Tel Aviv — Faced with a fractious coalition that was bleeding his popularity, Benjamin Netanyahu gambled this week by abandoning his 20-month-old government and calling early elections to seek a fourth term as prime minister.
The move sets off a campaign that many expect will frame the election as a referendum on Netanyahu’s personal leadership, rather than on ideological debates over Israel-Palestinian relations, said analysts. It marks the first time in more than 50 years that Israel will hold parliamentary elections at such a short interval, a reminder of the country’s chronically unstable election system.
Addressing the country Tuesday at a press conference capping 24 hours of political drama in which the prime minister sealed his political divorce from Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Netanyahu said he had decided to seek a new mandate from voters because, he said, infighting and insubordination in his coalition had made governing impossible.
“This government, from the day of its birth, has been a rebellious government, that was forced on me because of the results of the elections, because the Likud Party didn’t get enough mandates,” he said.
Since the parliament reconvened after the Jewish holidays in October, there has been escalating spats over defense spending, an expensive tax break for home buyers, and a controversial proposal to pass a quasi-constitutional law to enshrine Israel’s character as a Jewish state.
In an indication of the estrangement among the coalition partners, he accused both Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni — who made up the coalition’s centrist-dovish wing — of attempting a “putsch” by seeking to set up an alternative government with ultra-Orthodox parties. Throughout Monday and into the night, Netanyahu held a series of meetings with coalition leaders culminating in a faceoff with Lapid, in which the prime minister essentially gave him an ultimatum to concede to Netanyahu’s positions or face new elections.
Lapid on Tuesday attacked Netanyahu for refusing to compromise, cutting “old-style” backroom deals with other parties, and forcing an unnecessary election. Livni had already shifted into campaign mode, with ads showing a road junction signpost revealing a stark choice between “extremism” and “Zionism.”
The collapse brings to an end a coalition that was a political oddity from the start: despite clashing views about the peace process, Lapid joined with the pro-settler leader Naftali Bennett to force Netanyahu into setting up a coalition focused on socioeconomic issues such as forcing ultra-Orthodox Jews into the army and workforce. In recent months, the glue binding the partners disappeared, making the coalition unruly. Through it all, Netanyahu not only clashed with the centrist forces in the coalition, but he also locked horns with the right-wing Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who thrashed him during the Gaza war for not using the military to bring down Hamas. Still, until a month ago, most political analysts believed that none of the members of the coalition saw a new vote in their interest. What changed Netanyahu’s calculation?
“The prime minister woke up in the morning and found that his allies actually no longer consider him prime minister, except in title only,” said Amit Segal, a political commentator for Channel 2 television news in a conference call with reporters.
Segal mentioned support in the coalition for a bill to force the public to pay money for Yisrael Hayom, a free daily newspaper funded by Sheldon Adelson that is widely considered a vehicle to promote Netanyahu’s positions. “He saw this as a step in a putsch in which he would find himself outside the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. Therefore he decided to set up an election on terms preferable to him.”
Segal has said that the coalition lacked a political common denominator, an observation echoed by Moshe Feiglin, a rival to the prime minister within the Likud Party. Feiglin said the government collapsed because a lack of a common agenda between Netanyahu’s nationalist Likud and dovish parties pushing for a land-for-peace compromise with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu begins the campaign as the clear front-runner. A Channel 2 television survey indicated that a coalition of right-wing and religious parties would win 76 seats in the 120-member parliament. Meanwhile, two recent polls in Haaretz and Globes showed the prime minister outpacing his nearest competition, opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog of the left-wing Labor Party, when people were asked about which leader is most suited to being prime minster.
However, a Haaretz poll showed Netanyahu’s approval rating at 38 percent, down from 50 percent at the end of August. That and other sagging approval ratings suggest that Netanyahu — the longest serving prime minister after David Ben-Gurion — is vulnerable to attack, say analysts.
Eyal Arad, a veteran Israeli campaign strategist who worked on Netanyahu’s 1996 election, said the prime minister’s approval ratings are low for an incumbent and compared to his approval ratings just six months ago.
“These elections have no agenda, because no one seems to understand what are the differences that have brought about the collapse of the coalition. What happens in such cases is that [the election] becomes a referendum on the incumbent.”
Analysts argued that there is widespread fatigue from Netanyahu that cuts across the Israeli political spectrum beyond the doves. The prime minister’s Likud Party has watched Avigdor Lieberman quit the alliance formed in the last election, an up-and-coming minister, Moshe Kahlon, bolt to establish his own party, and a former Netanyahu ally, Gideon Saar, retire from the cabinet — all reportedly because of disputes with the prime minister. “I don’t see any big names joining,” said Arad.
What’s more, Netanyahu has lost a long-time calling card as the “counterterrorism prime minister”: his inability to avoid a mixed conclusion of this summer’s war against Hamas, and the chronic violence over recent months in Jerusalem, have led many to rethink his tough-on-terror image.
That said, the public sentiment is largely in line with his positions on the peace process, which blame Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for the collapse of talks. Left-wing parties will be hard-pressed to make headway on peace talks. “They can’t really conduct a campaign whose emphasis is on the peace process, because nobody gives a damn about the peace process,” said Aviv Bushinsky, a former spokesman. “There’s no process. They don’t have a many alternatives.”
The prime minister is also open to attack for not making enough progress to constrain rising housing and food prices after he promised a series of reforms to respond to the 2011 social protests in Tel Aviv. Over the last year, Kahlon, a popular former communications minister under Netanyahu, set up a new party to focus on socioeconomic issues; it could end up stealing votes from both Likud and Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party.
The next closest challenger appears to be Labor Party Chairman Yitzhak Herzog. Labor has started to dust off slogans from the 1999 unseating of Netanyahu, alleging Israel is “stuck” under his leadership.
But the center-left remains fractured among three midsized to small parties as in previous elections in recent years. Despite calls on the left for politicians like Herzog, Tzipi Livni and Lapid to join together and form a joint slate that could have a shot at getting a plurality of seats, the prospects for cooperation are not assured because it would force two of the leaders to compromise about who would lead such a list. Strategic consultant Arad said he believes such a combination could be a game-changing development in the parliament.
Ultimately he said, fatigue with Netanyahu and Likud, which has ruled with only brief interruption over the last 36 years, opens up an opportunity.
“It helps [Netanyahu] because he looks like the only veteran politician, but people also want something new,” he said. “The country is ripe for change, the only question is whether the liberal leadership can rise to the challenge.”