Netanyahu — a likely winner, in clear decline

Polls say the prime minister will be reelected today. But the headlines predicting his victory mask a dramatic fall for his Likud, and thus a probable marked weakening of his authority

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely assumed to be heading for victory in Israel’s elections Tuesday — and yet, if the polls prove accurate in a few hours’ time, he will have been dramatically weakened.

Much has been made in recent weeks of the rise of his former chief of staff, Naftali Bennett, whose Jewish Home party is apparently going to soar from three seats in the last Knesset (helped by a merger with most of the four-seat National Union faction) to a dozen or more this time. Bennett, the new champion of modern Orthodox Israel. Bennett, the settlement advocate. Bennett, the man who would annex most of the West Bank.

Rather less attention has been paid to the decline of Netanyahu’s Likud, specifically within its new Likud-Beytenu alliance with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu.

Likud had 27 seats in the outgoing Knesset, and Yisrael Beytenu had 15 — a total of 42 in the 120-member Knesset. But the Likud-Beytenu partnership, the polls tell us, is heading for just thirty-something seats Tuesday — maybe as few as 32, and no more than 38.

Let’s take a middle figure: 35. If Likud-Beytenu winds up with 35 seats, that would mean only 22 Knesset members from Likud. Only 21 MKs bound directly to party leader Netanyahu.

The rest are Liberman’s legislators. And though Liberman won’t be serving as a minister while he battles a corruption charge, he most emphatically remains his party’s leader and a potent political presence, and he has clear policies he wants to push through. The Yisrael Beytenu MKs in the alliance will be listening not to Netanyahu but to Liberman. He’s the man, after all, who put them on his Knesset list. He’s the man who put them in the Knesset. He’s the man who — as Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, soon to be ex-MK Danny Ayalon, knows best of all — can take them out again.

With a 22-strong Likud faction, Netanyahu would directly control barely a sixth of the Knesset. He would directly control barely a third of a narrow coalition. He would likely face a great deal of post-election bitterness from within Likud, including an outpouring of criticism that he ever joined forces with that secular Liberman, the ostensible appalling misstep that pushed all those traditional Likud voters over to Bennett.

In his outgoing coalition, Netanyahu not only directly controlled a larger, 27-strong Likud faction, but he also had Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s five-member Independence party reliably on his side, knowing that it had no future without him. This time, his potential coalition partners will immediately discern his weakness, his numerical decline.

It was never going to be easy to try to get the likes of Liberman and Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid, committed to ensuring national service for the ultra-Orthodox, into a government alongside Shas and United Torah Judaism, which are dedicated to thwarting universal conscription. If the polls prove more or less accurate, Netanyahu’s coalition-building is going to be spectacularly complicated.

As Israel voted Tuesday, therefore, and we awaited, first, the exit polls and then, in the course of Tuesday night, the actual results, all the signs are that these elections — hitherto a mercifully brief and rather lackluster affair — are only now about to get interesting. The process of remaking our government doesn’t end on Tuesday night. It starts in earnest on Tuesday night.

The final arithmetic is going to be crucial. But unless all the surveys turn out to be dramatically awry, Netanyahu’s anticipated victory is going to be, if not exactly hollow, then certainly far from solid.

Go figure.

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