Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Netanyahu Splits Israel's Center In Knesset Elections

The blogosphere has produced some excellent pieces over the past few days regarding the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu merger.  The move is a puzzling one for a couple of reasons.  First, Yisrael Beiteinu is already the coalition partner of the Likud.   What the Prime Minister has in effect done is to call new elections, only to preemptively create the same coalition in the Knesset that exists now.  Second, Likud's aligning with Yisrael Beiteinu leaves the political center wide open.  Given that this is where the majority of Israeli voters are,  PM Netanyahu is pursuing a policy that Michael Koplow is correct in calling "strange and risky" in his Ottomans and Zionists post this morning.

Yet while the merger is admittedly strange, it may make a certain amount of sense.  As an earlier post on this blog argues, this election is about the small parties in the center of the Israeli political spectrum.  Ultimately, it may be the cost of co-opting these parties that explains PM Netanyahu's decision to run the Likud on a joint list with Yisrael Beiteinu.

In these next Israeli elections, there are a number of small centrist parties running candidates.  These include Yesh Atid, Atzmaut, a possible Olmert/Ashkenazi party, and Tzedek Chevrati, a new social justice party which may swing far left but would be well-advised to remain more-or-less centrist.  These parties are new, their leaders are inexperienced, and are not necessarily likely to form a joint list on their own.

However, these small parties might be persuaded to run on a joint list with a larger party.  There are three such parties on the current Israeli political scene: Likud, Labor, and Kadima.  Each of these parties would certainly be strengthened by drafting smaller centrist parties into its ranks on a joint list.  So why has Netanyahu aligned with Yisrael Beiteinu and effectively pushed this option off the table?

The answer may be that co-opting these parties takes time, effort, and political capital, and is not guaranteed to work.   By calling elections, PM Netanyahu drew these small parties into the political fray.  By aligning with Yisrael Beiteinu, PM Netanyahu is in a sense "buck passing" the cost to Labor and Kadima.  This move creates a fight for the center between the Labor and Kadima parties, which in the grand scheme of things will be a fight for second place.  The Likud-Beiteinu alignment keeps the Prime Minister and his party above the fray while Shaul Mofaz and Shelly Yechimovitch duke it out with each other.  Netanyahu has left the center open, but there are so many parties vying for centrist votes that it might not make a difference in the election.

Further bolstering the Likud Party is the fact that Shelly Yechimovitch has lambasted Shaul Mofaz for his alignment with Likud this summer, calling it "the most ridiculous zigzag in Israel's political history."  Nothing is impossible in Israeli politics, but the likelihood of a Labor-Kadima coalition remains low for the time being.

The biggest question, of course, is whether PM Netanyahu actually intended any of this to happen.  One hypothesis is that he originally called elections to raise the number of Likud seats in the Knesset.  However, seeing polls indicating that was unlikely, he made a move to align with Yisrael Beiteinu.  Given that the joint list does not appear to have increased support from its constituency, other surprises may be in store.  Ultimately, the situation affirms one of the cardinal rules of Israeli politics: Expect the unexpected.

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