Elections are in the air—and not just in the United States. In December, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for early primaries in his Likud Party, a likely indicator that he may dissolve the Knesset sometime in 2012 and call a general election. The ball has begun to roll.
Some commentators will point to this move as proof of Netanyahu’s weak hold on his conservative coalition. They are wrong. In the two decades since I moved to Israel, I’ve never seen a coalition so stable. In fact, the move shows Netanyahu’s strength. In the Israeli system, it is always better to call elections than to have them foisted on you, to pick the optimal moment rather than scramble to get ready. Whoever makes the elections happen gets the jump on the campaign and looks like the one in charge. Even the rumor of elections creates a dynamic in which every party digs in on ideological issues, trying to appeal to prospective voters. So once the Prime Minister sends out the election vibe, it’s usually just a matter of time.
A primer of likely political developments in 2012:
1. The demise of Kadima. It’s been a fun ride, but Kadima’s days as the main opposition party are over. The party that was founded on the strength of Ariel Sharon’s personality, and his determination to withdraw from the Gaza Strip over his own Likud party’s objections, found unexpected life after Sharon’s departure for a simple reason: There are hundreds of thousands of Israelis on the left who, despite having abandoned the peace camp in light of the second intifada, nonetheless could never stomach voting for Likud. That was enough to give Kadima a huge mandate despite having no clear ideology, charismatic leadership, governing experience or (post-disengagement) clear policies.
That grace period is over—thanks in part to the coalition tactics of Netanyahu. By bringing the Labor Party, then headed by Ehud Barak, into the government, Netanayahu effectively outflanked Kadima on the left, creating a pincer movement that left Kadima unable to offer a plausible alternative. Their fall will set the stage for:
2. The return of Labor as a viable governing party. The evisceration of Kadima was so thorough that it has had a radical, unintended consequence: the effective disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of left-leaning Israelis. For if the purpose of an opposition is to give voice (and therefore release) to whole parts of the country dissatisfied with government, in Israel there has been no such voice. The result: The eruption of a massive protest movement that filled the streets with tents, concerts and (frankly) a lot of fun and silliness throughout the summer. The Israeli social justice movement, in other words, was primarily an expression brought about by the lack of politicians speaking for left-leaning middle-class Israelis struggling to get by.
That is, until along came Shelly Yachimovich, the former talk radio star who, during 2011, won the Labor Party election for chairman and became the real leader of the opposition. A fast-talking, young-sounding standard-bearer for progressive causes, Yachimovich did the one thing no Labor leader in a generation has dared to do: She convincingly put social justice, rather than the peace process, at the top of her agenda. By dropping the blame-settlements-first attitude of her predecessors, she has been able to win back the masses of ex-Laborites who left in droves because of the failures of Oslo, disengagement and the peace camp. According to polls, Labor will be the number two party in Israel after the next election.
3. The staying power of Likud. Despite the above, Likud under Netanyahu has made itself a political force that will be difficult to defeat in an election. While the farther-right parties will probably remain stable, polls have Likud increasing its Knesset representation. Why? Two big factors:
First, the economy. Despite the social-justice rallies, the fact is that a decade of responsibility in both fiscal and monetary policy has helped Israel sidestep the West’s economic turmoil and turned it into its most promising economy. Although these policies have been undertaken by successive governments and Bank of Israel chairmen, most Israelis credit Netanyahu, who instituted key reforms as finance minister in 2003-2005.
Second, security. Israelis have rarely enjoyed a period so thoroughly devoid of major terrorism or full-scale military conflict as in the nearly three years since Netanyahu took office—whether despite or because of Likud’s hawkish stance. True, there hasn’t been much progress in negotiations with the Arab world, either. But in a country where no news is almost always good news, a prolonged period of non-war and non-peace will inevitably work in the favor of the incumbent.
There are other factors as well. With Ehud Barak cut off from Labor, Netanyahu is today the only present or former Prime Minister in a major party—creating a huge gap of political experience between Likud and everyone else. Bringing Gilad Shalit home didn’t hurt, either.
So when will it happen? The Likud bylaws say primaries have to happen at least six months before an election. So I would guess around September—before Americans vote. And Netanyahu will again have chosen stability, and the relatively quiet summer news cycle, over chaos.
David Hazony is author of The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life.