Most of Israel is genuinely tired of Benjamin Netanyahu, and polls show that his personal popularity is at an all-time low. And while Israel’s future depends on this man finally leaving the political scene, this unfortunately does not preclude that he will be turn out to be Israel’s prime minister for the fourth time.
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Let me run through the number crunching:
The compounded picture of the latest polls indicates that the bloc composed of Likud and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi will gain around 38 seats in the Knesset, whereas the center-left bloc composed of the joint list of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah together with Meretz is bound to gain around 30 seats. The parties between these two blocs, Kahlon’s Kulanu party and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, who are negotiating running in a common list, and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, are bound to reach around 30 Knesset seats in total. Lieberman is part of this center because has made every conceivable effort to position himself as a centrist moderate left of the Likud, and put forward a peace plan that even allows for the partition of Jerusalem. There is in principle no reason why he could not join a center-left government led by Herzog-Livni.
These three parties will determine the identity of Israel’s new prime minister, and their leaders would love see Netanyahu fall. Kahlon, Lapid and Lieberman certainly have one crucial commonality: they all cannot stand Netanyahu. Lieberman knows him inside out, since he started working with him in the 1990s. Kahlon served under Bibi’s leadership for quite some time until he couldn’t take Netanyahu any longer, and Lapid has come to know Netanyahu’s character all too well during his tenure in the outgoing government.
Herzog is considered the serious contender for ousting Netanyahu and getting Israel back onto the track of sanity. But Herzog/Livni and Meretz with their 30 seats and the parties at the center with another 30 would together not command a majority. And even if either or both of the blocs would gain a few seats, this would leave them in the uncomfortable situation of having to form a coalition of six parties with a very thin majority – a recipe for instability.
Add to this that such a government would not have a mandate to move toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians: We have seen in the past how the country was torn into pieces when first Rabin and then Barak tried to achieve such goals without a solid parliamentary majority.
But if the two Arab parties and the communist Hadash party were to create a single list, and if they could mobilize Arab Israelis to increase their voting participation, they could gain up to 15 Knesset seats. And even if they are not included in the government, their support of the government could guarantee some stability.
Except that Israel has been living with the anomaly that Arab parties are not considered as truly legitimate partners when it comes to governing in Israeli public opinion, and even less so when Israel’s one great question, whether to end the occupation, is at stake. Rabin relied on the support of Arab parties, and Israel’s right claimed that he had no mandate for a peace agreement because he didn’t command “a Jewish majority.” Add to this that Lieberman has done so much to alienate Israel’s Arab citizens, that Arab MKs are unlikely to support a government in which Lieberman plays a major role.
A government led by Herzog that relies on Arab MKs would therefore not be able to move toward peace. The scenario in which Herzog will remove tens of thousands of settlers from the West Bank without a solid majority of Jewish parties is a nightmare: Israel would probably end up in something akin to civil war.
The only option for Herzog to form a government is therefore to cooperate with the ultra-Orthodox parties, which, in this scenario, would have enormous bargaining power. But this creates what looks like an almost insurmountable hurdle: the ultra-Orthodox abhor Lapid. They have already made clear that they would not join any government that would not rescind some of the laws he passed: first and foremost the law that requires ultra-Orthodox youngsters to serve in the IDF, but also the slash in children allowances.
Assuming that the ultra-Orthodox would even sit with Lapid in the same government, Herzog’s bid for prime minister would depend on Lapid’s agreeing to the annulment of laws that were the centerpiece of his tenure as finance minister, and that had been central to the election campaign that brought him 19 seats in the outgoing Knesset.
But are the current polls a good prediction for the actual election results? Three months is an eternity in Israeli politics, and there are many scenarios that could change the landscape. Here are some of them:
* Hamas may decide to save Bibi – after all, they were responsible for his beating Peres in the 1996 election with their horrid suicide bombings in Tel Aviv, and they – or other Islamist groups – might try to mount major terror attacks to prevent a peace process, and thus push Israel’s electorate to the right.
* The Palestinians’ bid for UN recognition might succeed, which could push Israel’s voters in opposite directions. They might cave in to the political right’s lamentations that the world hates Jews and Israel, and that Israel needs to be turned into a fortress – and move to the right. Alternately, they might realize that the political right’s bunker mentality has led to Israel’s international isolation and severely damaged our relations with the U.S. and give the center-left a chance.
* Indications that Israel is moving toward a recession might mount and the unemployment rate could increase – which could lead Israelis to conclude that Bibi is not the economic genius he claims to be. But then again, Netanyahu might be able to put the blame for these developments on
Lapid’s tenure as finance minister.
The bottom line is that if the current polls’ predictions of the size of the major blocs (center-left, center and right) are roughly correct, chances for a government led by Herzog and Livni are, unfortunately, slim.
Praying for more votes for Herzog and Livni is unlikely to yield additional Knesset seats. Instead, Israel’s liberals must find ways to convince voters that their future, that of their children and indeed the country, depends on putting an end to Netanyahu’s reign, and for Israel to move on to a new future.