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Netanyahu announces early elections, expected to hold Knesset majority

The political parties, along with media, will sell a story of a tight battle, but the Likud-led majority is as stable as it was four years ago. A quick breakdown of the upcoming elections, expected to take place in roughly ninety days. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: Avi Ochaion / Government Press Office)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, announcing his intention to have elections early in 2013 (photo: Avi Ohayon / Government Press Office)

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced Tuesday evening his intention to hold early elections in roughly three months. Elections were due to take place in November 2013 in any case, but Netanyahu estimates that he will have trouble passing next year’s budget in the current Knesset.

The following is an excerpt from Netanyahu’s statement tonight:

Today, I finished a round of consultations with the heads of the coalition parties, and I came to the conclusion that it is not possible at this time to pass a responsible budget. We are on the threshold of an election year, and to my regret, in an election year it is difficult for parties to place the national interest ahead of the party interest. The result of this is liable to be a budgetary breach and a massive increase in the deficit, which would very quickly put us in the situation of the crumbling economies of Europe. I will not allow this to happen here.

(…)

The State of Israel would prefer a short election campaign of three months over what, in effect, would be a long election campaign that would continue for an entire year and would severely damage the Israeli economy. And therefore, after four years, we will go to elections.

Having early elections involves Knesset legislation, which should not be a problem since the opposition parties always vote to dissolve the Knesset. The date for the new elections will be set in the coming days, and is likely to be somewhere between late January and mid-February. It is worth mentioning that Netanyahu has already announced early elections, only to change his mind after a couple of days. It won’t happen this time.

Here are a few quick takeaways:

1. It wasn’t only the budget that made Netanyahu call for early elections. The prime minister wants to block a potential comeback by the incredibly-unpopular-yet-relentless Ehud Olemrt and the forming of a new party by the legendary Shas leader, Arye Deri, who has announced his return to politics. Deri has been cleverly building a reputation as the dovish alternative to Eli Yishai, and given enough time, he might actually hurt Netanyahu’s base among Sephardic right-wingers. 90 days will not allow him to compete with Shas’ formidable machine, even if he does chose to run on his own.

2. Netanyahu is Israel’s next prime minister. In the Israeli system, party sizes don’t matter that much. The name of the game is blocs. Likud is likely to be the biggest party in the next Knesset, but even if it ends up coming in second place, it won’t matter. Since the previous elections, I haven’t seen one poll – not a single one! – which shows a pro-Netanyahu coalition of Orthodox and right-wing parties with less than 61 seats. If you check out our poll tracking page, you will see that changes take place only within the blocs. Netanyahu’s coalition has a floor of approximately 62 seats and a ceiling in the low 70s. That is all that matters.

Both the media and the parties prefer the illusion of tight elections where “everything is possible.” It’s a good story, and it helps the politicians rally the base. But this story is also false. The math is very clear: Yair Lapid will not be the next prime minister, nor will Yachimovich, Olmert, Livni, Mofaz, or any other name being tossed right now. Netanyahu will.

3. Thought the Jewish center-left got blown away 4 years ago? You aint seen nothin’ yet. In the previous elections, Kadima was able to draw a surprising number of votes from the Jewish middle-class, resulting in a large party that could have challenged Netanyahu, had it any ideological backbone. This time, the votes which previously went to Kadima will be spread on no less than five major parties: Yesh Atid (led by journalist Yair Lapid), Yachimovich’s Labor, Barak’s Azmaut, Meretz and Kadima itself, which currently polls in the single digits. Add to this some votes which will be lost on smaller parties that will not pass the Knesset threshold, and you get the total collapse of the center-left, both as a political power and as an ideologically coherent idea.

4. The fragmentation of the center will lead to a prisoner’s dilemma. All the center fractions together could have some bargaining power, but every party will be afraid that another one will join the coalition, as Barak did in 2009, and leave the rest out in the cold. The result will be a rush by Mofaz, Lapid and Yachimovich to Netanyahu’s arms. All three have already made it clear that they “don’t rule out” entering a Likud-led government, in the name of the national interest. Read: They will do everything in their power to serve under Bibi.

5. Who will Netanyahu take? This is an interesting guessing game. Barak is the first option, naturally. If Barak fails to enter the Knesset, Netanyahu’s choice will be much less pleasant – he probably had enough of Mofaz, whose politics are beyond weird. Being the paranoid the prime minister is, Netanyahu might not want the likable Lapid on his side. Thus, he could end up with Yachimovich or with a narrow government of only right and orthodox parties. I would have taken Lapid though. The man has no more than hot air in him. Once in government, he will be as loyal as his dad was to Sharon a decade ago.

6. The effect of the American elections. Many wonder how the presidential elections will affect the Israeli one. My guess is that when all is said and done, they won’t matter that much. If Obama wins, Netanyahu’s base will feel that the prime minister is the only man who can stand up to “the hostile administration,” while his opponents will claim that Bibi’s support for Romney has cost Israel enough. The same goes for a Romney victory: the right will celebrate it, but it could also wake up the opposition, whose members won’t be able to hope for “pressure from Washington” that would do their job for them in the next Knesset.

I will post more on the elections in the coming weeks, including my own endorsement.

