Why nothing will change after the Israeli elections

There is much talk now of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu possibly forming a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox parties after he wins the next elections. He’s even signaled to Shas that their tenure over the Housing and Construction Ministry is coming to an end. To add insult to their injury, Netanyahu has appointed Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to look into the issue of women praying at the Western Wall, a proverbial red line for the haredim.

The religious parties are looking at how many votes Likud-Beytenu gets. When the Likud-Beytenu joint list was announced on 19/11 it was projected to win 42 seats. According to the latest polls, the joint list is polling at 35. A week before that it was hovering around the 38 mark. There is a distinct loss of altitude for the combined list but it does look like it will be in the best position to form the next government, as the political bloc calculus has not changed.

Were Likud-Beytenu to get 42 or 43 seats, and Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home 11 or 12, there is a chance that Netanyahu could bring in Lapid or Livni and leave the haredim out of the next coalition. Israelis, by a large majority, are very eager to redress the imbalance of haredi non-service in the military and other inequalities in civil society. But it seems increasingly unlikely that the Likud-Beytenu list will get over 40 mandates. Their attacks on newcomer Naftali Bennett have backfired, and Avigdor Lieberman’s legal troubles have taken him, temporarily, out of the game.

But the real enemy of the Likud-Beytenu list is not Naftali Bennet, it’s not Livni, Shelly or Shas. It’s apathy, and voters’ political calculus. When you’re the incumbent and the election seems to be in the bag, as it does for Netanyahu, there is probably a belief amongst voters, especially amongst the nationalist and religious right, that OK, we’re going to win, so we might want to strengthen the right of Naftali Bennet or strengthen the religious element which is in Shas. Some might even want to vote Lapid for his anti-haredi platform, or some might even just not come out to vote.

Likud-Beytenu will try and convince these people that it needs every vote, that the election is not in the bag, because every seat enables them to make more structural changes.  The more seats Likud-Beytenu has the less coalition partners it will need and the less demands those coalition partners will be able to make. There is a possibility, and some within the joint list are speaking about this openly now, of forming a government without the haredi parties, to make the changes that they will most resistant to, like government reform, universal army conscription and national service, workforce participation, weakening the Orthodox monopoly on conversions and every other aspect of religious life. Netanyahu has also said he will take the Housing and Construction Ministry out of Shas’ hands and keep it in Likud-Beytenu; which really amounts to a declaration of war on the haredim.

I don’t buy it.

Netanyahu had a chance to do all of this earlier this year when he teamed up with Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz, when he was crowned King Bibi, and when, for a glorious moment, he was the most powerful Israeli prime minister in history, with a coalition of some 90 members of Knesset. But Netanyahu had a longer-term vision, and was looking down the road to the next elections. While Mofaz brought 28 members of Knesset with him to the table in May 2012, Netanyahu figured that Kadima would be all but wiped out by the time the next elections rolled around in 2013. And he was right. Polls show that Kadima will not pass the electoral threshold. Think about that for a moment: from 28 to zero in under four years. Kadima had 28 seats, but the party had an expiry date which has finally arrived. So technically, morally  ethically, Netanyahu could have made the reforms in government that he may have wanted to make, but he would have received major blowback after the next election when it came time to form a coalition.

All the parties on the center left are oscillating up and down several percentage points, but, as usual, the ultra-Orthodox parties remain steady. Reliable. Shas may have a three-headed monster at its head now, but party unity is being maintained. The only one to have split from Shas is Amsalem, and his new party is not polling to cross the threshold. There has been some talk of a split in the Ashkenazi haredi camp, but I don’t see any real signs that the UTJ are splintering.

Shas will remain as it is, and UTJ will remain as it is. They will even grow in time as their electoral base grows. There are currently 15 or 16 seats between the two haredi parties, and for any prime minister, that is electoral gold, that is 16 seats in the bag. With an increasingly splintering Knesset [there are some 30 parties running in the January elections], Netanyahu will look to solid partners.

As we know that the haredim go to the highest bidder. Even with with Aryeh Deri at the helm of Shas, I still believe that the overriding interests of the Sephardic religious establishment would only be served in a right-wing nationalist government headed by Netanyahu, and Shas will not give Bibi too much trouble over the housing ministry. Things can always be worked out.

So while each side is making noises, my sense is that after the elections, Netanyahu will choose to ally with his natural partners. I do not believe that the political calculus has changed.

Unlike some others who see a potential Labor-Likud coalition after the elections, I think Likud-Beytenu have very little in common economically with the Labor party, and very different visions of economic policies. Nobody is ruling out anyone as possible coalition partners at this stage, but it will not be a comfortable partnership to say the least. Netanyahu, for his part, will be loathe to give Yechimovich too much power over his coalition.

Labor has strong policies on socioeconomic issues, but they are poles apart from Netanyahus’. Yisrael Beytenu has strong policies on civil issues such as loyalty oaths, universal conscription, and religious pluralism, which go much farther than many of Netanyahu’s religious allies’ views, but they have managed to coexist quite comfortably for the past four years.  With NIS 15 billion in budget cuts looming, I don’t see how Labor, packed as it is with leaders of the social justice movement, can coexist in a Netanyahu government.

It will be interesting to see how a possible coalition of Netanyahu-Lieberman-Yechimovich might work, no matter how implausible it sounds now. On the other hand, Yechimovich might prefer to spend the next four years as Leader of the Opposition, sharpening her skills, defining her message, and solidifying her political base, instead of entering Netanyahu’s government as his diplomatic and economic fig leaf. She might want the semblance of power that comes with being Leader of the Opposition. Yechimovich is not seen as a serious contender for the prime ministerial post due to her lack of experience. Perhaps if this was a Scandinavian country, she’d have a chance. But polls have consistently shown that Netanyahu is way out front. So she might want to play the long game.

In the final analysis, Netanyahu has shown himself to be a politician who prizes stability above all else. In a year which promises fateful security decisions like Iran and Syria, the PM will want a steady coalition with reliable partners who won’t make too much noise when public sector budgets are cut.


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