Netanyahu's poll gamble

ISRAEL POLITICS: The PM hopes results will deliver more seats for his Likud Party and a manageable government made up of rightist allies.

Netanyahu's poll gamble

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s snap poll gamble to test support for his economic policy yielded him a new two-thirds political majority earlier this month. It is unclear, however, if his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu’s poll gamble three months hence to retest and even enhance support for his hardline political policy will yield the desired mandate.

Netanyahu’s December first week announcement sacking two centrist ministers was not only the end of his less-than-two-year-old coalition government, but also the start of his campaign for the March 2015 election. Netanyahu hopes the results will deliver more seats for his Likud Party and a more manageable government made up of rightist allies and the ultra-orthodox parties.

Among the factors that contributed to the political crisis and dissolution of the Knesset were: one, the nationality bill, which emphasised Israel’s Jewish character above its democratic principles, offending many and exposing vast differences among ministers and citizens; two, the ‘betrayal’ by right-wing dissenters within Netanyahu’s own coalition; three, a “putsch” or ‘coup’ attempt by some publicly critical centrist ministers; and four, a natural consequence of political and diplomatic embarrassment for Netanyahu’s government following several European parliaments voting to recognise the State of Palestine.

In addition, the breakdown of American-brokered peace negotiations with the Palestinians earlier this year, Finance Minister Yasir Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s criticism of Netanyahu’s settlement construction plans, which contributed to international condemnation and differences over economic policies weakened the coalition.
Together, Israel entered turbulent waters again, less than six months after it was involved in a 50-day war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which killed more than 2,000 Palestinians and ended without achieving the intended goal of ‘defeating’ the resistance force.

While looking ahead, there seems to be worse in store. Some of the first pre-poll surveys suggest that there is yet again little scope for a clear mandate. In Israel’s fractured political scene, no single party ever wins a parliamentary majority, necessitating coalitions. This means that apart from political instability, the war-affected economy – which has slowed down for the first time in five years – is unlikely to gain momentum.

Netanyahu’s game plan is to use the election to recalibrate and regain control over his core right-wing constituency. His campaign is rooted in three principles: stopping a nuclear Iran, seeking Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and pursuing construction in Arab East Jerusalem. The three-term premier is banking on some surveys indicating that his party is likely to retain 20-24 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

His opponents, however, argue that Netanyahu’s return would mean more violence and international condemnation. At present, Jordan is bidding to get the UN Security Council to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories by November 2016, amid a spate of symbolic recognitions of a Palestinian state by Britain, Ireland, Sweden, Spain, France, and perhaps more in future.

To start with, however, Netanyahu’s first hurdle lies within his own Likud party. Former interior minister Gideon Saar, who is yet to announce his candidature, is a 43:38 favourite over Netanyahu in the eyes of general public.

Netanyahu’s next hurdle lies within his possible coalition partners. His erstwhile political partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, of the Israel Our Home party, is in favour of a “peace plan” endorsing a two-state solution. This makes Lieberman project himself as an alternative to Netanyahu and a working partner for the United States, which is exhausted by the former premier’s peace-stalling tactics. In fact, leaked reports claim that the otherwise Israel-friendly White House is even considering imposing sanctions on Israel for persisting with its illegal settlements.

The third hurdle is the Israeli public opinion – 65 per cent do not want Netanyahu back as prime minister, even though there is just one other serious alternative on the horizon, which is Netanyahu’s fourth challenge – Labour Party leader Isaac Herzog, who could lead an alternative front of ‘left’ and centrist parties despite their credibility being nothing much to crow about in recent years.

Rival plans

This plan revolves around an anti-Netanyahu grouping led by Labour’s Herzog, Hatnua party leader Livni, Yesh Atid party’s Lapid and possibly even Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz. In fact, there is a possibility that a combination of these parties may just about pip Likud at the post.

In fact, Herzog said in an interview that he has “chance of a lifetime” to oust Netanyahu in the upcoming elections and form a centre-left government. Backing Herzog’s confidence was a poll that showed the Labour Party and Herzog gaining over Likud Netanyahu. Interestingly, one poll suggested that 22 per cent preferred Herzog as their prime minister, just one point behind Netanyahu.

Ironically, however, when asked by pollsters which party they would vote for, 39 per cent said their preference would remain the same as in the January 2013 elections, 27 per cent said they would change their preference, 17  were undecided, and six per cent would not vote. The rest said ‘do not know’.

In such a milieu, any result will most likely yield yet another coalition that may create more political problems than provide solutions for which the entire election exercise is being undertaken. This also means that the chance of peace weaving its way back into the Palestinian-Israeli imbroglio is also limited.

Thus, if Netanyahu manages to overcome all these challenges and return as prime minister, he would have played his stakes well in the gamble. If not, it would indicate that Japanese prime minister is better at political gambling!

(The writer is a Dubai-based political analyst and honorary fellow of the University of Exeter, UK)

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