Elections: Good for Netanyahu, bad for Israel

A coalition crisis could mean elections in a matter of months. If Netanyahu wins, even a post-election indictment will not stop the slide into a darker future for Israel.



He wants them, he wants them not, he wants them, he wants them not. Over the last two weeks, the sport of Netanyahu psychoanalysis in the Israeli press over the possibility of snap elections has taken on a feverish tone.

He doesn’t want them because he loves holding onto power. Because he wants to prove that of all Israeli leaders he alone is capable of sitting out a term and proving himself King Bibi, the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history. Should he resolve the current coalition crisis — on the issue of drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the IDF— in addition to being the only statesman who speaks American, or speaks Trump, or speaks AIPAC, he will also brand himself the only responsible adult at home.

On the other hand, he does want elections. Through the irritating fog of corruption investigations, he can’t keep his eyes off those tantalizing surveys. Most have Likud winning by a healthy margin of three to five seats over the second-ranked party, Yesh Atid. Until recently, none showed Likud going beyond the 30 seats it won in the 2015 elections – until a survey published by Israel Hayom last Friday. Never mind that Israel Hayom is to Bibi what Brietbart is to Trump. When a survey dangles 34 seats before your eyes, suddenly there’s a coalition crisis around every corner.

Why stop at Bibi? What about the coalition partners: do they want elections? What about the opposition? On Sunday, Naftali Bennett, head of the far-right Jewish Home party which is part of the governing coalition, took a stiff line against Netanyahu, working all the morning shows to tell the public that elections are a ruse, unnecessary for Israel and purely “personal” – just Netanayhu’s attempt to boost himself. Most surveys actually show Bennett’s party doing pretty well, going beyond the current eight seats. One even has him at 14. But perhaps Bennett doesn’t trust surveys – after all, he was running around 12 seats in most of them leading up to the 2015 elections, but ended up with just eight.

At the moment of writing, the question of early elections seems to rest in the hands of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who is holding out on approving a compromise to end the current crisis. Based on polls alone, Liberman has good reasons to avoid elections; his party is supported almost exclusively by the dwindling portion of older former Soviet immigrants, and most polls show him winning just five to seven seats. But Liberman is working hard to hold down his party brand of fighting the religious to please his strongly secular constituency, and taking a stand against ultra-Orthodox “blackmail” is a photogenic way to do it.

And the opposition? Quixotically, Labor head Avi Gabbay actually indicated support for elections on Sunday. It’s an odd position considering he has been in a free fall in all surveys starting just a few months after winning the party leadership in July. Early elections give him no space to try and recuperate over half his party’s power that appears lost at present (from 24 seats today, to 10 in the worst poll).

Although Labor leads the opposition, the de facto challenger to Netanyahu is Yair Lapid. His party is regularly running second in surveys, generally getting between 22-26 seats (votes that come almost entirely at the expense of Labor). He runs a centrist party, which is viewed as committed to economic relief. His attitudes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict range from agnostic to patriotic, which in Israeli terms means no real progress.

Perhaps that’s why Lapid went on a screed against the compromise with the ultra-Orthodox draft law, calling it “an insult to the IDF, an insult to conscripts…a national disgrace.” He apparently hopes to turn the tide against the deal, and in favor of coalition collapse and elections. In his dreams, election results will put his party at its highest showing ever (it won 19 seats in its first competition in 2013, then 11 seats in 2015). Here or there, polls have even shown him beating Likud – possibly crowning him prime minister.

The left-wing Meretz might well prefer elections now. The lost Labor voters have not only gone to the center but also to the left. Meretz was in danger of falling below the high voter threshold in 2015, but recent polls show the party getting seven or even eight seats now. A buoyant primary competition has focused some renewed attention on the party, and a fresh young face is expected to take the helm soon, most likely MK Tamar Zandberg.

Surveys I have conducted have shown that ideological self-identification in Israeli society has not changed in well over a decade. About half of Jews, and roughly 45 percent of all Israelis, consider themselves right-wing; roughly one-quarter are firm right. Netanyahu enjoys favorability in the mid-40 percent range – nearly half the country – with support highly polarized of course between the enthusiastic right versus the center and left who despise him. Elections are likely to return Likud to power.

The least bad result would be a centrist victory. Between one-quarter and 30 percent of Israelis are self-defined centrists – mostly voters of Yesh Atid or Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party (just one-fifth are left-wing). Neither center party can be expected to advance on what I believe to be Israel’s most urgent priority: ending the military occupation of 4.5 million Palestinians and reaching a political resolution, or fundamentally changing the current conditions to reach that end in the future.

Moreover, elections will likely put the prime minister’s corruption cases on hold and the attorney general will probably go to a meditation center to calm his nerves until they are over.

The prime minister has abused his position in numerous ways, undermined democracy and rule of law, and entrenched dangerous nationalist populism in Israel. For these reasons, I would prefer to see an increasingly likely indictment march ahead than watch his devotees give him a new mandate. If Likud wins, even a post-election indictment will not stop the slide into a darker future for Israel.