How Netanyahu blundered by calling elections he's now on the verge of losing

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuReutersIsrael’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his ballot for the parliamentary election at a polling station in Jerusalem March 17, 2015.

Of all the foreseeable outcomes to Israel’s elections today, none of them are favourable to Benjamin Netanyahu, who called the vote in December and has served as Israel’s prime minister for a total of 8 years.

If the polls from earlier this week hold, Netanyahu may be asked to form a coalition consisting of right-wing parties that don’t trust him and whose leaders have been after his office for years. That’s just the best-case scenario for him.

He could also end up leading an ideologically incoherent and inherently fragile coalition of centrist and ultra-religious parties, or enter into a unity government with Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union, an arrangement that would necessitate a two-year rotation of the premiership.

But as it is, none of the pre-election polls had Netanyahu leading Herzog, although the largest party doesn’t necessarily lead the government under Israel’s electoral system. If the gap between Netanyahu’s Likud Party and the Zionist Union is wide enough — if Herzog’s party builds upon its average 4-seat lead in the polls, or if Netanyahu’s Likud can’t break the symbolic 20-seat threshold — Netanyahu won’t even be prime minister, and calling elections 2 years into a 4-year term will go down as one of the most glaring unforced errors in Israeli political history.

Netanyahu is a careful politician. He’s changed positions on nearly every major issue, and managed to hold off a series of insurgent challenges from his right flank and within his own party. He’s stayed in power by running circles around his most serious competitors. Netanyahu neutralized arch-rival Avigdor Lieberman by merging with his Yisrael Beitenu party and then dumping him once he ceased to be a serious threat for the premiership. He pulled a similar end-around on Yair Lapid, whose tenure as finance minister is widely considered to be a disappointment and whose Yesh Atid party is projected to lose 7 or 8 of its 19 Knesset seats.

Netanyahu chose the timing of these elections by firing his cabinet in December and dissolving the government. The election now looks like a puzzling and utterly unnecessary miscalculation from one of the most slippery and risk-averse politicians Israel has ever seen. It could have virtually no positive outcome for him, compared to his pre-election position.

The conventional wisdom around these elections is that Netanyahu held together a fractious coalition and wanted to shore up his mandate. He figured that with strong personalities and political opposites like Lapid, Lieberman, and the far-right Naftali Bennett in his government, he had to press any potential advantage before the coalition became too unwieldy to endure.

Israel Labour party Herzog Livni Tel Aviv news conferenceReutersIssac Herzog (L), leader of Israel’s Labour party, and former Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni shake hands after their joint news conference in Tel Aviv on December 10, 2014.

Neri Zilber, a visiting scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, rejects this interpretation, and says that Netanyahu had a different long game in mind when he decided to call elections. In Zilber’s view, the vote wasn’t dictated by centrist or opportunist coalition partners like justice minister Tzipi Livni or Lapid. The pressure instead came from Netanyahu’s right flank — from Bennett’s Bayit HaYehudi party and from within Likud itself.

As Zilber explained to Business Insider, the allegedly inconclusive ending of last summer’s war with Hamas agitated many on the Israeli right — despite the war ending with no major Israeli concessions, hundreds of Hamas fighters dead, and far less of an diplomatic cost than a longer campaign might have incurred.

“Netanyahu was afraid Bennet and Lieberman would resign in protest at some point in the coming year based on his handling of the Gaza War and security issues,” Zilber explained. “It wasn’t ideological differences with the center-left partners” that convinced Netanyahu to act, but “fear of his right-wing partners resigning from the government in protest.”

“So what do you do if you’re Netanyahu and you’re afraid of such a move? You preempt it while you’re in the best position. What you do is create a crisis with your left-wing ministers, blaming them for a coalition crisis that you created,” Zilber explained. “It was basically a political move on his part to mould the narrative ahead of an election and to pick the timing.”

Benjamin NetanyahuReutersIsrael’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog, Co-leader of the centre-left Zionist Union, are pictured together as campaign billboards rotate in Tel Aviv, March 9, 2015.

The fact that this gambit failed so badly reveals a couple of possible insights into what the next government might look like.
Crucially, Netanyahu won’t have the ability to triangulate between the center and far right within a hard-right coalition. He could re-enter a coalition with Lieberman and Bennett, but it would immediately be subject to international isolation and domestic scorn without including any extra job security for Netanyahu himself. Israelis are confused enough about why this election is even happening. Few will be satisfied by an outcome that delivers a radical yet unstable government whose sole attraction (relatively speaking) is returning Netanyahu to the prime minister’s office for another two years. And such a government wouldn’t discipline Netanyahu’s right flank, but empower it even further.

The potential “kingmaker” parties understand that a right-wing government is both unpalatable to Israelis and unmanageable by Netanyahu himself. They also understand that because of coalition maths, Herzog can’t be prime minister without their support. This increases the possibility that popular ex-Likud minister Moshe Kahlon and the ever-opportunistic Avigdor Lieberman both decide to endorse a Herzog-led government, or a rotational unity government. And Netanyahu’s plunging political fortunes increase the chance that he would accept a unity government arrangement if the chance were offered to him.

Netanyahu overplayed a bad hand, and may pay dearly for it. This is what happens in democratic systems where the voters determine whether a politician’s gambits pay off or not. Netanyahu attempted to set the narrative of the election, and the voters appear to be on the verge of repudiating it.

Netanyahu’s survival instinct triggered a series of events that might have seemed unlikely or even unthinkable a couple of months ago, like a strengthened center-left, a rejuvenated Labour Party (the key member of the Zionist Union), the return of a seemingly finished Tzipi Livini, and the potential rise of the United Arab List as the country’s third-largest electoral bloc.

Netanyahu’s blunder is a study not just in individual hubris, but in the limits that even deeply flawed and chaotic electoral systems like Israel’s can impose on their most talented and strong-willed actors.

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