Most Israelis had assumed for some time that when the time came and elections would be called, Bibi would have no trouble being re-elected. The strength of his right-wing coalition bolstered by the parties in the center, made this coalition’s political power appear to be invincible. Even without the ultra-Orthodox religious parties, Bibi appeared to be in complete control.
The problem is once people get into power—especially being in a coalition for the first time—specifically here Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, they begin to smell the rarified air of power and want to be in control. Yisraeli Beitanu (Bennett) and Yesh Atid (Lapid) began to question why they ought not to be the prevailing force in the Government not Netanyahu’s Likud Party. They began to challenge Bibi’s ruling authority within the coalition and to make demands of their own to which he was not prepared to concede or acquiesce. The result of this was that Netanyahu believed he could bring internal political tension to a head, force his rivals to toe the line, or bring on a new election; the results of which he must now believe will leave him much stronger than before with perhaps a different set of political partners.
The challenge now for the parties on the right is whether they will coalesce around Bibi again—after some jockeying about—or divide themselves up and present the country with several right wing alternatives from amongst which to choose. At the same time calling elections may present the more centrist parties like Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah Party with a chance to form an alliance with the remnants of the Labor Party led by Isaac Herzog, presenting a reasonable center-left alternative.
From the perspective of the United States there is very interesting sidebar in this election. First, the Obama Administration has such a caustic personal relationship with Netanyahu that it might well be tempted to try to weigh in during the run-up to a likely March vote. From the position of America’s own regional interests such a move would be counter-productive. Even the smell of U.S. interference will galvanize Israelis to support Netanyahu. On the other hand, if alternative voices to the right-wingers could succeed in cobbling together a governing majority, it could go a long towards repairing much of the personal damage that Bibi has done to the U.S.-Israel friendship.
The wild card in this election could once again be the charedi parties. In the last election there was an agreement to force the ultra-Orthodox to accept much more responsibility in jobs, taxes, and national or military service. At the end of the day the Netanyahu Government tiptoed around any of the serious proposals to force these issues. (Similarly, Livni never accepted the haredi into a governing coalition and she too failed to stay in power.) If Bibi runs with their support or makes concessions to the haredim, it could have significant effect on voters in the center, who might well reject him or even Bennett on these grounds alone.
Assuming elections are to be held in March, we may be having the Israeli version of the Iowa caucuses in a few weeks and the nominating conventions a few weeks later. Once the ball starts to roll, it will be Labor Day already and election fever will overwhelm the country this winter.