Photo Credit: Yori Yanover
Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Bibi Netanyahu, Avigdor Liberman, and Shelly Yachimovich will be vying for a share of Israel's political center.

One of the reasons cited for Netanyahu’s opting for a blitz election is that he wanted to deny his opponents the time needed for building a brand new centrist block that could defeat him. Indeed, in the last elections Netanyahu actually came second, after Tzipi Livni’s Kadima that ran with the slogan: “Tzipi or Bibi.” The Israeli voter picked Tzipi over Bibi by one seat – but Bibi turned out to be a more shrewd player, who managed to outmaneuver Tzipi.

This time around, knowing he could be facing Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu created the best possible situation for himself, given that he is still a very popular incumbent. As of today, more than 30% of Israelis see him as their next prime minister, while everyone else is scoring less than 20%.


Netanyahu had to call for new elections for several more reasons, the gravest of them being the new budget. As revenues were down last year, and with the country’s economy being affected by the rest of the world’s economies, the prime minister could not find strong support among his coalition partners for the new budget that probably would feature serious cuts combined with some tax increases.

Rather than risk his political future, Netanyahu opted for the smarter option of getting a fresh mandate from the voter and only then inflicting the necessary cruel and unusual things on the national budget.

The two juggernauts that are expected to get even more juggernauty on the right are Likud, which should push its current 27 seats to somewhere above 30, recapturing some of the votes that will be abandoning the Kadima party (which is currently sailing on a course that should lead it into an iceberg come election day) and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (Israel our Home), which could go up from its current 15 seats to as many as 18.

Liberman is expected to make a few changes in his party parliamentary list: he will probably drop the spirited MK Anastassia Michaeli, who made world headlines and scored major You Tube views when she poured a glass of water on unsuspecting Israeli-Arab MK Raleb Majadele during a heated committee meeting and then compounded her problems with a comment about gay people and suicide. Liberman may also dump current Tourism, Minister Stas Misezhnikov, who has developed a reputation for taking a personal interest in the wild entertainment Israel offers tourists after hours. On the other hand, Liberman has just acquired and made into his faction’s number two man the late PM Yitzhak Shamir’s son, Yair Shamir, who should be able to draw extra votes from the Likud and other Zionist right-wing parties. While current member Danny Ayalon has proven himself to be a very talented and popular politician and will probably move up on the list.

Liberman is a natural ally of Likud (he used to be chairman of the Likud and then served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff), but it is not difficult to imagine him allying with Ehud Olmert, in whose government he served both as minister and as vice premier.

Israeli politics is a lot more volatile than most, and Netanyahu is facing a serious threat, especially if Ehud Olmert is able to parachute back into the ring. In the end, we owe Bibi a debt of gratitude, regardless of the final results: at least it will be over quickly.

No one is expected to lose as much as the Kadima faction, which is the largest Knesset faction today, with 28 seats. At this point it is not expected to collect even ten seats. However, the political left-of-center coalition that gave life to Kadima under Ariel Sharon is in hot pursuit of a new vehicle these days. Relentless coalition builder and king maker Chaim Ramon is attempting to cobble together a winning ticket comprised of newcomer Yair Lapid, unseated former Kadima chair Tzipi Livni, and former prime minister Ehud Olmert, whose light sentence in a recent corruption trial should enable him to jump back into public life relatively unscathed.

Netanyahu may be the most popular leader in Israel today, but the Likud under his leadership could face a nightmare scenario. The Likud members who are associated with the settlement movement are furious with Netanyahu, and it may lead them to seek out a different party to trust with their votes.

For one thing, the Likud government has yet to adopt the recommendations of the Justice Levi committee, which urged Netanyahu to apply Israeli laws to the settlements in Judea and Samaria. For another, the same government has not actually finalized the status of Ariel University in Samaria. Add to that the shabby way in which Netanyahu has been treating that block’s champion Moshe Feiglin, and you could imagine a situation in which Likud’s wings are clipped just a little bit, despite Netanyahu’s numbers.

