Israel's Next Election Is a Referendum on Netanyahu

Quiet was Netanyahu's winning card, which he lost this summer; the election will present an uncertain opportunity to change Israel’s policies.

Emil Salman

The upcoming election will be a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s continued rule. At its heart will be one question: Will the Israeli public want Netanyahu for a fourth term, or prefer to send him home to Caesarea, after two decades in which he has been the dominant figure in Israeli politics. This is the story: Will Netanyahu maintain his standing as the only politician who can put a coalition together, the way he did in the previous two elections? Or will his opponents manage this time to join forces against him and leave him out?

This election has two possible outcomes. The first, which at the moment seems more likely, is a rightist ultra-Orthodox government reinforced by one or two centrist parties (Moshe Kahlon, and perhaps a depleted Lapid). That government would adhere to the right wing’s traditional priorities: increasing the defense budget and strengthening settlements and the ultra-Orthodox. It would take advantage of the weakness of the administration of United States President Barack Obama, on his way out of office, to take diplomatic risks and deepen the annexation of the territories, while oppressing the Arab community within the Green Line.

The second alternative is a leftist-center government headed by Labor MK Isaac Herzog, bolstered by the ultra-Orthodox and a right-wing faction or two (Yisrael Beiteinu or Likud). Such a government would not be able to reach a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians that would involve withdrawal from territories and evacuation of settlers because of its reliance on the support of right-wing Knesset members. It could, however, radiate a moderate diplomatic approach and improve Israel’s ties with the U.S. and Europe, devote more attention and resources to domestic needs and act to calm conflict between Jews and Arabs in israel, while shelving racist legislation like the Jewish nation-state bill.

There are other possibilities that at the moment do not seem likely according to the opinion polls, such as Economy Minister Naftali Bennett instead of Netanyahu at the head of the right-wing bloc, or a sweeping victory for Kahlon and his planned new party. But even such an outcome will not change the policy of the future government. In any possible scenario, the right wing will have a practical veto over peace agreements and the evacuation of settlements.

Only a massive turnout of Arab voters, which would greatly increase their representation in the Knesset and the willingness of the left and center parties to make them part of the coalition, would ensure a parliamentary majority for diplomatic agreements. But there is no chance that such a government will arise in the current atmosphere in Israel. The right has managed to brand the Arab MKs as traitors, and the left-wing Jewish parties shy away from any cooperation with them.

Netanyahu fell and is forced to go to the polls because he lost control over the political arena and the army, and because the security calm that Israel had enjoyed for years has been irreparably disrupted. Until last summer, Netanyahu’s term had seen few funerals for soldiers or terror victims. Quiet was his winning card, and the moment he lost it, after the abduction of the teens from Gush Etzion, the summer’s war in Gaza and the serious clashes in Jerusalem, he has nothing left to offer.

After he lost his partner and close adviser Ehud Barak, who was defense minister in his previous government, Netanyahu has been left alone at the top, with no politicians close to him or advisers who carry weight. This is an impossible situation. Even a deft politician like Netanyahu needs confidantes with whom to share secrets and ploys. Lacking these, he has been left weak and vulnerable, giving his opponents the opportunity to oust him from government – an opportunity it is not certain they will be able to take advantage of at the polls.