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Israel Elections: Netanyahu’s New Coalition Troubles

An Israeli flag is seen in the background as a man casts his ballot at a polling in a West Bank Jewish settlement, north of Ramallah (REUTERS/Baz Ratner).

Update: Exit polls indeed suggest a very narrow victory for Netanyahu’s right wing/religious bloc. The results suggest a difficult task ahead for Netanyahu of building—and maintaining—a stable coalition.

Israelis head to the polls today—January 22—to elect the 19th Knesset, Israel’s parliament. With current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s return all but assured, these elections at first glance lack drama and indeed, the campaign has been relatively subdued. But slightly beneath the surface, deep political and societal changes on both the right and on the left could alter the future of Israeli politics and foreign policy. That potential, however, might not manifest for a few more years, until another round of parliamentary elections.

While a Netanyahu victory suggests overall continuity in Israel’s foreign policy and U.S.-Israeli relations, the Israeli political landscape’s drift to the right, in some respects, and the make-up of the new Knesset may threaten the very stability of his government, should it face pressures on the Palestinian issue in particular. This suggests less flexibility by Netanyahu in governing on the Palestinian issue, but also raises the prospect of another round of elections before President Obama’s second term is through.

A Fractured Campaign Agenda

The outgoing Israeli government was relatively stable and long-serving by Israeli standards, where early elections are the norm rather than the exception. This is not likely to be a trend. In recent decades as the major parties have shrunk, coalition formation has become even more complex. The 19th Knesset will likely convene with at least a dozen factions, which may splinter further during the Knesset’s term. 

Given this, most political parties in Israel entered this election campaign less with the aim of defeating Netanyahu outright and more with an eye toward increasing their own power and gaining a better position in coalition negotiations. While the opposition pays lip-service to the notion of an electoral victory, opposition politicians are visibly jockeying for positions in light of Netanyahu’s re-election. Indeed, early in the campaign, it appeared that the leaders of the major opposition parties, including Shelly Yacimovich of Labor, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni of the Movement, and journalist-cum-politician Yair Lapid of the newly established Yesh Atid party, were hoping to join Netanyahu’s cabinet. They each carved out a niche agenda, hoping to attract a different segment of the opposition vote, but failed to form a united front to mount a genuine challenge to Netanyahu in the elections. With this fragmentation on the left and in the center, deeper changes in Israeli society have emerged into the political arena, exposing domestic differences that are usually masked by the foreign policy debate.

The right also reveals brewing change. While Netanyahu’s leadership of his own camp is unchallenged, he now finds himself with a transformed right wing, consisting of far-right candidates in his own Likud party and a resurgent national-religious party headed by newcomer and this election’s rising star Naftali Bennett. 

Taken together, Netanyahu faces a daunting task of reconciling a polarized political landscape in one coalition. If in his next term foreign policy issues do not create pressure on Netanyahu his coalition may end the term early. This was his fate during his first term as Prime Minister from 1996-1999.

Outlook for the Next Coalition

The key question to be answered in today’s election – assuming Netanyahu’s bloc indeed wins a majority – is the size of Netanyahu’s Likud/Yisrael Beitenu joint list, and thus the leverage he will bring to negotiating his governing coalition. Should Netanyahu’s own faction be large enough, he will be able to form a relatively stable coalition with either the right or the center, granting him leverage over negotiations with either. 

However, should the Likud list drop to the low 30s in terms of MKs, as some polls have suggested, and the combined right-wing/religious bloc to the low 60s (of 120 MKs), Netanyahu will not be able to form a right-wing/religious coalition stable enough to sustain pressure on Palestinian issues or other contentious questions (including budget cuts and legislation on religion-and-state issues). In this case, Netanyahu will be forced to turn to the center, without the leverage of a credible alternative to reduce the demands of centrist parties.
And yet, the center in the next Knesset is expected to be significantly smaller than it was, therefore it will likely not suffice to grant Netanyahu a stable coalition, according to the latest polls. It may well be that Netanyahu, in other wods, will be forced to bring in both right wing or religious parties and center parties, reconciling them with each other in coalition negotiations and the division of sensitive portfolios. Moreover, he will have to maintain this polarized coalition in the face of foreign policy pressures and difficult fiscal decisions looming throughout his next term.

Foreign Policy Outlook

Beyond the fractured Knesset and the rise of extremists in his own party, Netanyahu also faces a diplomatic challenge: with the exit of Defense Minister Ehud Barak from the Knesset and the retirement of President Shimon Peres in two years, Netanyahu loses Israel’s main public faces to the world. Other interlocuters to Washington may also be absent, including Dan Meridor and even Ambassador Michael Oren (rumored to be leaving his post at the end of his term next year). Netanyahu, conscious of Israel’s difficulties in the international arena, may well try to bring some of these figures back into the cabinet on a personal rather than party basis.

The same logic would suggest that Netanyahu will strive to bring in to his coalition centrist figures, such as Tzipi Livni, to soften the image of his government abroad. However, the inclusion of moderates in the coalition may, in fact, have little impact on Israel’s foreign policy. For instance, on the Iranian question, the lines of the debate in Israel do not run parallel to those in the Palestinian arena. Some relative doves on the Palestinian issue are hawks on Iran, and vice versa.

Moreover, the main result of the fractured and polarized Knesset and coalition will be paralysis rather than moderation. Since the center will not suffice to support a coalition on its own, and since Labor is likely to remain in the opposition for the time being, Netanyahu will have to secure his right flank in order to survive politically. To do so, he will probably opt for continuation of the foreign policy status quo as much as possible. This is especially likely given Netanyahu’s own singular focus on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, and his own preference to avoid any dramatic changes on the Palestinian issue.

And yet, for those hoping for change in Israeli policy, the fractured and polarized political arena offers a glimmer of hope for the future. Should there be any U.S. diplomatic movement on the Palestinian question, the pressures within Netanyahu’s coalition may lead to early elections. Netanyahu may find himself having to move toward the center to placate the United States and his centrist coalition partners, while risking an outright revolt from his right and from his own back bench.

Furthermore, in Israel’s next election, the social and political processes outlined above on both the right and the left may change the political landscape considerably. Labor may emerge stronger, and clearer lines between the dominant political blocs may emerge. Most importantly, the current fragmentation in the political center and the lack of a centrist leader may be resolved before the elections to the 20th Knesset. In short, Netanyahu’s likely victory today may spell stagnation on many foreign policy issues for awhile, but the seeds of more fundamental political change in Israel may also be planted by the results announced tonight.

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