Since the Knesset was dissolved in November and new elections were called for Jan. 22, the general assumption has been that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led government, aligned with the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party, would sweep to a major election victory. With perhaps a majority of the 120-seat Knesset, this dual list would secure a right-of-center political power base for another four years. Add in other right-wing parties, and there was an expectation that Netanyahu might even opt to build a coalition without the fervently Orthodox, or haredi, factions.
And yet the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu bloc has been losing support in the polls. While Netanyahu was trying to solidify his credibility with his right wing, Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman disappeared under the cloud of an indictment. At the same time, Naftali Bennett, the new darling of the West Bank settlers’ movement (who himself lives nicely ensconced in Ra’anana), appears to have captured much of the former Likud right wing as well as the old religious Zionist movement, at least that portion that is strongly supportive of an expansionist policy by Israel in the territories.
Were Netanyahu to be undone by these pressures, one should not assume that there is a serious alternative figure within the Left or Left-Center parties who could lead an Israeli government. Given the number of undecided voters, some suggest that Israel may well be headed for a repeat of 1977 — when Menachem Begin leaped out of the opposition role for the first time in the state’s history to become the new head of government. However, all the other party heads are either untested or has-beens. Those voting for these parties are clearly protesting without the hope of a white knight to rescue them.
Less than 10 days before the election, the polls show a huge percentage of undecided voters — as many as 25 percent, according to a Ma’ariv poll. This sort of fluidity and uncertainty might be surprising to Americans, but under Israel’s parliamentary system, elections generally must be called within three months of the dissolution of parliament. While some parties do have primaries, elections are dramatically cheaper and frequently state-funded. Advertising is tightly constrained and contained within a brief time period. Compared to the glacial turns of the seemingly endless American elections, the Israeli campaign occurs in fast motion.
As a result, the possible scenarios are not as neat as they seemed for Netanyahu in November. While his combined list will probably receive the largest number of votes, the number of concessions he’ll need to form a new government — in terms of policy and key cabinet portfolios, the usual spoils of coalition-building — may well be considerably greater than had been assumed.
This month’s elections will have major implications for relations with the United States and the Obama administration; for dealing with the Palestinians and a peace process; for strategies to deal with Iran’s nuclear program; for confronting feared terrorist attacks; and for responding to the continuing unrest in the Arab world.
Whatever the outcome, the new government is likely to be more formidably hard-line than it is now. That will not bode well in Washington or around the world.