Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition is fraying. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, chair of the Hatnua party, is pushing a major constitutional “Jewish nation-state” bill that openly challenges a similar bill favored by the prime minister. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, chair of the Yesh Atid party, regularly threatens to leave the coalition if his housing subsidies do not win the support of the wider coalition. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, chair of the Jewish Home party, openly warns that the government in which he sits may have “no right to exist” if its policies contradict his own.

Exactly 20 months after it was sworn into office, Israel’s 33rd government seems gripped by crisis. As one senior minister said about cabinet colleagues in a conversation last week with The Times of Israel, “if the [coalition] partners aren’t careful, they may find themselves getting dragged to elections.”

It is, to be sure, a strange situation. No coalition member will benefit from an election. A preponderance of polling data suggests coalition parties Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beytenu and Hatnua are almost certain to lose Knesset seats. Likud is currently the ruling party; those at the top do not risk the ballot box unnecessarily. And even Jewish Home, which polls suggest is set to grow, has more to lose than to gain. Bennett cannot himself be prime minister in an electorate heavily weighted toward the center, and he cannot sit in a coalition whose policies are too centrist or center-left when it comes to negotiating with the Palestinians. Based on current polling data, Bennett’s own path back to the cabinet table after an election depends on being a coalition partner in another right-wing (i.e., almost certainly Netanyahu-led) coalition.

Yet speculation about the government’s imminent collapse is now affecting every political press release, every legislative vote, every political analysis in the Hebrew press.

On Monday, Netanyahu hinted to Likud leaders they should make certain the party was prepared for elections — a symbolic act, since the party’s electoral machinery, headed by the chair of the Likud Secretariat (and in his day job, Israel’s transportation minister) Yisrael Katz, doesn’t need such warnings to prepare for elections.

MK Ofer Shelah of Yesh Atid (photo credit: Flash90)

MK Ofer Shelah of Yesh Atid (photo credit: Flash90)

Meanwhile, Yesh Atid’s MK Ofer Shelah, a close confidant to party chief Lapid, said Tuesday that his party, too, is ready for elections.

What, then, should Israelis make of all this inexplicable talk of the coalition’s collapse?

The answer does not lie in the substantive disagreements that are the proximate cause of all the friction: Netanyahu’s and Livni’s competing nation-state bills, religion-and-state reforms, the Yesh Atid-Likud standoff over greater government oversight and taxation of the Jewish National Fund, the fight over Yair Lapid’s “0% VAT” tax cut for some first-time homebuyers, or the general fact that the 2015 state budget is stuck in legislative limbo as all sides posture and threaten, etc.

When one examines these bitter fights more closely, one finds that coalition members aren’t very far apart on the substance. The conversion bill pitted Lapid and Livni against Bennett in a bitter public battle, until it suddenly evaporated in a compromise that included nearly all the stipulations of Hatnua’s original bill in a cabinet decision supported by Bennett.

The 0% VAT bill is frozen in the Knesset Finance Committee. But it isn’t frozen for any substantive reason. Committee members are actually busy bickering over relatively minor changes to eligibility requirements, such as ultra-Orthodox lawmakers calling for several levels of homebuyer tax cuts and a weakening of the national service and work requirements for recipients of the cuts so that wider circles of potential Haredi homebuyers can benefit from them.

These are not the disagreements over which governments are toppled.

And, indeed, even as they themselves publicly threaten elections, coalition leaders are simultaneously calling for restraint and stability.

“This isn’t the time for elections and coalition tricks,” Lapid said Monday at a Yesh Atid faction meeting in the Knesset. “There is no alternative government. The public wants public responsibility.”

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid seen with his hand on the shoulder of former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman during the opening session of Israel's 19th parliament, held at the Knesset, February 5 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Yair Lapid seen with his hand on the shoulder of Avigdor Liberman during the opening session of Israel’s 19th Knesset,  February 5, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

And Foreign Minister Liberman said Monday: “We want the sides to reach a compromise, because at this moment every escalation [of political rhetoric] doesn’t help. We’re the only party that isn’t fighting with anybody. There won’t be a dramatic change [in the government] — even after elections. I believe the three right-wing parties [Likud, Jewish Home and his own Yisrael Beytenu] will get 60 [Knesset seats] together [in an election], but it’s still not advisable to go through the turmoil of elections.”

Whether Israel is going to elections in the coming months is hard to say with certainty. It depends too much on the decisions of a small handful of party leaders. But one thing is certain: no one wants to.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, left, speaks with Economy Minister Naftali Bennett at a Knesset session marking 18 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, October 16, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)

Tzipi Livni, left, speaks with Naftali Bennett at a Knesset session marking 18 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, October 16, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)

First-time party leaders such as Lapid and Bennett must live up to their dramatic election promises before they face voters again. Livni may be squeezed out of the Knesset if she tries to run again as chair of Hatnua — and is therefore looking for ways to position herself as a credible leader for a disaffected center-left. Liberman sees wild fluctuations in his own polling numbers, from as low as seven seats to as high as 15 just in the past month’s polls, and needs the spotlight as much as the others.

Why, then, all the tension and rhetoric? The answer may seem counterintuitive, but it is rooted in the fundamental structure of Israel’s fractured national politics. It is this: Netanyahu’s coalition may topple over the brink not because it wants elections, but because it fears them.

The beginning of the campaign

The Tenth Knesset first met on July 20, 1981. It dissolved itself and went to elections on August 13, 1984, almost a year short of the four-year term mandated by law.

In fact, that’s what happened to eight of the last nine Knessets, which all dissolved early due to coalition disagreements. This dynamic is now a basic fixture of Israeli governance. Since coalitions are increasingly composed of competing medium-sized parties, as elections near, the pressure on these parties to distinguish themselves from their erstwhile “partners” in the government grows precipitously. Indeed, in such a system, a party’s closest ideological neighbors are also its most dangerous ballot-box competitors.

To this dynamic must be added the meticulous restrictions placed on Israeli electioneering. In the 90 days that precede an election, televised ad saturation is kept artificially equal for all party lists by law, giving the ruling Likud or opposition-leading Labor the exact same air time for paid advertising as the unelectable single-issue Casino Party or the pro-marijuana legalization Green Leaf Party. The content of political campaigns is also regulated. For example, it is illegal to promise immediate personal benefits, even imagined ones, to the voting public, a restriction that has led the Central Election Commission, chaired each election cycle by a different Supreme Court justice, to censor ads in which prominent rabbis promised blessings and other spiritual and not-so-spiritual rewards to those who voted for the rabbis’ preferred party.

A view of the voting slips used in Tuesday's elections for the 19th Knesset (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A view of the voting slips used in elections for the 19th Knesset, January 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Faced with growing competition from their own ideological fellow-travelers, and severe electioneering restrictions, Israel’s politicians have increasingly bent their governing and legislative work toward their electoral needs. Parliamentary grandstanding and coalition crises offer an irresistible route to the top of the news cycle — and thus to the public’s consciousness — that parties simply can’t get in any other way. The result is constant pressure to push ever backward in time the start of the unofficial election campaign, far into the preceding Knesset term.

So when Lapid sets the media aflutter with hints that he may topple the government over the 0% VAT law, or Bennett over the government’s conduct of the Gaza war, these threats aren’t rooted in their desire for elections, but in their fear of them. Coalition leaders are increasingly desperate to be seen as aggressive, effective and delivering on their promises because they increasingly see their governing as part of their electioneering.

Coalition leaders are not eager for a new election campaign — they are already in its throes.