The first snap opinion polls, taken as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was firing those putsch-plotting cabinet ministers of his, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, have correctly been described as showing a strengthening of the Israeli right ahead of the March 17 elections.
Except that they don’t show a mere strengthening of the right; they show a right that’s soaring — enjoying a dramatic, substantial rise in support that, if maintained on election day, remakes Israeli politics, policy and international relations.
At his “They’re fired; vote Likud” press conference on Tuesday night, Netanyahu lamented that he’d been forced to bring Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Livni’s Hatnua into his government after the January 2013 elections because the Likud-led camp hadn’t won enough seats in the 120-member Knesset. Indeed so. Netanyahu’s Likud and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, running together, had managed 31 seats, and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home won 12. Nothing like a parliamentary majority. Even with the two ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas, which won 11 seats and United Torah Judaism, which won 7), Netanyahu could only have managed to cobble together the narrowest of coalition majorities, with a total of 61 seats, battling to win every Knesset vote, vulnerable to ultra-Orthodox leverage, and easily cast by opponents as the leader of a government held hostage by the ultra-Orthodox at the (literal) expense of the Israeli mainstream.
And so those troublesome centrists and center-leftists had to be brought in — in part because Bennett and Lapid were allied at the time. And Netanyahu was constricted and ceaselessly “undermined” by them, as he complained on Tuesday night, over Iran, the Palestinians, construction in Jerusalem, economic policy, you name it.
The first three instant polls, taken late Tuesday and early Wednesday, for Channel 2, Channel 10, and Walla, predict a very different Knesset array three-and-a-half months from now. The three polls produce findings very similar to one another, indicating that Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and the former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon’s as-yet-unnamed new party will win 49-51 seats together — a staggering surge compared to the 31 won by Likud-Yisrael Beytenu last time. Jewish Home also gains five seats, in all three polls, to 17. That means the right wing could muster a 66- to 68-seat coalition — a healthy Knesset majority — with no need of outside assistance. Certainly no reliance on the likes of Livni or Lapid. And no reliance, either, on Shas or UTJ. The ultra-Orthodox parties could be invited into the coalition, but they wouldn’t have make-or-break leverage. (*The full figures are at the bottom of this piece).
Polls can most certainly change. The elections are still more than three months away, and this is the volatile Middle East. Bennett’s Jewish Home could grow to eclipse Likud. Kahlon could emerge as a real alternative to Netanyahu. Taking all those Yesh Atid votes, Kahlon, who is on record as an opponent of Palestinian statehood and the dismantling of settlements (Hebrew link), could improbably choose to remake himself as a man of the center. The Arab parties, uniting, could grow significantly. A fresh face could emerge on the center-left, with a security background, to challenge Netanyahu’s bleak regional outlook. An implausible coalition of Labor, Yisrael Beytenu, Kahlon, Yesh Atid, Hatnua, and the ultra-Orthodox parties could make a mockery of all conventional election arithmetic. (Did I stress implausible?) Numerous other unexpected shifts could come into play.
Nevertheless, the trend these surveys show is unmistakable and potentially highly significant.
When Israel went to the polls last time, in January 2013, the Arab Spring had turned emphatically into the Arab Winter, and the region was deep into the turmoil and instability that abide to this day. Amid the rise of Islamic extremism and general unpredictability in the Middle East, it was widely anticipated that Israel would move firmly to the right. Voters were expected to elect more politicians, first and foremost, who could be relied upon to eschew attempts at territorial compromise with the Palestinians, given the concern that extremists would seize power in the West Bank if the IDF were to withdraw, precisely as Hamas had done in Gaza in 2007.
But Israel’s voters did nothing of the kind. The 2013 elections saw the right contract a little, the center hold firm, and the left slightly increase its representation — posing all those coalition-building difficulties Netanyahu referenced on Tuesday night. While it shrank a little, however, the Israel right wing did become more, well, right-wing. Bennett, the right’s rising star in 2013, supports annexing 60 percent of the West Bank. His party colleague-rival Uri Ariel, who became Netanyahu’s housing minister, would annex the entire West Bank. And Likud’s 2013 Knesset delegation was markedly more hawkish than in the previous Knesset — prominently featuring the likes of Danny Danon, Tzipi Hotovely, Miri Regev and Moshe Feiglin, while leaving out relative moderates such as Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan.
Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s opinion polls suggest that, this time, the electorate is going to swing firmly to the right — that the center and left (Labor, Hatnua, Meretz, Yesh Atid and Kadima) will wither, from 48 seats between them in the outgoing Knesset, to a mere 32-33 seats in March. (Kadima will almost certainly disappear, and I wouldn’t place bets on Livni holding Hatnua together either.)
Tactically, if these poll findings are replicated on March 17, Netanyahu will be able to look back with immense satisfaction on his bombshell decision this week to break up the coalition and move to a dissolution of parliament and new elections. However, there are some caveats — for him and the rest of us.
For all that the prime minister railed bitterly at those disloyal plotters Lapid and Livni, their presence in his coalition, as supporters of a two-state solution, insulated him — and, by extension, Israel — from what would have been far more intense international criticism of his government’s policy. So long as Livni was at his side, serving as his justice minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, earnestly repeating that the problematic Mahmoud Abbas was nonetheless a viable potential peace partner, Netanyahu’s rhetoric about genuinely seeking an accommodation with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world could not be brushed aside as entirely lacking in credibility. Not so, emphatically not so, if the government has no centrist component.
