The most recent Israeli election campaign is now one week old. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made the main election issue “giving him a mandate so he can govern effectively” – a mandate that is going to be very hard for him to obtain. The problem stems from what expert call “the Balkanization of Israeli politics”. For much of Israel’s history there was a belief that a number of small parties had disproportional power, by the very fact that a small party could often decide the fate of the larger parties, and determine who would govern and who would not. However, during most periods the Israeli political scene was dominated by two large parties – i.e. the Labor party and the Likud (or their predecessor parties). Over the course of the past 15 years the dominance of both those parties has wained, and in their place 5 medium-sized parties have taken root, (parties whose goal is now to pass the threshold of 20 seats in a 120 seat parliament and thus become the dominant party in any coalition.) The problem is that with an anchor party who earned only 20 (or so) MKs, controlling a coalition in a parliament is nearly impossible (as Prime Minister Netanyahu learned in the past two years.) Nothing in the events of the past week shows any promise of changing this fundamental point.
In the last seven days we have seen one merger of parties, divorce in another party, and the birth of a third party. This is not exactly a recipe for greater stability in governing. The major political news was the merger of Tzipi Livni’s HaT’nua party with the Labor party, headed by Yitzhak “Buji” Herzog. The merger did not come as a surprise, with the HaT’nua’s poll numbers hovering around the minimum needed to be seated the the parliament, it was clear they would have to look for a new home, and the Labor party was the most compatible politically partner. What surprised political observers were the terms of the merger agreement.Those terms called for Herzog and Livni to share the Prime Ministership if Labor forms the government – first Herzog and then Livni. Herzog was immediately criticized for giving away the store by agreeing to this arrangement. Despite the criticism leveled at Herzog initially the agreement seems to have given the new combined party a boost, with polls showing a small gain in votes, for the moment, putting the new duo ahead of the Likud.
The divorce took place in Shas, the Ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Party. Eli Yishai, (who headed the party over all the years that the present party head, Aryeh Deri, was either in jail or barred by law from being active in politics) left Shas to start his own party. In his initial speech to form the new party Yishai claimed the reason for creating his own party was that “the people demanded unity”. As Yishai’s orientations are clearly to the right of the those of Deri, the effect of this split could be interesting. The polls tonight show the two parties equally sharing a diminished vote with both close to the minimums below which neither might enter the parliament
Finally, Moshe Kachlon, the very popular former Communications Minister announced the creation of his new party “Kulanu” (“All of us”). Kachlon seems to be the most popular Israeli politician today. Based on recent poll results, his new party (as of yet without have any members) would receive over 10 seats in the parliament. Former Finance Minister Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid has approached Kachlon about working together or merging, but so far the advances have been rejected by Kachlon.
One of the potentially most important political utterance this week was the statement by Foreign Minister Lieberman that he was not necessarily wedded to entering into a coalition with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and that he could just as well enter a coalition with Herzog. Lieberman’s declaration immediately triggered a fusillade of criticism against him by the Likud, with warnings going out that if people vote for Lieberman they will be choosing to bring a leftist government to power.
With the election still three months away, there is a sense that anything is possible. However, one statistic from recent polls stand out. 66% of Israelis would prefer someone other than Netanyahu be elected Prime Minister, at the same time that 64% of Israelis expect that Netanyahu will be the next Prime Minister.