It's Election Season in Israel: Let the Games Begin

There are plenty of reasons for Benjamin Netanyahu's call for early elections. Shaul Mofaz isn't particularly threatening, the economy is creaking, and Barack Obama might be reelected in November - just to name a few.

On the night of September 4, when election officials seal the ballot boxes, television studios go into a festive mood and pollsters bite their nails - there's a good chance we'll ask ourselves: What was this election all about? And when Benjamin Netanyahu forms the next government, as the polls currently predict, and we learn that nothing really is changing, we'll probably wish the new cabinet good luck.

It will be Israel's 33rd government, an average of one every two years since the state's establishment. Let's hope it will have fewer than 39 ministers and deputy ministers, as the current cabinet boasts.

Illustration by Amos Biderman

Early this week Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, the prime minister's father, died at 102. Netanyahu decided to observe the seven-day mourning period in his father's home at 4 Haportzim Street in Jerusalem, not at the Prime Minister's Residence on Balfour Street. In the small, simply furnished living room, Netanyahu received condolence calls while sitting on a sofa that has seen better days.

Early Wednesday afternoon, the visitors were ministers Silvan Shalom and Dan Meridor, President Shimon Peres, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, rabbis and MKs. There was much huddling in small groups. People talked about everything apart from the elephant in the room: the elections.

"I'm going with the flow, but when that subject is mentioned I'm paralyzed," Netanyahu said.

However, last Saturday evening, a few words were uttered quietly but clearly, in a heavy Russian accent: "Our commitment to the coalition is finished." The speaker was the foreign minister and chairman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman. The occasion was Channel 2's "Meet the Press." The implication: Nothing will be as it was.

At least one person wasn't surprised in the least: Netanyahu. As opposed to rumors earlier this week, Lieberman forced nothing upon the prime minister; agreement and coordination between them were forged during a series of conversations.

Netanyahu decided that elections would be good for him now, and there are plenty of reasons. There are no competitors, Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz isn't taking off, the economy is creaking, U.S. President Barack Obama might be reelected in November, there is chaos over replacing the Tal Law on drafting the ultra-Orthodox, and problems passing the budget will destabilize the government.

Lieberman, too, decided he wants elections now. Maybe he hopes the authorities will put off the decision on whether to indict him. Maybe he thinks conditions are ripe for dealing with issues that interest his constituency, like conversion to Judaism for everyone and the drafting of everyone. Or maybe Netanyahu has promised him he'll remain foreign minister. Or maybe there are things we don't know about.

"There are two people who, if they want elections there will be elections," said the coalition chairman and head of the Likud Knesset faction, MK Zeev Elkin. "By the same token, if one of them changes his mind, there won't be elections. Why? Because aside from them, no one wants elections."

Over the past week, Netanyahu's aides considered the idea of running one list of candidates, with Lieberman in the second slot behind Netanyahu, and all the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu MKs interwoven after them. Likud Beiteinu would have been the name of the party. According to sources in Yisrael Beiteinu, Netanyahu was concerned (and maybe still is ) that the three center-left parties - Labor, Kadima and Yair Lapid's new Yesh Atid - will merge. According to the polls, such a party would win 40 to 42 seats. Likud, the polls say, would win about 30 seats. After the elections, the united party might ask Peres to let them try to form a government. After all, they would be the largest single party, far larger than Likud. The president would have little choice, even if the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc were larger.

That's a logical scenario, for the reason noted earlier. But it's not going to happen, for several reasons.

1. Who would head the united party? Mofaz or Labor's Shelly Yacimovich? He's a former defense minister and chief of staff, undoubtedly qualified to be prime minister. Her party, on the other hand, would win nearly twice as many seats as his, according to the polls.

2. Wouldn't the united party deter many potential voters - those who can't stand Yacimovich, are put off by Mofaz or are contemptuous of Lapid?

3. Who said the three were even interested in joining forces?

It seems Lapid, for one, would probably recommend Netanyahu to Peres over Yacimovich. True, she was a very close friend of Lapid's father, but that friendship hasn't passed on to the next generation. On the contrary.

For his part, Netanyahu is taking no chances. He wants to ensure his victory, even before the polling stations open. Two weeks ago, before we caught election fever, Netanyahu was quoted as saying in a private conversation, "My rivals think I haven't learned how to move, watch, examine, surprise and change course. They think I'm treading water. In my first term I was like that, treading water. In this term I've learned something."

The candidate

A Haaretz-Dialog poll, conducted under the supervision of Tel Aviv University's Prof. Camil Fuchs, provides a picture of the next Knesset as of midweek. Likud increases to more than 30 seats and Labor to 19 seats, while Kadima tumbles to 11 seats - roughly a third of its current size. Lapid does well with 10 seats. Ten seats separate the Likud-right-wing-Haredi bloc and the center-left-Arab bloc: 65 seats for the right, 55 for the center-left. Ehud Barak's Atzmaut party receives almost enough votes to get into the Knesset.

Yacimovich doesn't plan to abandon her social-democratic line in the election campaign, though this didn't stop her from portraying herself as the center-left bloc's candidate for prime minister.

"I never said I didn't want to be prime minister," she told me this week, a bit irritated. "When the Labor Party was getting four to seven seats in the polls I said I was in touch with reality, and before talking about government the party had to be rehabilitated. After we rehabilitated ourselves I talked about the need to be the leading party in the bloc so we could be an alternative to govern. Now, with the public expressing clear confidence in the Labor Party, it's obvious that Labor is the only alternative to the Netanyahu government, and I, the head of the party, am a candidate for prime minister."

