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.
With his return, gone are the typical hawkish declarations regarding the Palestinians these recent years. Instead, Deri is focusing on social issues, with a populist bent. In his first television interview after returning to his leadership role, Deri spoke not at all about security issues, emphasizing instead that “the State of Israel is divided into two camps: those who have and those who do not have. We in Shas will represent those who do not have.” At the same time, Deri’s adviser Chaim Cohen blasted Likud-Beiteinu as the “white” party, vowing that Shas would focus on combating discrimination against Arabs and Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent. These statements demonstrate that it is very possible that Shas could join a coalition led by a center left party.
Pressure is also mounting on former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former foreign minister Livni to join the political race. This would have a major but unpredictable impact on the elections. Despite Livni’s loss and the accusations of corruption that taint Olmert’s image, both politicians have significant followings because of their extensive government experience, and in many ways they are seen as more viable candidates for the prime ministership than the other center-left leaders — former journalists Shelly Yachimovich of Labor and Yair Lapid of the new Yesh Atid party.
Yet even if Yachimovich decided to run separately from Olmert or Livni, she would still attract a large following. Both Channel 2 and Channel 10 polls predict Labor doubling in strength, garnering at least 23 mandates. Like Deri, Yachimovich has long been a champion of the poor and increasingly suffering middle class. With a party that does not include Olmert or Livni, she could attract individuals who are more hawkish on security issues but nevertheless are greatly concerned by the rising cost of living in Israel. At the same time, Olmert or Livni could draw in voters who are interested in solving the Palestinian conflict or who are looking for a candidate with more security-related experience.
The last major wildcard is the 11-member bloc of Arab parties, which includes the communist Hadash party, the nationalist Balad party and the Islamist United Arab List. Traditionally, these Arab parties have not entered a coalition; mainstream Zionist parties seem hesitant to invite them, and their own leaders seem indifferent about compromising their positions enough to gain entry. But under the right leadership, and with sufficient investment in the Arab sectors, a center-left coalition could entice them to join such a government. At the very least, these parties may support a minority coalition from the outside, as occurred during the Rabin government in the early 1990s.
As unconventional as it sounds, the best path for the center left may well be to stay divided, just as its foes were in 2009. That way, each party can play to core constituencies, chip away disillusioned Likud voters and hope that differences can be settled after the election — assuming that they can deny Netanyahu the right-wing majority required for political survival.
Geoffrey Levin is a political science PhD student at Johns Hopkins University and an editor of The Jerusalem Review. Aaron Magid is a staff writer for the Jerusalem Review who has written articles on international politics for The Forward and The Jerusalem Post.