Recent polls have been promising Netanyahu’s Likud party a 68 seat majority in the 120-member Knesset, even without the support of Defense Minister Ehud Barak. But given a strong combination of Ramon’s creation with Labor and Meretz, supported by the Arab factions, the Haredi parties along with Shas could be tempted to join, for the right price.

United Torah Judaism is expected to retain its current five seats, and even increase it to six seats. Shas will have to find creative ways of overcoming the power struggle over its political leadership, between its former leader Aryeh Deri, free at last from a stint in prison, and its current boss, Interior Minister Eli Yishai. Rumors suggest that Shas’ spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is planning to assign Deri to go after the post of mayor of Jerusalem, thus calming the water between the two men’s supporters. With this proviso (meaning Deri will not compete independently for a Knesset seat), Shas should be able to hold on to its 11 seats. A left-leaning coalition led by Olmert and supported by the two Ultra Orthodox parties and the Arabs could scramble Bibi’s best laid plans.

The Israel Labor Party, which today is down to single digits—having led every single government until 1977, and several more since—is expected to emerge from its grimmest period, under the leadership of former journalist Shelly Yachimovich. The polls are predicting better than 20 seats for Labor in the 19th Knesset–taking back the votes it lost to Kadima, making it the second largest faction.

Another party that has seen better days is Meretz. Back in 1992, with its 12 seats, Meretz was a senior partner in Yitzchak Rabin’s coalition government that gave us the Oslo Accords. These days, though, Meretz is down to three members, which could still give it a ticket into a left-leaning coalition, with a minor portfolio, assuming it passes the minimal 2% threshold. (Each Knesset seat is worth 0.8% of the vote – but only parties which earned 2% or more can cash their votes).

A left-leaning coalition will likely receive a vote of confidence from Hadash, The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality with its four members (three Arabs, one Jew), which will probably retain all or most of its seats. The Palestinian, Islamist faction Ra’am-Ta’al, with its four members, will also offer its tacit support to a left-of-center coalition government.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s Haatzma’ut (Independence) faction currently has five members. The faction split from the Labor party in early 2011. This faction is expected to be one of the losers in the coming election, and it may not even be able to cross the 2% threshold . Barak is busy these days shopping for a possible new home, after it has been made clear to him that he would not be treated preferentially as a potential Likud member.

Habayit Hayehudi – New National Religious Party, and Ichud Leumi, the National Union, are expected to run together as the newest incarnation of the historic MaFDaL (National Religious Party, NRP). The two factions held seven seats altogether in the outgoing 18th Knesset. National Religious activists are hoping for a better showing in the coming election, pointing to NRP’s hold over between 10 and 12 seats from 1955 to 1977. But as of now, no reliable poll is predicting this kind of yield to the new, unified list.

It’s possible, though, that if the two parties do end up running as one list, they could end up with eight or nine seats rather than their current seven seats. Many voters were turned off by what they felt was an unnatural split between the parties in the last election and delivered their votes elsewhere in protest.

Still, both Religious-Zionist factions suffer from the fact that the National Religious voter does not feel beholden to them and usually prefers to bolster a major right-wing player such as Likud. I suspect that this sad fact of Israeli political life will be even more evident considering the serious security issues which will be facing the next Israeli government.

Though one advantage all the second-tier right-wing parties have over the Likud is that while many right-wing voters want the Likud to lead the coalition, they were very disappointed with the settlement freeze and and other Netanyahu-led actions that were against the wishes of his natural voting block, which might lead them to vote for the other right-wing potential coalition partners in order to keep the Netanyahu lead government in line.

Netanyahu has positioned himself as well as he can to lead the next coalition, but the cat’s not in the bag just yet. With everyone jockeying for positions and examining their options and partners we may see some serious changes in the landscape over the next few weeks.