It's precisely her performance in the polls that's heightening the feeling that it's a done deal, that Netanyahu is taking part in a contest without competitors. If Mofaz's Kadima rises to 20 seats or so in the polls, the elections will be perceived as an open game, fraught with tension. Every decline of Likud below 30 seats and rise of Kadima above 20 would upset the apple cart.

Yacimovich, who heads a party with eight seats, is likely to double that number, at least. Similarly, Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On could double her party's strength to five or maybe six, from three in the current Knesset.

With Kadima, Labor and Lapid slugging it out for the center slot, Gal-On is alone in raising the left's banner.

"In this election, there won't be a strategic vote," she said, correctly. This time left-wing voters won't not be frightened by the false slogan 'Bibi or Tzipi' [Livni] driving them en masse to vote for Kadima. This time, the story is separation. The vote is ideological. Anyone who does not want to be part of the next Netanyahu government should vote for Meretz. We definitely won't be part of that government - which can't be said about Lapid, Mofaz or Shelly."

Gal-On can move people; the same is true for Yacimovich, Lapid and Livni, who left the stage this week. But not for Mofaz: It's hard to imagine him stirring up crowds. He battered Livni in the Kadima primary, but mainly via an organized campaign to sign up new party members who would vote for him. It's a long way from there to winning the public's heart.

Livni may yet discover that losing to Mofaz was the best thing that's happened to her. She might want to hook up with Lapid, although as long as Ehud Olmert is advising him, that door is slammed shut. Ever since Olmert read in former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's book that Livni, his foreign minister, worked behind his back to thwart his peace efforts with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he has been on the warpath against Livni.

An offer that wasn't made

Last Saturday night, Kadima MK Jacob Edery called Mofaz. In September 2008, after Livni won the party's primary, it was Edery who initiated the move to guarantee Mofaz the No. 2 spot on the party's Knesset slate.

"Why didn't you offer Livni a similar guarantee when you met with her a week ago?" Edery asked the chairman.

"I waited for her to say what she wanted. She didn't say," Mofaz replied. "What's this, an army unit?" Edery shot back. "You're the winner, it's up to you to make the offer. When I was elected mayor of Or Akiva I won an absolute majority in the municipal council. I could have governed alone. But the first thing I did was to call in my rivals and offer them positions."

Edery says that if Mofaz had made the offer, Livni would have accepted. But Kadima MK Shai Hermesh, another Mofaz supporter, has his doubts. "You need two for that tango, and I'm not sure Tzipi wanted to dance," he said this week. He described the fraught meeting between the two as a date of virgins: "They both wanted it, but neither of them knew how to do it."

About two-thirds of Kadima's current MKs will become ex-MKs, according to the poll. On Wednesday, a representative of the main opposition party, MK Ronit Tirosh, stood at the Knesset podium and urged the MKs to vote against the dissolution of parliament. Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar called on the MKs to do the opposite.

"For three years you haven't been a true opposition," Sa'ar said mockingly to the Kadima MKs. "I have a friendly suggestion: In the days you have left here, try to be one."

In a conversation on Wednesday, Mofaz appeared to grasp the depth of the problem. "Netanyahu is seeking the earliest possible election day because of me, because of us. He doesn't want to give us time to get organized and build ourselves up as an alternative," he said.

"Tzipi Livni's resignation from the Knesset definitely didn't help us. I would have expected a Kadima leader who lost to enlist, roll up her sleeves and help us forge an alternative instead of generating spin from the outside and hurting Kadima. I won, that's how it is. Am I supposed to apologize? An absurd situation has been created. Do I have to say I'm sorry because I won?"

Shouldn't he have gone out of his way to keep Livni in the camp?

"When we met I asked her what she wanted. She didn't say a thing. I read this week that Kadima MKs who support her are thinking about leaving the party and establishing a new party with her. I spoke to a few of them. They told me they have no such intention, but that a big effort has to be made to bring Tzipi back. Fine, we'll make an effort in the days ahead. But where do they stand?"

Mofaz admits that Livni could win the party more seats if she enlists in the cause. "Livni got us into a deep hole that we now have to climb out of," he said. But it's true: She can still help."

In the four months until the elections, a month and a half will be devoted to party primaries. Two months of summer vacation won't leave Mofaz enough time to make himself a viable alternative to the prime minister.

"I think we'll be able to build ourselves up, even in this short period," he said. "We'll hold a convention at the end of the month. That will help us sharpen our ID card. After that we'll hold primaries and launch he campaign. In the summer people are on holiday, they go abroad. It won't be easy."

The new leader

Last summer's social-protest movement created a leader: Itzik Shmuli, chairman of the national students union. It isn't every day you meet a young man who is value-driven, highly motivated and eager to make the world a better place. For the past six months he has been living in a small apartment in a tough Lod neighborhood, taking part in a community-engagement project.

Two weeks ago, a few dozen of his student friends joined him, and dozens more are on the way. He plans to extend the project to other hardscrabble towns. In the meantime, he's raising funds for his current project. Various parties are courting him.

If he decides to enter politics - and he realizes that now is the time - he'll have to stop his current activities. Still, he can make much more of a mark in the Knesset. He was described this week as "shopping around" among the parties.

That description is unfair. Shmuli wouldn't recognize cynicism if it fell on him, as happened a few weeks ago when part of his bedroom ceiling tumbled down on top of him.