with the Palestinians that Netanyahu wouldn’t make. Adding Livni and her followers to the Labor list also provides a jolt of energy to a party led by a man who is well regarded but seems to have the charisma of a soggy potato.
Though Lapid aspires to be the leader of a center bloc that could beat the Likud, Labor-Hatnua also gives the appearance of a real alternative to Netanyahu to Israelis who are understandably tired of the prime minister after six years of him at the top. That factor along with resentment at Netanyahu for pushing for an election that most Israelis think is unnecessary could be the reason for the fact that Herzog and Livni are doing far better as a couple than they would have done separately.
But before Herzog starts trying to piece together a coalition, there are some factors that may ultimately undo his momentary advantage.
The first is the very one that seems to have invigorated Labor. So long as there was no real alternative to Netanyahu as prime minister, it was possible for voters who generally support the parties of the center right or the right to vote for alternatives to Likud. Since it is almost certain that Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home will never join a coalition led by the left, voters were free to vote for them rather than Netanyahu’s Likud. It was that factor that led to Likud finishing behind Livni’s Kadima by one seat in the 2009 elections even though the parties of the right combined for more than those of the left leading to Netanyahu becoming prime minister. The same thing diminished Netanyahu’s results in 2013.
But if Israelis are returning to the old paradigm in which Likud and Labor dominate the Knesset, then we should expect the former to start gaining strength at the expense of their potential partners too.
Even more to the point, if the results will hinge on the public’s view of the peace process rather than domestic issues, as was the case the last time Israel voted, that, too, works in Netanyahu’s favor.
Though his foreign critics blame Netanyahu for the ongoing standoff with the Palestinians, most Israelis, including many who are less than thrilled with the prickly prime minister, know that it is the Palestinians who continue to thwart peace, not their own government. An election fought on the idea of more concessions to the Palestinians is not one that will favor those advocating anything that smacks of a duplicating the Gaza experiment in the West Bank. That is especially true after that summer war with Hamas that left most Israelis scrambling for bomb shelters as rockets fired from the terrorist state on their doorsteps rained down on them. Nor is it credible for Livni to offer herself as a real alternative to Netanyahu’s policies since it was she who was negotiating with the Palestinians during the last year.
Equally dubious is the notion that Israelis will reject Netanyahu because they are worried about Israel becoming more isolated under his leadership. Israelis are aware of the fact that it is anti-Semitism, rather than genuine concern for the Palestinians, that motivate European attacks on their government. Nor are they likely to vote for Herzog and Livni because Barack Obama, a president that they rightly believe to be the most hostile American leader to their country in more than a generation, wants them to oust Netanyahu.
With the new Kulanu party led by former Likud Cabinet member Moshe Kahlon entering the contest and other parties rising (Bennett’s Jewish Home) as others fall (Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and Lapid’s Yesh Atid), it’s too early to predict the outcome with any certainty. There is the possibility that Bennett will join with Likud and create a far larger merged entity than Likud-Hatnua. Meanwhile, the theme of “anybody but Bibi” as Netanyahu vies for a fourth term that could lead to him being the longest serving prime minister in the country’s history may be one that will be hard for Likud to overcome. But if the country is moving back to two big parties that will fight it out over the peace process, it’s hard to call Netanyahu anything but still the favorite to prevail in March.