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Why the Timing of the Israeli Election Matters So Much to Netanyahu and His Rivals

The next Knesset election could conceivably take place anytime between February and November, but the prime minister’s party is one of the few looking to delay it as much as possible

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman speak as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits across, January 2017.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman speak as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits across, January 2017.Credit: Emil Salman
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The next few days in Israeli politics will be consumed by one issue: The battle for the timing of the 2019 Knesset election.

On the surface, the difference in the possible dates – anything from late February to early November – doesn’t seem major: just nine months. But for the parties and candidates, those nine months could make all the difference.

Whatever date is decided in the next few days, or if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu somehow manages against all the odds to keep his governing coalition together, the 2019 election campaign starts this weekend.

Whether the campaign takes three or 12 months or anything in-between, it will be a marathon. And every party is busy plotting a strategy that will bring them to the finish line at their peak.

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For most of the last year, Netanyahu was trying to manipulate his coalition partners into an early election – in the hope that it would allow him to preempt the corruption indictments that are now expected from the attorney general in the first quarter of 2019.

During most of 2018, his Likud party was doing well in the polls, reflecting Netanyahu’s success on the international stage as President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and with President Vladimir Putin allowing Israel a free hand against Iranian forces in Syria – until the Ilyushin military surveillance plane was shot down over the Mediterranean in September.

Israel hasn’t gone to the polls yet because of Netanyahu’s hesitation and his coalition partners’ lack of enthusiasm. But now his calculations have turned around. Likud is dipping in the polls – the result of right-wing frustration at the stop-start cease-fire with Hamas, interspersed with short rounds of rocket firing toward Israel. Now Netanyahu needs time to pass: For the right-wing voters to forget what they feel was a failure in Gaza; and for the public storm that the indictments will create to pass.

He needs an election as late as possible.

Former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, November 16, 2018.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

In hindsight, Avigdor Lieberman’s announcement on Wednesday that he was resigning as defense minister, and his Yisrael Beiteinu party leaving the coalition, was unsurprising. Of all the parties in the coalition, his was in the most perilous position – hovering around the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent in the polls.

Taking the lead in distancing himself from the government’s Gaza policy and calling for an early election was Lieberman’s one chance. The weekend polls have his party jumping to eight seats in the next Knesset, but that boost will be short-lived, which is why he needs an election as soon as possible.

Lieberman’s gambit would have failed if the rest of the coalition partners continued to prefer holding an election at the latest possible date. But he knew what he was doing. All of Likud’s coalition partners sense Netanyahu’s sudden weakness and believe they can use it to their advantage.

Moshe Kahlon, whose center-right Kulanu party was the sensation of the last election in 2015, winning 10 seats, is worried that his lackluster term as finance minister – in which he failed to bring down housing prices and now faces a newly growing deficit – will damage the party’s second campaign. For him, an election is better now when Likud isn’t on the rise, winning back Kulanu voters who are (like Kahlon himself) mainly ex-Likudniks.

Naftali Bennett has the same set of considerations. Many of his Habayit Hayehudi voters are also potential Likudniks. Bennett says that in the last week of the 2015 election, Netanyahu’s fear tactics “sucked up Habayit Hayehudi voters with a drinking straw” – and he’s determined not to relive that trauma.

His ultimatum to Netanyahu – to be appointed defense minister or hold an early election – was the only way for him to try to regain the mantle of Israel’s most right-wing leader from Lieberman.

Shas is the third party that officially still remains in the coalition and whose leader is calling for an early election. Its leader, Interior Minister Arye Dery, has refrained from speaking on the subject in public, since he doesn’t want an open confrontation with his longtime ally Netanyahu. But he has told the premier in private, and let it be known, that he wants an early election as well.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, October 15, 2018.Credit: Emil Salman

Shas has been doing poorly in the polls in recent months – not as badly as Lieberman, but still nowhere near the double-digit number of seats it had over a decade ago. But it has just enjoyed successful local elections in a number of key cities, chief among them Jerusalem.

This is partly down to the fact that it was one of the very few national parties working hard to do well on the local level. But its party machinery is mobilized and energized, and Dery believes this momentum will serve his party well in a Knesset election – as long as it takes place as soon as possible.

The only other coalition party besides Likud that is currently supporting Netanyahu in prolonging the life of the government until November 2019 is United Torah Judaism. Moshe Gafni, the leader of the “Lithuanian” Degel Hatorah faction of UTJ, has spoken out against an early election – couching his objections as being in the “interests of the state.” But the real reason is that his party is in turmoil.

The Lithuanians fell out with their Hasidic partner, Agudat Yisrael, over the local elections. Indeed, in some places, including Jerusalem, they even fielded competing lists and endorsed different candidates. UTJ is undergoing the deepest crisis since its founding in 1992. Bridging the deep rift that has opened between its two constituent parts in the space of just three months, until slates must be presented to the Central Elections Committee, will be a tall order. Quite likely impossible.

Running on their own is political suicide: The two factions would each risk slipping beneath the electoral threshold. But a reconciliation and realignment of the ultra-Orthodox political forces will almost certainly take longer than a short, sharp election campaign.

Moshe Gafni, the leader of the “Lithuanian” Degel Hatorah faction of United Torah Judaism, April 6, 2009.Credit: Maya Levin

The polls still give the right-wing religious bloc a majority. The fragmentation of the center-left between Zionist Union and Yesh Atid means no one party is jeopardizing Likud’s largest-party status. The Netanyahu coalition’s majority may be stable. But it is also small, and the emergence of new centrist parties – giving more options for soft-right voters, together with the possible loss of hard-right voters to Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu – would make things much more difficult for Netanyahu on the day after the election. Not only would he be constantly at the mercy of multiple partners, but the chances of them standing by him for long while under indictment would be vanishingly small.

Losing control of the timing of the election is the first stage toward his losing his coalition, now and in the future.

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