This has been a boring Israeli election campaign, with few overarching policy debates and no major surprises. The campaign has mainly been about Netanyahu’s character, with everybody taking pot shots at his reputed “flaws” and “weaknesses,” most notably Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert, Yuval Diskin, Amos Oz, and Barack Obama.
Stepping back and taking a bird’s-eye perspective, it can be said that this has been a boring Israeli election campaign.
The contest is stuck where it was at its outset three months ago; the polls haven’t budged much. Netanyahu is in the clear lead to again be prime minister. Parties of the political left (which sometimes prefer to call themselves ‘center’) have been unable to unite against him. Few overarching debates on policy have materialized, and there have been no major surprises along the way.
The only two things about the campaign that were not predicted in advance were the strength of Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi party, and the wholesale housecleaning that the Knesset is undergoing. So many veteran MKs are being chucked out, and so many inexperienced, bright-eyed, political newcomers are going to be voted in. Out are the generals. In are journalists, social activists, and settlement leaders.
Netanyahu does not seem to be seeking a mandate for any specific policy or action except keeping Israel strong. That’s mainly because Israelis don’t see themselves as standing at a historic juncture. They don’t believe that Middle East circumstances are ripe for peace, and they don’t expect their prime minister to be making any dramatic diplomatic moves.
Because no single issue has emerged as a central campaign focus, the campaign has been mainly a popularity contest, driven by personalities. Shelley or Tzipi. Bibi or Bennett. Lieberman or Lapid. In fact, the campaign has mainly been about Netanyahu’s character, with everybody taking pot shots at his reputed “flaws” and “weaknesses,” including Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert, Yuval Diskin, Amos Oz, and Barack Obama.
Which leaves us with speculation over the make-up of the new governing coalition.
It’s safe to assume that Netanyahu prefers a broad, centrist coalition government. But the coalition math is uncertain. The shift of several seats from one party to another could force him into a narrow coalition with religious and right-wing parties alone.
Moreover, many of Netanyahu’s key rivals sense that his coming (third) government will be short-lived. So they are really fighting the next election campaign – say, the campaign of 2015 – when Netanyahu will probably no longer be a candidate for prime minister. Consequently, they’re not all inclined to jump into government now, even if this would be the best thing for national strength, stability and unity.
“Bibi’s dilemma,” as one pundit has termed it, is this: A government comprised solely of Netanyahu’s “natural coalition” partners – his own Likud-Beiteinu, the Ultra-Orthodox parties, and Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi – is a recipe for trouble with the U.S., with Diaspora Jews, and with public opinion in Israel. The Israeli Left would work assiduously to undermine and delegitimize the government every day.
Consequently, Netanyahu would prefer to incorporate one, two or even three of the parties to Likud-Beiteinu’s left. The most obvious choices are Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid and Shaul Mofaz (if Mofaz’s Kadima manages to pass the threshold). He might even manage to cut a deal for an “emergency socioeconomic unity government” with the Labor Party too.
I suspect that Netanyahu will seek coalition with those parties with whom a deal can be cut quickly and cheaply, meaning that their demands and expectations will not be too high. This militates against Shas and Labor, and probably Livni too, at least in the early stages of government formation.
On policy matters, Netanyahu knows that difficult times are ahead. He has to pass a budget within 45 days, and it will be an austerity budget; a bitter pill for both the coalition and the public to swallow.
He will have to negotiate new arrangements in a whole range of religion and state issues, including the draft or exemption of Ultra-Orthodox men from Israeli army service, prayer guidelines for non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall, the election of new chief rabbis, and conversion law.
He will need to engage Obama and the Palestinians in some sort of renewed negotiation process, which almost certainly will involve some degree of settlement moratorium. Then there is the looming confrontation with Iran, and more.
But all this doesn’t really figure into the remaining days of the campaign. What remains is a fight over undecided voters, which could be anywhere from 15 to 35 percent of the electorate, and few more opportunities for mud-slinging.
So this is what to expect: Avigdor Lieberman and Aryeh Deri sniping further at each other. Likud leaders pressing the attack on Naftali Bennett. The Ultra-Orthodox threatening Netanyahu with a feint to the left. Yachimovich, Lapid and Livni continuing to claw at one another. (One gets the impression that Yachimovich and Lapid despise Livni more than Netanyahu does). Labor warning against Likud’s impending social budget cuts. Meretz continuing to court the female vote. Shas amplifying its scaremongering campaign against foreign workers. Livni regurgitating Obama’s message – that Netanyahu is driving Israel into international isolation.
And Yediot Ahronot will continue to highlight every possible angle of attack on Netanyahu.