Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
If these elections dislodge Netanyahu
Q. With three weeks to go before elections, Netanyahu and his right-religious bloc are trailing. Why? What sort of dynamic is at work here? And what sort of coalition could replace them?
A. First, let’s bear in mind that Netanyahu could still rally his forces with dirty tricks and negative campaigning, much like in the final days of past elections. Still, as matters currently stand, he and his allies will not be able to form a coalition of at least 61 mandates.
The latest polls give the Likud only 28 mandates. Together with the Haredi parties, the Kahanists and Naftali Bennet’s Yamina party, this currently adds up to at most 58. The opposition is led by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid with 18-20 prospective mandates, followed by Gideon Saar’s New Hope with 15, Naftali Bennet’s Yamina with 10 and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu with 7. Together with Labor (6), Meretz (teetering at 4) and Blue-White (5), they could conceivably form a coalition without reliance on the Arab parties.
Three factors appear to be at work here. First, bearing in mind that a sizeable majority of the Israeli electorate is now right-wing in orientation, a key factor is the emergence in voters’ eyes of the reality and viability of an alternative right-dominated coalition led by Gideon Saar, Avigdor Liberman and Yair Lapid, all of whom refuse to serve under Netanyahu, along with Bennet.
Second, note that Bennet and his Yamina party appear tentatively in both a Netanyahu-led coalition and an anti-Netanyahu coalition. Bennet is the only politician on the right openly declaring a readiness to serve in either coalition if the price is right--meaning rotating into the premiership, an illusion he probably will be disabused of after the election no matter who wins. The Arab Islamist party, Raam led by Mansour Abbas, is also potentially available to support either side, but it is currently polling under the four-mandate threshold.
Here we encounter a third factor: Netanyahu’s tactic of calling Lapid and his Yesh Atid centrist party “leftist” and focusing his campaign against them by claiming that Lapid, who currently polls second only to Netanyahu, wants to lead a left-wing government with Saar and Liberman in subordinate roles. This tactic of branding his right-wing opponents as lackeys of the left appears to have failed for Netanyahu. It has simply driven Saar and Bennet, who together outpoll Lapid, to announce that they will not serve in a government led by Lapid--lest their right-wing voters desert them and return to the Likud. The Yesh Atid leader can be foreign minister in a government led by one of them, but not the reverse.
Q. This is all pretty convoluted. . .
A. Not only convoluted, but deceptive. And cynical. Odds are that Bennet, whose popularity with voters is steadily waning, will gain fewer than 10 mandates, thereby hurting his kingmaker role. Then too, assuming Lapid indeed places second only to Netanyahu, we can expect Saar and Bennet to abandon their latest pledge to right-wing voters and agree to serve under Lapid, perhaps with the premiership rotating between Lapid and Saar.
On the other hand, Aryeh Deri and the Sephardic Haredi Shas party are ideologically ‘flexible’ enough to be tempted to abandon blind Haredi support for Netanyahu and join such an anti-Bibi coalition, if only to keep an eye on their entitlement assets. That could change the coalition math.
Then too, there is absolutely no way to predict safely the electoral fate of no fewer than half a dozen parties whose polling results hover just above or below the four-mandate threshold. The list includes two religious extremist parties, the Islamist Raam and the Kahanists, and at least three center or leftist lists--Benny Gantz’s Blue-White remnant, Meretz, Yaron Zelekha’s New Economic party and conceivably even Labor.
Q. Why has Netanyahu fallen behind?
A. Due to a combination of factors, beginning with mismanagement of the covid pandemic crisis. Add to this dissatisfaction among some on the right with Netanyahu’s alliance with racist Kahanists, public awareness that the Biden presidency in the US is cool toward Netanyahu, and possibly the effect of the prime minister’s looming corruption trial.
Having noted all these factors, let’s keep in mind that Netanyahu is only slightly behind in the polls, we have three weeks left until the election, and he has only just begun to dip into his bag of dirty tricks.
