Israel edges closer to early election amid nationalist disputes
The country’s top politicians could still pull back from a brink that none seem to relish
Israel’s fractious coalition government seems headed for a breakup that could spark new elections against a backdrop of security turmoil inside the country, disputes over nationalist legislation and a deep freeze in peace efforts with the Palestinians.
With little to gain from a vote that would come two years early, the country’s top politicians could still pull back from a brink that none seem to relish. But the vitriolic attacks of recent days suggest another angry campaign could soon be at hand.
If that happens, it seems likely for now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be returned for a fourth term. Despite sagging popularity amid economic doldrums and increasing global isolation, his divided opposition lacks a credible unifying figure.
Under Israel’s political system, the leader is the elected parliament member who can show majority support in the 120-seat house.
Netanyahu’s current coalition consists of a diverse array of partner parties that includes the centrist "Yesh Atid," which rose to power with promises of economic relief for Israel’s struggling middle class; "Jewish Home," a hard-line party closely identified with the West Bank settlement movement; "Hatnuah," which was elected on a platform pushing peace with the Palestinians; and "Yisrael Beitenu," a nationalist party that seeks to redraw Israel’s borders to rid the country of many Arab citizens. His own Likud party is itself riven with disputes.
With little common ground, the competing factions have begun to squabble over a host of issues, including the budget, the collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks, Jewish settlement construction and how to confront a wave of Palestinian attacks in Jerusalem.
The differences boiled over last week when Netanyahu pushed a piece of legislation defining Israel as "the Jewish state." Although its 1948 Declaration of Independence already does this, critics say enshrining it in law would undermine Israel’s democratic character, enrage the country’s Arab minority, and possibly enable future illiberal legislation. The dispute forced Netanyahu to delay a vote on the bill by a week, and officials say the vote is likely to be pushed back yet again.
Addressing his Cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu complained of the incessant infighting.
"I hope we can return to normal conduct," he said. "This is what the public expects from us. This is the only way to lead the country, and if not we will have to draw conclusions."
The comments came a day after Finance Minister Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, accused Netanyahu of playing "petty politics," and said he hadn’t spoken to him in a month.
Israel’s media is almost unanimously predicting a government collapse with elections in a few months. Many observers believe Netanyahu’s championing of the "Jewish state" law is an effort to establish terms of debate that would bring out his nationalist base.
"The things that Lapid said about Netanyahu on Saturday proved without a doubt: The current government has come to its end. It’s only a matter of time," wrote Shimon Schiffer, a senior political commentator at Yediot Ahronot.
A new opinion poll published Sunday in the Haaretz daily provided little incentive for anyone to head to elections, though.
Asked which politician is most suited to be prime minister, 35 percent of respondents said they favored Netanyahu, down from 42 percent in August, after a war against militants in the Gaza Strip. It said 38 percent were satisfied with his performance, down from 77 percent in early August. Forty-seven percent said Netanyahu should step down before the next elections to allow someone else to hold the top job.
Yet the same poll showed shrinking support for Lapid, Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni and the opposition Labor Party. And the fact that the more liberal side of the map is split into three main parties also creates awkwardness for the opposition and may be preventing momentum for change.
The only party that showed gains was the hard-line "Jewish Home."
One wild card is the possible entrance to the race by Moshe Kahlon, a former member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party who has combined an agenda favoring middle class economic issues with a tough policy on security matters, and who could, some believe, ultimately throw his weight behind a different prime ministerial prospect than the Netanyahu. He is polling around 10 percent in most surveys.
The poll interviewed 511 people and had a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.
Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at the Hebrew University, said it is not in anyone’s interest, except perhaps Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, to push for new elections.
"But politics is not always rational, and sometimes the dynamics of hatred, the statements made off camera, they tend to take on a life of their own," he said.
"Netanyahu is unliked by most Israeli voters," he added. "But there isn’t anyone else to challenge him."