Israel’s Netanyahu Could Emerge Stronger from Early Elections

Few of the prime minister’s rivals have a credible path toward denying him a fourth term.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the annual memorial for David Ben-Gurion, November 27
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the annual memorial for David Ben-Gurion, November 27 (GPO/Amos Ben Gershom)

Recent political tensions and strife in Israel culminated on Tuesday when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he had fired his finance and justice ministers, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, whom he accused of undermining the government and plotting a legal “putsch” against him.

The announcement came after days of rising tension between Netanyahu and his top ministers and means Israelis will go back to the polls less than two years after this government took office.

Ostensibly, the current crisis was spurred by seemingly minor disagreements.

First, Netanyahu did not hide his skepticism of Yair Lapid’s decision not to raise taxes while seeking to lower housing prices for young couples and mitigate against the high cost of living.

The prime minister had already been angered by Lapid’s refusal to transfer additional funds to defense; funds that had been agreed upon and were critical to the military’s long-term rearmament plans.

Lapid insisted that no more money should be transferred to the army until it underwent a serious reorganization and he maintained that the budget should concentrate on social investment.

A third point of contention was the “Jewish nation state” law, a bill intended to anchor Israel’s constitutional nature as a Jewish state. Netanyahu enthusiastically adopted the proposal while Lapid and Livni opposed it, saying it would undermine the country’s democratic system. Their refusal to support the bill delayed its passing and effectively buried it in parliament.

However, personal tensions run much deeper. During the summer, when Israel launched a military operation against Gaza in response to Hamas rocket attacks, Netanyahu criticized ministers whom he said supported decisions taken behind closed doors only to later criticize them publicly. Netanyahu did not name Lapid as one of those ministers at the time. But it appears to have contributed to his general dissatisfaction with the cabinet and Tuesday’s decision to seek a fresh mandate from the electorate.

The decision to call early elections cannot have been motivated by personal animosities alone. Rather, it also stems from Netanyahu’s preference for governing with more likeminded parties.

Netanyahu’s latest government was the first in many years not to include any of the traditionalist religious parties. The “natural partnership” between his conservative Likud and the small orthodox Jewish parties representing the Haredim was broken last year when Lapid and Livni won 14 and 5 percent support, respectively, for their new parties in the election. Lapid’s even became the second largest party in the Knesset with nineteen seats against 31 for Netanyahu. The conservative might hope to break free from his centrist coalition partners and once again form a government with rightwingers.

Some Israelis might see this as a cynical ploy on Netanyahu’s part to expand his own power but analysts who predict the demise of his Likud plurality as a result fail to explain which of his rivals could stop the prime minister from securing a fourth term and how.

Livni’s party only has six seats and her joining the government was justified solely on her previous contributions to the peace process as foreign minister between 2006 and 2009. Since the Gaza war this summer and due to the ongoing violence in East Jerusalem, there is scant public support for resuming talks with the Palestinians. It seems unlikely Livni will win more than a few, if any, seats on her own.

Incumbent foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman is a long-time political ally of Netanyahu’s whose nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party jointly contested the election with Likud in 2013. Although that union has now been broken up, the two parties remain close and are likely to resume their coalition. Lieberman is unlikely to jeopardize that partnership by challenging Netanyahu outright.

The former journalist Lapid owed much of his popularity to growing middle-class opposition to Netanyahu’s right-wing economic policy. But during his twenty months in office, he failed to distinguish himself. The tax policy Netanyahu denied him was supposed to be his signature achievement. If the public accepts Netanyahu’s accusation that Lapid’s irresponsible behavior forced his hand, his party’s fall could turn out to be just as sudden as its rise two years ago.

That leaves Naftali Bennett, leader of the nationalist Jewish Home party, as Netanayhu’s most formidable opponent. His close relations with Lapid caused quite a bit of frustration on Netanyahu’s part. Indeed, it was an alliance between Bennett and Lapid that forced Netanyahu to build his latest coalition in the first place.

Bennett recently won a party primary election that consolidated his position internally. That victory is supposed to be a first step toward revitalizing the party and appealing to a broader electorate than the old nationalist and religious guard. But the call for early elections caught him off guard. Ideally, Bennett would have had more time to transform the Jewish Home. With elections now just three months away, he cannot afford any infighting that would make voters question his leadership skills.

The party leader caught most unprepared is Labor’s Isaac Herzog. He took over after the 2013 election with the task of reviving Israel’s once-dominant left-wing party. The timing is especially unfavorable for him. The recent operation in Gaza and riots in Jerusalem have only encouraged those calling for a tougher stance toward the Palestinians. Hertzog’s insistence on the continued need for peace talks does not seem to enjoy much popular support.

Despite Netanyahu’s policy failures, notably the strained relationship with Israel’s most important ally, the United States, his experience far exceeds Hertzog’s who has never served in a top ministerial post. By calling elections early and presumably defeating Hertzog, Netanyahu might be able to stave off a left-wing challenge before it even emerges.