In an early December briefing for the American Jewish Committee noted: “In Israeli politics two months is a very long time, and almost anything can happen.”
I should have deleted the word “almost,” since the spectacular rise in the polls of the right-wing, religious Jewish Home party has been an utter surprise. It held three seats in the outgoing Knesset, but under the charismatic leadership of its new head, former hi-tech entrepreneur Naftali Bennett, it appears likely to capture 15 seats, almost entirely at the expense of the merged Likud-Beytenu list, which together hold 42 seats in the outgoing Knesset. Recent polls suggest their combined list will fall to about 34, still by far the largest party in the Knesset and likely to form the next government, but a highly disappointing showing nonetheless.
In the party primaries, Likud voters signaled a desire to appeal to right-wingers rather than centrists, as experienced leaders like Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Michael Eitan were deprived of realistic places on the party list. But here is where the surprise happened. Rather than rally to a more right-wing Likud-Beytenu, ideologically religious-nationalist voters transferred their support to The Jewish Home as a way to maximize right-wing influence in the next coalition.
Add to that the legal troubles of Avigdor Liberman, the head of Yisrael Beytenu, who was forced to resign as foreign minister over charges filed against him for breach of trust and fraud. Police have since gathered additional evidence against him, purportedly including testimony from Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. The redacted charge sheet may preclude a quick trial or plea bargain, since conviction by the court accompanied by a determination that his actions carried “moral turpitude” would prevent him from holding public office for seven years.
While Likud-Beytenu wrestles with its precipitous drop in the polls, the left and center remain unable to expand. The center parties have no serious ideological differences with each other, but they cannot unite due to the ego and ambition of their leaders, as already evidenced in the dysfunction demonstrated in the outgoing Knesset. Some observers believe that were Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni to cooperate, their combined polling would put them at about 18-20 seats in the next Knesset, making them the second largest party. Separately, they have each polled at about 8-10, with Kadima, the winner of 28 seats in 2009 under Livni, disappearing. To be sure, the decline of Likud-Beytenu illustrates that merging parties does not necessarily guarantee positive results, but the lack of unity seems to make some voters wary of the center parties.
The left is divided by two questions: first, whether Labor’s focus on economic fairness rather than the peace process gains or loses votes, and second, whether a left party should consider joining a Netanyahu-led coalition, a point on which Labor has maintained silence. Meretz pushes very hard on its security/diplomacy agenda, offering a new plan to replace the Oslo Accords in agreement with the Palestinians, and stresses that under no conditions will it sit in Netanyahu’s coalition. Meretz polls at 3-4 seats, about its current size, and seems unable to attract voters beyond that. For Labor, the cup is half full. In 2009 under Barak, it had 13 seats, which became 8 when he split the party. Current polls allocating Labor about 18 seats show a great improvement, evidently due to Kadima voters “returning home.” But the Labor campaign has not been able to improve upon that.
The Haredi religious parties and the Arab parties continue to function within their own political/ideological bubbles and will likely remain at about the number of seats they controlled in the last Knesset. In Haredi circles the leading party is Shas, with 11 seats. Despite the return of Aryeh Deri, the once disgraced and imprisoned Shas Party kingpin, the party thus far shows no ability to expand beyond its performance in the last elections. The Arab parties continue to practice a kind of symbolic politics that proclaims radical positions toward the State of Israel combined with a determination not to participate in any governing coalition. These parties, too, have failed to unite. The main threat they face is Arab political apathy. Polls project low voter participation in the Arab community.
As Netanyahu ponders the government he is likely to set up after the election, the new power of the Jewish Home could make him consider the advantages of a broad national unity coalition, particularly in the face of the threat from Iran. The record of right-wing governments without centrist or left-wing participation is not good. Historians point to the second Begin government that saw the country bog down in Lebanon and the economy collapse. In order to have room to maneuver diplomatically and, for the sake of his own legacy, Netanyahu may want the restraints such a broad coalition would place upon him.