Labor Rises in Israeli Polls, May Join Netanyahu’s Coalition

Benjamin Netanyahu could form a coalition with Labor instead of smaller orthodox parties.

Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as foreign minister last week does not appear to have changed the political landscape in Israel ahead of January’s election. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition is likely to maintain its majority.

Lieberman stood down as minister last week after it was announced that he would be charged for breach of trust and fraud with hearings due to take place next month. His nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu and Netanyahu’s conservative Likud have lost some support in preelection polls but that has probably more to do with the ceasefire agreement that the government entered into with the Palestinian militant group Hamas which is extremely unpopular on the right. Israeli defense forces engaged Hamas fighters in Gaza last month until Egypt and the United States helped negotiate a truce.

According to a TNS Teleseker survey that was released on Tuesday, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu would get 37 seats in the next parliament, down from 42. Their support goes to smaller right-wing parties that are part of Netanyahu’s coalition, however, enabling the premier to remain in power with a four-seat majority.

While left-wing parties gain just one seat in the poll, the division between them changes dramatically. The liberal Kadima loses all but two seats whereas former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who resigned as lawmaker for Kadima in May after she lost a party leadership contest, wins ten seats with a new centrist party. Labor looks set to recover from its dismal performance in the last election, reclaiming its traditional role as the largest party on the left with seventeen seats. It now has eight.

Which raises the possibility of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu entering a coalition with Labor instead of the nationalist and Orthodox parties they have so far relied on to stay in power.

Michael Koplow writes at the Ottomans and Zionists blog that Netanyahu will likely want to include Naftali Bennett in his next coalition to stem the defection of right-wing voters to his Jewish Home faction. Bennett and Yisrael Beiteinu are wary of working with the smaller Orthodox parties, however. Meanwhile, Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich has tried to move her party to the middle.

In this vein, yesterday she gave an interview in which she said that the budget for settlements should remain untouched in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians and stressed Labor’s history of building settlements when in government and that Labor has always had a hawkish element, including Yitzhak Rabin.

Unlike older leftists, who criticize Yachimovich for her willingness to facilitate settlement building, “she is clearly appealing to the fact that Israel’s electorate is far more hawkish on the Palestinians and the West Bank than in the past,” according to Koplow.

Moreover, serving as a cabinet minister in Netanyahu’s government — any government — will give Yachimovich the necessary experience to be a viable prime ministerial candidate in the next election.

There are still huge differences between Labor and Likud on economic and foreign policy. Netanyahu may well decide that it isn’t worth the bother to find common ground and seek to persuade his two conservative allies that a continuation of their right-wing coalition is preferable instead. But the four would have a comfortable majority between them, according to the poll, and Yachimovich taking settlements off the table as a stumbling block could be a sign of things to come.