The disastrous meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair Lapid on Monday night succeeded in only one aspect: It put the third Netanyahu government out of its 20-month misery. There’s no official date yet but there is now no question that 2015 will be an election year in Israel.
Since less than two years have passed since the last election and the polls haven’t shown a major shift in public opinion since then – the most pertinent question is what, if anything, has changed and can we expect these elections to yield radically different results?
While journalistic cynicism almost demands the conclusion that nothing will change following the unnecessary early vote, there are a number of trends that are new to these elections, or at least more prominent now than they were in 2013, which could affect the outcome. These are the main factors that will come into play over the next few months on the way to the polls.
Terror: The 2013 elections took place in a period of relative calm. It is too early to foresee, of course, whether the wave of terror attacks in recent months has abated or will continue into the campaign. While conventional wisdom has it that a tense security period benefits the right wing, it also puts an awkward spotlight on the incumbent. Over the last 25 years, four elections were fought at a time when Israelis felt insecure on their own streets, in three of them (Yitzhak Shamir, 1992; Shimon Peres, 1996; Ehud Barak, 2000) the sitting prime minister lost. The only incumbent to win a “terror election” was Ariel Sharon in 2003. Netanyahu does not have Sharon’s rough-and-ready image and will find it difficult to win if Israelis go to the polls in fear.
Negative campaign: If unrest in Jerusalem and the West Bank calms down over the next few months, and there are signs that is already happening, the Palestinian issue will not be the core theme of these elections. Of course, the parties to the right of Likud – Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi – will try and drum up hysteria, and portray themselves as the defenders of Israel. But Likud under Netanyahu will have to project a more centrist image, and the center-left parties know that the Israeli public doesn’t believe there is a possibility of peace on the horizon and thus will not make the Palestinian issue a central part of their campaign. However, these parties won’t have much else to work with. Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which did so well in the last balloting, promising to solve all the woes of the middle class, has nothing to show for the time it controlled the treasury and will probably fall back on demonizing Netanyahu’s preferred partners, the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, parties. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah will once again promise it is the savior of Zionism but it is also fatally tainted by having been a member of the coalition. Labor may have remained in opposition but after doing badly in the last elections, focusing primarily on a social-democratic agenda, it will be looking for something more meaty. This won’t be an election fought on issues but a relentlessly negative campaign in which each party will try to smear its rivals as irresponsible fanatics. The victor, or more likely victors, in these elections will be those who succeed in banding together more effectively to smear their opponent, and once again Netanyahu is at a disadvantage here because there will be more parties seeking to discredit him than any other candidate.
Bibi and the bloc: There are two main reasons that many pundits believe that despite the hapless way he managed his latest government, Netanyahu is still almost assured reelection. The first is what looks like an impregnable right-wing-religious bloc of parties which the polls predict will continue to hold a Knesset majority after the next vote. How inevitable is that majority? Most polls give it around 65 seats. But the polls said similar things two years ago and the bloc got only 61 seats. That was a majority but a tenuous one that forced Netanyahu to capitulate and accept the Lapid-Bennett demand to keep his favored Haredi partners out of the coalition. Besides its numbers, the right wing has a major advantage in the absence of vetoes. While there is no love lost between its members, they are all prepared to work with each other. The chances of a center-left coalition are hugely diminished by the fact that the Haredi parties will never sit around the same table with Yesh Atid. Netanyahu, ever cautious, is already working to reinforce the bloc with a possible electoral alliance with Habayit Hayehudi and to advance coalition deals with Shas and United Torah Judaism. Even if the collective egos of the leaders of Labor, Yesh Atid and Hatnuah allow them to somehow cobble together a joint front, their only chance of winning is a massive anti-Netanyahu groundswell shifting enough voters away from the right-wing bloc, or a new party emerging which can win religious and right-wing votes and still join a center-left coalition. Such a party is already in the making.
The Kahlon factor: Former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon is about to officially launch his new party, which will focus on social issues. It’s hard to predict how well it will do before we know anything else about it, but Kahlon’s proven popularity and the fact that voters will once again be looking for alternatives to failed politicians gives some credence to the polls already indicating he can win anything between six and 16 seats. On the one hand, Kahlon retired from politics two years ago out of exasperation with Netanyahu; on the other, his instinctive positions on diplomatic and security issues have in the past been on the right. If he indeed does well, he may have the option of forcing Netanyahu to grant him the coveted treasury – or of denying him a fourth term.
No alternative: Between 1999 and 2009, three men kept Netanyahu out of power – Barak, Sharon and Ehud Olmert. Three deeply flawed politicians who had one characteristic in common, even if they were never popular for long, all had the stature and gravitas to command enough votes in an election, and then to go on and make the dirty deals necessary to build a coalition. Netanyahu has proved three times that he has it as well. None of the other current party leaders can say the same. Livni, Lapid, Isaac Herzog, Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Bennett and now Kahlon all believe they have what it takes, but none of them seems to have convinced a sufficient proportion of the public or their colleagues of this. Can any of them perform an image makeover in time to present a credible alternative to Netanyahu?
Snap election: By law, elections in Israel cannot take place sooner than three months after being called. Netanyahu has an interest in holding them as soon as possible, giving his rivals less time to grind down his image with a concerted negative campaign. He also fears Kahlon and hopes to limit his appeal by allowing him little time to get organized. The religious parties with their fixed constituencies and eagerness to get back into a coalition with Netanyahu are also interested in a speedy vote. Most of the other parties would prefer a lengthier campaign in the hope of reviving their sagging popularity. However, trying to prolong a costly and stagnating election season would probably only further diminish their public standing so Netanyahu will most likely get his earlier election date, sometime in March or early April.
Passing the threshold: The rules have changed for these elections and the electoral threshold that parties have to pass to gain access to the Knesset has now been raised from 2 percent to 3.25 percent. This spells political extinction for centrist Kadima, only six years ago the party of power. It also jeopardizes Hatnuah, the far-left “Arab” parties and far-right Tekumah, which in the last elections ran together with Habayit Hayehudi but is now threatening to break away. Most of these parties will join forces with others to avoid being wiped out, but if any of them go it alone and fail to cross the threshold – it will cost their bloc dearly and perhaps even tip the elections to the other side.
Wild Card Adelson: Many in Likud believe that last month’s vote on the so-called Israel Hayom bill – in which many coalition members supported the law preventing the pro-Netanyahu tabloid, owned by U.S. casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, from being distributed for free – was the final nail in the coalition’s coffin. Having only passed its first reading, a decision on this legislation will have to wait for a new Knesset and meanwhile hundreds of thousands of copies of Israel Hayom will continue to swamp the streets and coffee shops. Adelson has already proved in the U.S. that there is no limit to the amount of money he is prepared to pour on favored candidates and Netanyahu is the most favorite of all. Having circumvented campaign-finance laws with his freebie, which has no plan to ever make a profit, Adelson will now push Israel Hayom and his recently acquired religious newspaper in Israel, Makor Rishon, to saturation levels in Netanyahu’s service. Rival tabloid Yedioth Ahronoth, traditionally hostile to Netanyahu, will be hard-pressed to provide an alternative. It’s unclear what effect, if at all, the “Bibiton” has had on public opinion, but these elections are going to be a media war as well.