Monday, October 15, 2012

Bibi Calls Elections In Israel: Three Things To Watch

The Knesset came back into session earlier today after a lengthy summer recess.  The first major item of business it faces is a vote to dissolve the government and move to elections which would be held January 22, 2013.  After announcing he would seek early elections last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu's initiative is likely to pass in the Knesset by tonight.

The announcement of early elections, which otherwise would not be held until October 2013, has prompted shuffling within the Israeli political system and numerous meetings between unlikely political bedfellows.  Rather than try to parse the meaning of each individual meeting - whose purpose and outcome are largely unknown- analysts would do well to form their assessments of Israeli electoral politics with three key questions in mind.

First, will centrist parties be able to form a coalition?  Kadima, Atzmaut, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party, and some kind of Ehud Olmert run/Gabi Ashkenazi endorsed party will be vying for the votes of Israel's political center.  Given the multitude of parties, running as a coalition may allow for the most number of centrist MKs.  In addition, Bibi's intent in calling the elections was to a) strengthen his own party's hold in the Knesset and b) create a less ideological coalition.  There is a good chance he will seek to align with centrist parties while kicking Yisrael Beiteinu to the side.  On the other hand, Kadima would only lose from aligning with smaller parties who would chip away at the number of Knesset seats it holds.  It may not be in Kadima's interest to support a centrist coalition which would only diminish Kadima's own political influence.

Second, will the social justice movement's political capital translate to votes for the left?  Stav Shaffir, one of the movement's leaders, announced her intent to run as a Labor MK yesterday.  Other movement leaders may join her as well.  While some movement activists may see such a move as "selling out to the establishment," others will accept her candidacy and vote for the Labor party.  At the same time, Labor has not been particularly aggressive in getting its message out.  Labor leader and MK Shelly Yachimovich is expected to lead the Labor party to increase its Knesset representation and considers herself a viable candidate for Prime Minister.  However, to do so she will have to be more outspoken than her tenure as Labor leader up until this point, and will have to compete with other voices in the political arena.  Additionally, she may have to do so while tacking centrist to pick up centrist votes while Stav Shaffir rallies the votes of the further left constituency.  Whether the Labor party will play a significant role in Israeli politics after the next election is an important question, but very much up in the air.

Finally, how will Netanyahu prevent being constrained by the right-wing of the Likud?  MKs Tzipi Hotovely and Danny Danon lead an important and vocal constituency on the right edge of the already conservative Likud.  While defection is not necessarily in the interest of more right-wing MKs, they still have the ability to cause Bibi a significant headache even if they remain in the coalition.  If Bibi is calling elections to tack Israeli politics in a more center-right direction, this will be against the preferences of the right-wing of the Likud.  He will either have to offer some kind of guarantee on specific issues of concern to that wing of the Likud, or else promise post-election alignment with Shas, United Torah Judaism, or another religious conservative party.  Moving to elections early and forming a more centrist coalition is in PM Netanyahu's interest because it allows him to pass the kind of center-right legislation he prefers, and to avoid further alienation from the center/center-right Israeli public and international community.  However, the cost of this investment will be paid to the far right of the Israeli political spectrum, including to MKs within the Prime Minister's own party.

As the campaign in Israel takes its course, the Prime Minister will be seeking to form a new coalition with a stronger Likud that allows him to better achieve his preferences.  However, his ability to do so will depend on whether each of the three factions above - left, center, and right - can coordinate internally, or will fall prey to splits and internal disagreements.

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