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    COMMENTS

    1. noam

      where was the whole feature on the renewal of meretz and galon’s positions, promised a long, long time ago?

      and the dichotomy of jewish and arab parties is somewhat archaic. 25-30% of arab voters vote for “jewish” parties – mostly avoda, but also kadima and meretz, and even SHAS(some stats talk of 3%-6% !?!?!). the low voting rate of around 50% among arabs is a problem, as opposed to around 70% among jews. i understand the frustration with israeli politics and reluctance due to discrimination. i really do. but a much higher arab vote can really make a difference… and generally a higher vote of many passive people that could’ve weakened bibi. i hope key arab figures will encourage a higher vote this time around.

      let’s not declare bibi king yet… i’d would like you to be wrong soooooo much, noam!!

      Reply to Comment
      • Sinjim

        Most of the Arabs who vote for Zionists are Druze, who bow to Zionism anyway. And even if that weren’t the case, that’s hardly a rebuttal of the dichotomy reality. When progressive, leftist Meretz and Avoda field lists that have more than a token Palestinian in spot 56, come back and tell us about the irrelevance of the Arab-Jewish divide. Until then, you do a disservice by misdiagnosing the problem and putting any onus on Palestinians for their marginalization in your state.

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          Some Arabs vote for Jewish/Zionist parties including SHAS out of what you might call “englightened self-interest”. For example, the new KADIMAH Knesset member Dabah is an Arab who has been friendly with Ariel Sharon, Tzippi Livni and Shaul Mofaz for years. He was interviewed in the Makor Rishon newspaper some time ago and said he was switching support from Livno to Mofaz in the recent primaries (helping Mofaz win) because Mofaz promised jobs to his people (Dabah controlled IIRC over one thousand Arab members of KADIMAH ). Same with Arabs who vote for SHAS since SHAS looks out for their local interests. Nothing unusual about this.

          Reply to Comment
        • noam

          Sinjim, that’s not true. A small minority of Arabs who vote for Zionist parties are Druze. True, most Druze vote Zionist, but they are so little. and anyway I wasn’t talking about the irrelevance of a jewish arab divide

          Reply to Comment
          • noam

            sorry comment broke off…divide. I was merely commenting that the dichotomy is not at all THAT obvious. I have a feeling many internationals don’t really understand the more surprising (and relevant) nuances of Israeli politics. I’m sure noam does understand them, you just can’t always touch everything. I just thought that he mention of the arab vote was missing.

            Reply to Comment
          • Sinjim

            I’m going to use concrete numbers taken from this study of the Palestinian vote in the last election to avoid any obfuscations.

            In 2009, only 17.25% of the 54% of Palestinians who thought voting in a Zionist election was worth it voted for Zionist parties. That’s about 9.3% of the total Palestinian population. For the record, the Druze are about 9% of the total Palestinian population. Obviously, voter turnout among the Druze is not 100% nor does it all go to Zionist parties. But even if they don’t count for the majority of that 9%, that still means over 90% of Palestinians did not vote for Zionists in the last election.

            If that isn’t evidence of an obvious divide, I have no idea in heaven or hell what the hell would be.

            Reply to Comment
    2. David Ranan

      Splendid and clear analysis. As such, it would have been a joy to read had the contents not been so depressing.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Mitchell Cohen

      Love or hate the Likud, you got to hand it to them. They seem to be the most rock solid party in Israel for a LONG time. Even with all the right-wing alternatives (Bayit Hayehudi, Ichud HaLeumi, Yisrael Beiteinu, etc.), the Likud seems to be as firm as oak, while the mainstream left can’t seem to get their act together. Perhaps the left (which I am not) can learn a thing or two from the Likud (which I am also not).

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        You are quite right. When Sharon broke up the Likud, the Leftist chattering classes were saying that the Likud was finished, but the Likud came back and it is Sharon’s bastard child KADIMAH that looks like it is finished. The Left has spent the last 30 years trying to find a way to wrest a significant number of voters away from the Right-wing bloc, first by wooing the Agudat Israel-Degel HaTorah Askenazi Hardi bloc during the “stinking maneuver” of 1990, then getting SHAS to support the Labor-MERETZ narrow Oslo coalition in 1992, then the big prize by getting Sharon and 2/3 of the then-Likud MK’s to go to the Left by betraying their voters by destroying Gush Katif and then splitting off to form KADIMAH. Now, the Left is banking on Deri setting up a party that is supposed to pull SHAS voters to his new Leftist party. Every time the Likud and the other Right-wing parties bounce back. The Leftist political hacks really don’t understand the most Israeli voters amd think most Right-wing voters are basically ignorant rabble that vote for the Right “out of emotions” or because the Likud is supposedly a “Mizrachi” party so if some charismatic “Right-wing” figure can jump to the Left, most voters of the Right bloc will blindly follow him like sheep. This has repeatedly been proven false…the Right has a solid program of ideology and values that apparently appeals to or is at least tolerable to the majority of the population.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Moriel Rothman

      Nice piece, Noam.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Gil Franco

      It would be interesting to see some analysis of the Russian vote. My understanding was they voted for Lieberman’s party with him promising to work for civil marriage which he obviously couldn’t care less about. Any chance they will look elsewhere this time?

      Reply to Comment
      • The really interesting part is the children of Russians who immigrated in the early 90s and now get to vote for 1st or 2ed time. Polls say most go to the right but I heard that the secular Left and center, especially Meretz and Lapid, believe that they can pick up some votes there.

        Reply to Comment
    6. David m

      Ein Atid should be the counter left party
      Making clear that Bibi leads to nowhere…

      Reply to Comment