After the latest political earthquake in Israeli politics — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to join with Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avidgor Lieberman to create right-wing “mega party” Likud-Beiteinu — Israeli liberals and centrists are panicking. They fear that the merger has locked up Netanyahu’s chances of winning another term and that they will give Lieberman even more power, leading some to call for the left to unite. Yet, counterintuitively, disunity may be the center left’s key to victory, just as it was for Netanyahu in the last election.
The Likud-Beiteinu merger does mean that its share of Knesset seats will almost certainly be the largest in the next election. But as former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni can attest, winning the most seats does not guarantee winning the premiership. In 2009, Kadima’s 28-seat “victory” gave Livni the chance to build a governing coalition of 61 seats. But her effort was futile: Six different religious and right-wing parties had won a collective 66 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, and none wanted to see Livni lead the country.
Despite Likud’s underwhelming 27-seat performance in that election, Netanyahu had no trouble cobbling together a coalition. The right’s divisions allowed each individual party to play to its respective constituency, and though Likud came in second place, Netanyahu won by losing.
In the next election, history may repeat itself, but this time with Netanyahu as the loser. His union with the controversial Yisrael Beiteinu party appears to have turned off some of Likud’s traditional constituencies, including some moderates and Sephardic voters, who view the Moldovan-born Lieberman with suspicion.
While polls in Israel vary considerably, a prominent Channel 10 poll conducted in late October showed the new Likud-Beiteinu party winning a mere 35 seats, seven fewer than the two parties have today. While Netanyahu still can rely on the support of other right-wing parties such as United Torah Judaism and Habayit Hayehudi/National Union, these parties provide him with only 50 seats, according to the poll — 11 short of the 61 needed to govern.
One of the major wildcards in this election is Shas. With the return of the charismatic Aryeh Deri as its co-leader, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party is projected to improve its standings in most major polls, with Channel 10 giving it 14 seats. Deri, who is returning to politics after serving out a prison sentence for corruption changes, is far from a typical right-wing religious leader. Although Shas currently sits in the Netanyahu government, the party supported Yitzhak Rabin during the Oslo peace process the last time Deri served as its leader.