Q. Still, assuming on March 24 Netanyahu does not have a majority, what in concrete terms would a ‘non-Netanyahu’ coalition look like?
A. Based on current polling, it is safe to assume that Lapid, Saar and Bennet would divide up the top jobs: prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister. They might be obliged to agree to some sort of rotation.
Liberman and the survivors of the four-mandate threshold--say, Gantz of Blue White, Merav Michaeli of Labor and Horowitz of Meretz--would divvy up finance, education, interior and domestic security. The leader of each of these smaller parties would probably have extra leverage because the coalition would depend on him or her. Rank and file MKs from Yesh Atid, New Hope (Saar’s ex-Likudniks) and Yamina (Bennet) would fill in the additional ministries.
Q. And what would be the policies and governing strategy of such a coalition?
A. Surprisingly, perhaps, when it comes to security and foreign policy this topic is a bit easier to speculate about than the coalition’s composition and leadership. There are two reasons for this. One is the coalition’s centrist minority (Yesh Atid, possibly Blue White) and even smaller left-wing minority (Labor, Meretz, possibly an Arab party). The other is Joe Biden.
Between them, they will ensure that the coalition’s majority of rightists steers clear of initiatives like West Bank annexation and radical settlement expansion lest they endanger the coalition itself or risk losing favor with Washington. The Trump-Netanyahu achievement of normalization between Israel and four Arab countries will have the same effect of deterring the coalition from such moves: the four Arab states’ could threaten to downgrade or sever relations.
Thus for example, a post-Netanyahu coalition will likely find a way for East Jerusalem Palestinians to vote in the Palestinian Authority elections scheduled for May and July without making this a controversial international issue. And Gideon Saar may be known to favor annexing all West Bank settlements, but he won’t dare under these circumstances.
Besides, for at least a year this coalition will be busy repairing the damage done to Israel’s economy and education system by Netanyahu’s overall poor management (other than his vaccination achievement) of the covid pandemic. Following Netanyahu and covid, Lapid, Saar, Bennet and Liberman will have to work hard, too, just to restore public confidence in governance in general.
Q. And in the security sphere?
A. Here too the combination of Biden’s approach to Iran and left and center influence in the coalition will contribute to cautious Israeli policies: compromise with the US regarding Iran, and a measured response to possible aggression by Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
Q. You make this sound too easy . . .
A. No, it will not be easy. Even the formation of such a left-center-right-“anything but Netanyahu” coalition could prove daunting, not to mention its long-term survival. Netanyahu will try to ‘poach’ the right-wing coalition parties’ MKs, including ex-Likudniks who have joined Saar, in a sabotage effort designed to move the 61-vote majority in the Likud’s direction. Netanyahu has already used covid terminology (“a government not led by me is a morbidity government”) in an effort to scare voters back into his camp. Within the potential anti-Netanyahu coalition, tensions will flare between left and right regarding a host of policies--religion-and-state, anti-Haredi legislation, possible lockdowns due to residual covid, financial demands for the unemployed, entitlements, etc.
Netanyahu’s fortunes in his corruption trial, which begins in earnest in early April just as post-election coalition negotiations commence, could also have unexpected ramifications. Confronted by graphic court testimony regarding Netanyahu’s corruption, a few Likud MKs could conceivably bolt the party and join Saar, thereby giving Saar’s New Hope party additional coalition leverage.
Q. So to sum up, what’s your bottom line regarding the March 23 election outcome?
A. A Netanyahu government, which would be heavily right-religious, is according to current polls doubtful. An anti-Netanyahu right-center-left government looks more likely, if it can overcome built-in rivalries and tensions. Because of those tensions, it may not last long.
A third possibility--yet another electoral stalemate--also remains a possibility if a swing politician like Bennet decides that a fifth round of elections by autumn 2021 would benefit him.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s corruption trial begins in earnest more or less simultaneously with the post-election coalition-building process. That trial, and the Biden presidency in the US, will be key factors affecting the emergence and behavior of an anti-Netanyahu coalition.