Under Prime Minister Netanyahu, 2015 vintage, a coalition comprising Likud, Jewish Home, Yisrael Beytenu, Moshe Kahlon’s party, and possibly the ultra-Orthodox, would be accurately perceived as one-dimensionally hawkish, intransigent where the Palestinians are concerned, and fully committed to the expansion of settlements. BDS campaigning against Israel would intensify. Unilateral recognition of a Palestine not at peace with Israel would gather yet more momentum. International empathy for Israel if, or more likely when, it next comes under attack by Hamas from Gaza or Hezbollah from southern Lebanon would be in still shorter supply.
Reelected prime minister yet again, now helming an ostensibly far less exasperating coalition, Netanyahu might nonetheless come to rue the day that he booted out Lapid and Livni, and plenty of other Israelis and supporters of Israel might do likewise. In the heat of his bitter press conference Tuesday, and in the fraught days and hours that preceded it, Netanyahu apparently forgot how important it had once been for him to be able to present himself — at home and abroad — as the leader at the heart of a politically diverse coalition, the man in the middle, forging the pragmatist’s course.
Though rid of the infuriating Livni and Lapid, moreover, Netanyahu’s coalition troubles would not be over. He chose to fire those two internal critics, but the other two party leaders in his collapsed coalition were hardly yes men either. Both Liberman and Bennett spent the entire summer publicly castigating their own government’s handling of the war with Hamas.
In a direct attack on Netanyahu on July 15, for instance, Foreign Minister Liberman convened a press conference at which he described the reconquest of Gaza as the only means to end Hamas rocket attacks once and for all, and during which he derided “all this hesitation” about an escalated Israeli military response to the rocket fire. For his part, Economy Minister Bennett repeatedly demanded that Israel wage a far larger offensive in Gaza than his own Netanyahu-led government was prepared to countenance, urging that Israel defeat Hamas once and for all, disarm it, render Gaza like the West Bank — “without missile factories, launchers, rockets, and tunnels.”
Word is that Bennett, like Netanyahu a graduate of the IDF’s elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal), would quite like to become defense minister in the next Netanyahu government. Given that Jewish Home’s rise in the polls suggests Bennett could become a rival for the job of prime minister, Netanyahu may find it hard to deny him the defense minister’s post. Netanyahu on Tuesday night cited his harmonious work with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon as one of the few positive elements of his outgoing coalition; a similarly smooth partnership between Prime Minister Netanyahu and defense minister Naftali Bennett is hard to envisage.
And finally, in this brief catalogue of caveats for the high-polling Netanyahu, he still faces the challenge of compiling the Likud’s 2015 Knesset slate. On January 6, he will almost certainly be reconfirmed as party leader. But Moshe Feiglin, one of his leadership rivals, had enough support to prevail in a procedural vote at the last meeting of the Likud Central Committee, on November 10; and the Feiglin, Danon, Hotovely, and Regev camps will be doing their fairly capable best to select a Likud list bereft of representatives with even the slightest inclination to accept Palestinian statehood.
In short, Likud leader Netanyahu could well find himself at the head of a Knesset faction in which he is the only member offering even conditional support for a two-state solution. And Prime Minister Netanyahu could well find himself at the head of a coalition in which he is one of the most dovish members, battling demands from colleagues not merely for much-accelerated settlement expansion but for the annexation of parts of the West Bank.
Striding delightedly back into office as the leader of a theoretically much less problematic coalition, fourth-term Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would then be facing near-unanimous internal pressure for more hawkish policies than he might ideally like to follow, while simultaneously seeking to defuse rising domestic opposition, an international clamor of outrage, and the increasing isolation of the State of Israel.
He might then come to miss the likes of Livni and Lapid. Or maybe he’s foreseen all this, and thinks he’ll cope just fine.
* According to Channel 10’s Tuesday night poll, Likud would win 22 seats, Jewish Home 17, Labor 13, Yisrael Beytenu 12, Moshe Kahlon’s as-yet-unnamed party 12, Yesh Atid nine, the Arab parties nine, United Torah Judaism eight, Shas seven, Meretz seven, and Hatnua four.
Channel 2’s survey showed Likud with 22, Jewish Home 17, Labor 13, the Arab parties 11, Kahlon 10, Yisrael Beytenu 10, Yesh Atid with nine, Shas nine, United Torah Judaism eight, Meretz seven, and Hatnua four.
Walla’s Wednesday morning poll gave Likud 23 seats, Jewish Home 17, Labor 12, Yisrael Beytenu 12, Yesh Atid 11, Kahlon 10, the Arab parties 10, United Torah Judaism eight, Shas seven, Meretz five, and Hatnua five.
In the current Knesset, Yesh Atid has 19 seats, Likud 18, Labor 15, Yisrael Beytenu 13, Jewish Home 12, Shas 11, the Arab parties 11, United Torah Judaism 7, Meretz six, Hatnua six, and Kadima two.