Israel’s Nationalists Could Be Kingmakers After Election

Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett is interviewed, January 8

Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett is interviewed, January 8 (The Israel Project/Mati Milstein)

There is little doubt that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will win reelection on Tuesday but what coalition of parties should rule the Jewish state remains uncertain.

Netanyahu’s conservative Likud, which merged its list with the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, is expected to win a plurality of the seats in the new Knesset, if less than the parties occupy separately at present. The more right wing Jewish Home, led by former businessman and settler leader Naftali Bennett, may get as many as fourteen seats in parliament, making it nigh impossible for Netanyahu to govern without it.

Former journalist Shelly Yachimovich, who entered politics in 2006, appears to have revived Labor’s prospects. In recent polls, it comes in second to the ruling party with seventeen to eighteen seats, raising the possibility of it joining Netanyahu’s government. The incumbent premier has been forced to lurch to the right in response to Bennett’s spectacular rise, however, which makes it more difficult for Yachimovich to sell a Labor-Likud coalition to left wing voters.

In no poll do centrist and leftist parties collect enough seats to form a majority without either the conservatives or nationalists so Netanyahu and Yachimovich may have little choice but to join forces if they want to govern without fringe parties or, in Labor’s case, govern at all.

The prime minister’s only other alternative is if the centrist parties led by Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister, and Yair Lapid win enough seats to give him a majority. One recent poll has them at six and eleven seats, respectively. Neither has ruled out joining a conservative coalition. Both also appeal to secular voters, unlike the orthodox parties which Netanyahu has relied on to stay in power so far. The latter have threatened to defect and switch to Labor’s side if Likud agrees to lift an exemption on orthodox young men serving in the military.

Both centrists are also more in favor of austerity measures and liberal economic policies than the orthodox who fear that spending cuts will reduce state stipends for their religious institutions.

Israel’s government deficit rose to 4.2 percent of gross domestic product last year while Netanyahu has been keen to present himself as the reliable steward of the nation’s economy and finances. Yachimovich, who hoped to tap into middle class voters’ frustration about high prices and low wages, was happy to have this debate even if Israel is among few industrialized nations that avoided sharp contraction in recent years. It also suited Labor that it didn’t seem settlement building in territory that is claimed by the Palestinians in the West Bank would play a dominant role in the campaign.

Jewish Home has forced the debate toward the Palestinian issue again. Bennett opposes any concessions on settlement construction, saying, “I will do everything in my ability, forever, to prevent a Palestinian state from being founded within the land of Israel.” Labor and Likud are more willing to compromise to secure a peace deal but both parties count pro-settlers among their voters.

Bennett seeks to reach those voters, warning of the danger of Netanyahu giving in to demands to make concessions for peace. “A strong (Jewish Home) is the only way that Netanyahu will be able to withstand this pressure,” party candidate Jeremy Gimpel said during a debate in Jerusalem last week. Many right wing voters seem to feel the same way.

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