On March 17, 2015, Israelis will go to the polls for the third time since 2008. Analysts have framed these elections as a mistake hastened by low-intensity violence in Jerusalem, settlement building, and this summer’s war in Gaza. However, they are actually the result of a deliberate and masterful political maneuver by Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s leadership strategy since his election in 2009 has been characterized by undermining opposition. Since that time, he has faced two opposition threats. First, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni of the HaTnuah party and Finance Minister Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party are centrist members of Israel’s governing coalition, holding a solid 25 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Netanyahu coopted them in the short term by bringing both into his Cabinet. He put Lapid in charge of cutting popular social services in Israel’s national budget, and Livni in charge of a hopeless peace process. However, Lapid and Livni’s visibility as cabinet members and conflicting policies posed a longer-term threat to his leadership. Second, this summer’s war in Gaza threatened to spur significant opposition after Deputy Minister of Defense Danny Danon, a far-right member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, criticized Netanyahu’s handling of Israel’s military operation. Netanyahu (who leans center-right) fired Danon but needed to do more to undermine the long-term threat of an insurrection from the Likud’s far-right base.
His solution was as deliberate as it was elegant: tack far-right, manufacture a coalition crisis, and divide potential opposition. On November 16, Netanyahu expressed support for a bill introduced back in 2011 that would enshrine Israel’s nature as a Jewish State in the country’s Basic Laws. The proposal was popular among the far-right, undermining any attacks Likud’s far right ministers could launch against him. As an added bonus, the bill drew sharp but predictable criticism from both Lapid and Livni. Now Netanyahu had a “political crisis.” In a fiery but deliberate speech, Netanyahu accused Lapid and Livni of conspiring to destroy the coalition. In reality, both ministers had acted exactly as Netanyahu had hoped, giving him a reason to dissolve the coalition and move to the elections he had wanted for months. On November 29, he cancelled the Knesset vote on the bill, and on December 7 he told an audience at Brookings' Saban Forum 2014, "I will never agree to legislation that undermines Israel's democratic character. Not now, not ever."
By holding elections at strategic moments, Netanyahu has solved major problems of instability in Israel’s government. From its founding in 1948 until 1977, Israel’s dominant party system meant that there was little instability in government, since one party was virtually guaranteed to win each election. Many of Israel’s major political institutions, for example, those dealing with religion and education, were shaped by the dominant Mapai party. However, when Likud beat Mapai's follow on, the Labor Alignment, in 1977, it was a surprise upset that changed fundamentally the nature of Israeli politics. Israel was no longer a dominant party system since every party could potentially lose. Coalition instability became a larger threat since the Prime Minister (who generally comes from the winning party) could suffer a vote of no confidence at any time. Additionally, the system forced parties with fundamental disagreements to govern together. This arrangement constrained ruling parties since smaller parties could always threaten to leave the coalition and collapse the government.
By holding new elections, Netanyahu can potentially solve this problem of instability. The elections give him a chance to renegotiate his coalition with parties more aligned with Likud’s policy platform. Coalition partners inevitably grow tired of rubber stamping another party’s agenda, see opportunities for growth, and bolt from the coalition. By calling elections now, Netanyahu is preempting the collapse by engineering it on his terms. Such an arrangement will very likely leave Likud on top, and forces potential allies to compete with each other rather than challenge Likud. When it comes time to form a coalition, these parties will likely be weakened and faced with the choice of joining the government or being politically irrelevant in the short term.
However, while engineering election timing is effective for remaining in power, it takes time and resources away from governing. Netanyahu’s tactic is likely to be copied by future Israeli leaders. However, its utility speaks to the need for greater stability in leadership positions in Israel. Such guarantees would allow the Prime Minister to focus on Israel’s long-term challenges rather than on staying in power. These challenges will pose critical threats to Israel over the next few decades, but a political system equipped to handle them is the first step to navigating the treacherous road ahead.
*An earlier version of this post stated elections were held in 2008. They were held on February 10, 2009. It also identified the Mapai party as losing the 1977 elections, but by that point Mapai had merged with Ahdut HaAvoda and Rafi into the Israeli Labor Party, which merged with Mapam in 1969 to form the (second) Labor Alignment.