BICOM Analysis: Why new elections and what to expect

Why has Netanyahu called elections?

Israel looks set to return to the polls in a general election on 17 March. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his speech on Tuesday evening, made clear that he was returning to the voters to try and secure a stronger personal mandate and a more manageable coalition. He contrasted the relative stability of his 2009-2013 government with the current coalition which he found much harder to manage. He accused his coalition partners of an attempted ‘putsch’ to unseat him by forming an alternative coalition – an accusation they reject – and called on voters to back his Likud party to bring stability to the government.

In the current coalition, Netanyahu’s faction is in fact smaller with 18 seats than Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid faction with 19. The two leaders have been increasingly at odds on a host of issues. Netanyahu chose in his speech to highlight differences on diplomatic and security policies – issues which usually play well for him politically. But in recent weeks the tensions have been over the budget and controversial legislation to anchor Israel’s Jewish character in a new Basic Law.

Netanyahu will be betting on current polling numbers, which suggest that Netanyahu can hope to grow the Likud to over 20 seats, whilst Lapid drops in support. He will likely then hope to base a coalition after the election on an alliance with Naftali Bennett’s right wing Jewish Home party, which the polls predict will expand to between 15-18 seats, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party. Such an axis would be a basis on which to then make up a majority with a range of smaller factions from other areas of the political spectrum, including the ultra-Orthodox parties, Yesh Atid, Moshe Kahlon’s yet unnamed newly formed social issues party, or even Labour.

Will Netanyahu’s gamble pay off at the polls?

Netanyahu’s wager is no sure thing and there are many sources of uncertainty. The polls are sure to shift in the three and half months of campaigning, and election results in Israel frequently defy the pollsters’ predictions, with many voters undecided up until the last minute.

Currently polls show that Netanyahu is still the candidate considered by far the most appropriate to be Prime Minister, and that he will campaign heavily on his own personal leadership being vital for the country’s security and stability. But after nearly six years in office, and 20 years in the front rank of Israeli politics, there is fatigue among the electorate, and the voters may blame Netanyahu for dragging the country into a premature election. Some analysts believe the summer conflict and recent terror attacks have seriously dented Netanyahu’s public image as a guarantor of quiet and security. Certainly there has been talk among political commentators of a mood among rival party leaders of ‘anyone but Bibi’.

In 2013, centre-left factions were unable to unite around a single candidate to rival Netanyahu, but the possibility remains that they could do so this time. Certainly Labour leader Isaac Herzog would like to be that candidate, but Yesh Atid ministers are saying that this time round, their leader Yair Lapid is the credible alternative. Tzipi Livni will face a decision of whether to run with her own list as in 2013, and risk falling below the new 3.25 per cent electoral threshold, or to merge with a larger faction. Meanwhile Naftali Bennett has been surging in the polls, and could threaten Netanyahu’s mantle as the leader of the Israeli right.

Another perennial source of uncertainty in Israeli elections is the role played by new entrants. The most significant currently is Moshe Kahlon, the popular former Likud Minister whose new party is polling around 10 seats, without even having announced a list of candidates. However, all the parties will be looking to bring in new ‘star names’ – typically high profile figures from the security establishment or the media – to attract more voters.

Arab parties will also have to consider their approach to the elections. The higher threshold threatens their prospects of entering the Knesset, and will force them to consider a merger, though this could in fact improve their combined representation.

What will happen after the election?

As difficult to predict as the polling itself, is the coalition building process which will take place afterwards. Parties typically avoid making clear commitments in advance of the polls about who they will support to form a coalition, thereby maximising their leverage in coalition negotiations. As the outgoing coalition showed, the classic framework for looking at the Knesset in terms of left and right wing blocks is increasingly unhelpful, and unlikely pacts and alliances may emerge after the vote, just as they did in 2013.

Whilst the current most likely scenario remains another Netanyahu led-coalition, a change of Prime Minister is possible, with Isaac Herzog or Yair Lapid to Netanyahu’s left, and even Naftali Bennett to Netanyahu’s right, possible contenders. A more left-leaning candidate who would be more conciliatory on the Palestinian issue would clearly be welcome in European capitals and with the current US administration, whilst the opposite can be said of Bennett.

Whatever government is formed, it seems unlikely that any one party will be strong enough to dominate, making whatever coalition emerges, likely to be another fragile beast.

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