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The Israeli Elections Conundrum
Could Yair Lapid's centrism gain power by losing it? I doubt it.
Yair Rosenberg has reposted on his site, Deep Shtetl, a profile he wrote of Yair Lapid, who will likely be Israel’s next Prime Minister. It’s very worth a read. I also recommend reading this thread that Rosenberg posted yesterday explaining why Israel’s government just dissolved and called for new elections, and what might happen next.
It’s all extremely complicated because of the many divisions of Israeli politics, not only right versus left (or right versus center; the Israeli left is a much reduced thing), but also religious versus secular, Jewish versus Arab, and pro-Netanyahu versus anti-Netanyahu.
Israel is a parliamentary democracy with a unicameral legislature elected via party lists and proportional representation. They also have a relatively low threshold for inclusion in the Knesset of 3.25%, which both encourages and is justified by the many political divisions in the country. In the last election, Likud, the right-wing party headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, won by far the most seats, but it still had fewer than half the seats necessary to form a government. Like every government in Israel’s history, it would have to form a coalition. But even though parties that were ideologically compatible with Likud won a clear majority of seats, because Netanyahu himself had become such a polarizing figure and because some of these parties were also at odds with each other, they could not form a governing coalition.
Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) Party demonstrated extraordinary political skill in putting together a coalition of his own in spite of having far fewer seats to work with and needing to bridge much larger ideological divides. At the outset, his coalition included not only its natural partners, the center-right Blue and White Party, center-left Labor Party, and the anti-Netanyahu Likud splinter known as the New Hope Party; it also needed the settler-oriented Yamina (“Right”) Party, the right-wing but secular immigrant-oriented Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel Our Home” ) Party, the left-wing Meretz Party, and Ra’am, a moderate Islamist Arab party.
The risk with this coalition was always that it would have a hard time holding on to its right-most flank, since left-wing defections would not be likely to join an effort to topple the government in favor of Netanyahu. And that’s precisely what has happened. But those defections haven’t been enough to give Likud a majority capable of forming a government without elections. Why? Because while Likud and its right-wing and religious partners constitute the bulk of the opposition, the left-wing Arab Joint List is also outside of the government, and it has six seats. Likud doesn’t need just a couple of defections to have a majority; it needs to split a major party or swing a minor right-wing party, like Yamina, New Hope or Yisrael Beiteinu, entirely over to its side. This is what Netanyahu has, so far, proved unable to accomplish.
A new election, though, might just give him the boost he needs. The polls since the announcement project that a Likud-led coalition of Likud, the ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism), and the far-right Religious Zionist Party would get between 59 and 61 seats—with 61 seats needed for a majority. None of these parties are at any risk of falling below the threshold for winning seats, though it is possible that the Religious Zionist Party could split into right-wing and extreme-right factions, in which case one or the other might fail to clear the threshold. By contrast, several members of the governing coalition are right on the edge: Meretz, Ra’am, New Hope and Yamina all have landed just above or just below the threshold in some recent polls.
There’s a very real possibility, then, that a new election would give Netanyahu a clear win possibly by driving one or more alternative right-wing parties below the threshold for representation in the Knesset. Moreover, if that happened, Likud’s coalition would be the most right-wing in Israel’s history, including the extremist Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) faction within the Religious Zionists.
Why, then, would the government vote to dissolve itself? Perhaps the gamble isn’t that in a short time they could radically change the political climate and win a coherent ideological majority (indeed, if that were the gamble then PM Naftali Bennett wouldn’t have made it, as an ideologically-coherent non-Likud coalition wouldn’t include his own Yamina Party). Rather, perhaps it’s simply based on a recognition that the existing coalition was about to collapse anyway in favor of a Netanyahu-led government. Specifically, the refusal of the opposition to help the government pass the settler law (which extends Israeli law to settlements in the West Bank) meant that unless a new government formed the law would expire. That threat might well have been enough to flip an entire party over to a Netanyahu-led government.
But if a centrist coalition is unlikely to win a new election, what would be gained by having an election? One possible answer is that if, after an election, neither Likud nor Yesh Atid is able to form a government, then the sitting Prime Minister remains in power while the country prepares for yet another election. That’s how Netanyahu managed to hang on through multiple successive elections toward the end of his long Prime Ministership. So perhaps Yair Lapid hopes to kick the can down the road far enough that political conditions do change, and he is able to form a government.
Personally, I think that’s a considerable long shot. Lapid can’t demonstrate the viability of a centrist government if he can’t pass laws, and he won’t be able to pass laws without a majority. That’s what we just saw with the settler law. A government without a mandate and without the ability to take action to generate one should weaken over time, not strengthen.
Meanwhile, there’s a much darker risk that I hesitate to bring up, but that I feel I must. If the next election gives Israel a clear right-wing majority in the Knesset, but those right-wing parties won’t coalesce around Netanyahu (which is the optimistic scenario that keeps Lapid in office), and Lapid tries to govern from a “centrist” point that is notably to the left of the median Knesset member, then elements on the far right could begin to call him illegitimate and an enemy of the Jewish people, just as they did to Yitzhak Rabin when he attempted to continue governing without a majority (but with tacit support from Arab parties that would not join the coalition). Even without forecasting similar consequences, it’s hard to see how Lapid could effectively govern under such conditions.
So the real hope has to be victory, as unlikely as that might seem from current polls. And while victory doesn’t mean getting more seats than Likud—it’s wildly unlikely that Yesh Atid will achieve that on its own—it does mean building a more coherent coalition that is not left-wing but that is more concerned about keeping Netanyahu and his more extreme partners out of power than they are about sitting with Ra’am or Meretz. That, in turn, implies a considerable change in the views of the median Israeli voter, when the most recent trend is the other way.
I wish him luck.