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September 26, 2016 / 23 Elul, 5776
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The Next Round: Will Netanyahu Retain His Title?

For Lapid to successfully challenge Netanyahu, he will need to find the right time for a strategic exit from the government.

Benjamin Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu
Photo Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Netanyahu had no real opponent in the recent election for Israel’s 19th Knesset, making his re-election clear before elections were even announced. Thus, despite what many analysts graded as the worst campaign of the Knesset’s 12 parties, the alliance between the Prime Minister and former Foreign Minister Lieberman resulted in a clear win of 31 seats for Likud Beitenu. Second place Yair Lapid was the surprise of the elections, winning 19 seats, and he quickly announced he was looking to be a coalition member and not the Opposition Leader.

This Friday, Smith conducted a poll published by Globes, which put Prime Minister Netanyahu’s center-right Likud-Beitenu and Finance Minister Lapid’s center-left Yesh Atid at a 30-30 tie.  While polling is not an exact science, polls provide us with the latest voting trends and they are the best tool we have for predicting election results. The Smith poll is significant because Smith is not only one of the highest rated polling companies, but it most accurately predicted the 2013 election results.

In addition, the Smith poll makes Lapid the first contender to achieve that kind of success in a mid-term poll since Kadima, under Tzipi Livni, hit 30 seats in polls following Ehud Barak’s split from Labor in early 2011.  Friday’s poll also indicated that the two other current self-labeled center parties, led by Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz, would fail to pass the threshold in a new election, with their eight seats likely heading to Yesh Atid.

Ever since Netanyahu climbed to the top of the polls in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, there has been a shift of support from the traditional ideological left vs. right vote to the “Netanyahu & friends” vs. the “Anti-Netanyahu” vote. This phenomenon was evident when extreme left-wing party Meretz dropped to three seats in the 2009 elections because left-wing voters supported Tzipi Livni, hoping she would defeat Netanyahu.

In that election, Livni won 29 mandates, but Netanyahu, with 28 mandates, nevertheless formed the coalition. After Barak formed the Independence party and Labor faced another possible split led by MK Amir Peretz, polls showed that Labor voters began to support Livni. A few months later, however, voters have pulled their support from Livni. That’s because while Netanyahu hasn’t had any real competition since – he has now.

Although the current government has an unconventional make-up, splitting the Knesset into its traditional blocks, the key to the next government, shows a tie between the right and left. The poll gives the right-religious block of Likud-Beitenu, Bayit Yehudi, Shas and UTJ 60 seats. The center-left-Arab block of Yesh Atid, Labor, Meretz, Hadash, Ra’am-Ta’al and Balad win the other 60. One could argue that the Arab parties would never join a coalition, but splitting the seats between the traditional blocks gives a good indication for Netanyahu’s chances of forming a government. That’s because one can expect members of the center-left block to not join a Netanyahu government unless they expect him to form a coalition without them.

Many in the ideological-left camp feel that Labor, the third largest party, will be a big player in the next election. But Labor ran as the alternative to the Netanyahu government this past election and won a disappointing 15 seats. The Smith poll has Labor falling to 12, lower than the 13 seats Labor achieved under Ehud Barak in the 2009 elections. Labor, which has seen six leadership changes in the last dozen years, has become somewhat of a joke in many political circles. It seems highly unlikely that the party, under whichever leader it chooses, will be able to convince the Israeli voter to yet again look to them as the alternative to Netanyahu.

Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi came in fourth place in the recent elections with 12 seats. Bennett is an obvious future candidate for Prime Minister and will be a key player in the next election. The Smith poll has Bennett’s party in third place which means that after the next elections, he may have a chance to play the traditional kingmaker role of Israeli politics deciding between his former boss Prime Minister Netanyahu and his new best friend Yair Lapid. The thought of Bennett not backing the right-wing candidate seems improbable, but not if Netanyahu treats Bennett during this administration as poorly as he did in the weeks following the recent elections.

Some might argue that another “Lapid” could overnight sweep the nation with a new party and change the polls. But the chances of two consecutive “wave” elections in which new blood succeeds in shifting the political landscape seems unlikely. That means that for the time being Lapid remains the only true alternative to Netanyahu.

For Lapid, victory is possible if he shows that he is capable of instituting change on the domestic level. His chances increase as Labor’s Knesset members continue to fight each other and that party collapses. Most importantly, Lapid will need to find the right time for a strategic exit from the government. When Lapid leaves the government, Netanyahu will be forced to try to form a new government or head towards new elections. If Lapid plays his cards right, he can find the correct political window in which Netanyahu would be forced to do the latter.

For Netanyahu to retain the Prime Minister’s office he must keep his Likud-Beitenu Knesset members and ministers satisfied which might prove difficult. At the same time, he must consolidate control over the faction by merging Likud and Yisrael Beitenu. Then, Netanyahu needs to figure out how the next party list can be elected in a way where he can control the composition the list as occurred with Yesh Atid, where Lapid handpicked loyalists. If Netanyahu can succeed in doing the latter two with Lieberman by his side he will have his house in order.

That might necessitate overturning the “Mofaz Law” which allows seven Knesset members to split from a large party, especially if Netanyahu plans on sacking more than six of his 31 MKs. One might argue that all of these decisions seem undemocratic or untrue to the Likud’s principles, but the reality is that while party activists will complain, Netanyahu envies the Lieberman-Lapid-Livni political business model that gives the party leader complete power.

Netanyahu treated Naftali Bennett extremely poorly during and after the election and that led to the unexpected Bennett-Lapid bond. That bond almost sent Israel to repeat elections and forced Netanyahu to make a number of concessions. Netanyahu could have acted differently towards Bennett and formed a larger coalition with Bayit Yehudi as the largest coalition partner. (The possible 69-seat coalition of Likud-Beitenu, Bayit Yehudi, Shas, UTJ, Livni and Kadima could have sent Lapid to the opposition. With Lapid in the opposition Netanyahu’s associates could have found a way to break up Yesh Atid during the course of the term). As Bennett may very well become the kingmaker after the next elections, it is imperative for Netanyahu to offer friendship to Bennett in order distance Bennett from Lapid.

Also key to Netanyahu’s success is to maintain warm relations with the ultra-orthodox Shas and UTJ parties while they sit in the opposition. Netanyahu knows that the ultra-orthodox are naturally inclined to form a coalition with him over Lapid who has become their worst nightmare. But if in a surprise scenario, Labor does come in second place winning more seats than Lapid, left-leaning Shas leader Aryeh Dery and UTJ could back Labor’s candidate.  Therefore, Netanyahu needs to make them feel as though they received a fair shake during their time in the opposition.

Of course if Prime Minister Netanyahu isn’t the man to lead Likud Beitenu in the next elections, all bets are off.

Jeremy Saltan

About the Author: Jeremy Saltan is a frequent guest on various radio programs and and a veteran political analyst. He has run political campaigns in English and Hebrew for Israeli municipality, party institution, primary and general elections. Jeremy’s opinion pieces have been published, quoted or credited by Voice of America, Daily Beast, France 24, Washington Post, BBC, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, Israel National News and the Jewish Press and more.


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