March 16th, 2021
With yet more parliamentary elections looming on March 23, opinion polls show support finally tilting away from veteran Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, “Bibi” still has powerful long-established dynamics in Israeli politics working on his side.
A Channel 13 News poll in late February predicts the pro-Netanyahu bloc to win 45 seats, and the anti-Netanyahu bloc to win 60 seats, one short of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, the Israeli parliament.
The last elections were held only a year ago; yet the changes in public support for parties since then have been quite bewildering.
The all-conquering Blue and White of the last election a year ago are at best likely to dwindle into a small rump of four to five seats and might be wiped out altogether. From 35 to zero seats in a year is quite a feat.
One new left-wing party, “The Israelis,” was launched in December 2020 by Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai. It went from projected eight seats in the polls to zero and, in horse racing terms, never even came under starter’s orders.
From these developments, we may deduce the following:
First, party organization is important. Most of the parties remaining in the contest are relatively strong and have financial and loyalty assets. Even Labor, which a month ago was not even polling over the electoral threshold, has climbed over it, over the ruins of Huldai’s failed effort.
Ntanyahu’s own rightwing Likud have a strong party organization that has survived Gideon Sa’ar’s breakaway last year to form his new “New Hope” party, Sa’ar himself looks like inheriting former Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s old Kulanu party which merged with the Likud last year. Previously, Kulanu ran as the ‘sane Likud’ and at one stage got ten seats before crashing.
Kahlon’s Kulanu was another Likud breakaway, and relatively successful as such for one election. It folded after the next one and Kahlon is out of politics. While Sa’ar has more talent at his disposal, his trajectory looks like imitating Kahlon’s.
Set loyalties will not change
Second, this tight web of loyalties means that some basics are not going to change. The Likud are holding steady at about the 30 seat mark, and since the ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious parties are unlikely to vote against themselves in disgust at their own behavior during the epidemic, they should more or less hold their own strength, unless one of the squabbles between rabbinical courts catches fire and leads to abstentions at the polls.
Since the ultra-Orthodox are nervous of the public reaction, they will dig in, rather than weaken their electoral strength. Below the surface, there is dissatisfaction with mainstream rabbinical leadership. But while most people believe that this dissatisfaction is only from relative liberals in the community, there are far more radical and less liberal feelings below the surface. Should the mainstream lose credibility, much more violent factions may emerge, and opportunist rabbis attempt to lead them. The community is very young, with lots of unengaged youth available to enlist in mobs. There have already been indications of such developments.
Shift to the right will not help Netanyahu
Third, the left /center/right balance has shifted slightly to the right over the last couple of years, something that may continue with the eclipse of the Arab joint faction (not that they are mostly thought of as left in their communities, but they are a permanent opposition to Netanyahu).
However, this may not give Netanyahu immunity from prosecution, which is the object of the exercise. Sa’ar and former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman lead right wing parties, and both want Netanyahu out. Former Economy and Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett of Yamina has not declared that he will not serve under Netanyahu, but relations between them are bad, and the PM does not want to depend on his votes, fearing (rightly) that Bennett will seek revenge at his convenience. But he needs the ultra-Orthodox religious vote, and the big public are not happy with the ultra-Orthodox at the moment.
Covid did not move the needle
Fourth, the covid virus handling has not been a game-changer. So far, at any rate. There may be some surprises in store, of course; but while the Likud has not been given good marks by the public, it has not suffered either. The people who today see Netanyahu as hero or villain were doing so a year ago. Both sides have found confirmation for their views in his erratic behavior since then.
Netanyahu remains vastly underestimated abroad. However, at home his opponents know full well his strengths, as years of bitter experience have testified.
The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the author.
|Ralph Amelan is a Global Policy Institute Fellow. He has contributed articles and book reviews to the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Report fortnightly magazine and was the book review editor for the Report for over ten years. He holds a BA and MA in Jurisprudence from Oxford University. He worked as an information specialist for the U.S. Embassy in Israel for 25 years.