(July 7, 2017 / JNS) At the annual Herzliya Conference in Israel last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced a seemingly unprecedented barrage of attacks from a number of political speakers, who contended that it was time for a change of direction in the Jewish state. Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon even made a formal announcement that he will run for prime minister in the next Israeli election.
The next election?
For those at the Herzliya gathering—or who watched it live-streamed from abroad—it might have seemed like an election is brewing in the Jewish state. But Dr. Ofer Kenig, a researcher for the Israel Democracy Institute think tank’s Political Reform project and an expert in the areas of party politics, electoral systems, political leaders, and cabinet ministers, says, “I wouldn’t count on it.…I can only see new elections if Netanyahu decides he has had enough and he wants to reshuffle the cards. But I am not sure what would lead him to make such a move.”
In late May, Netanyahu successfully expanded his once-fragile 61-seat coalition government to 66 seats, bringing Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party into his coalition and naming Lieberman the new defense minister. Ahead of that deal, a mid-May poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 2 found that more Israelis (37 percent) wanted to see Yisrael Beiteinu join the coalition over Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union party (24 percent), which had been Netanyahu’s other option for expanding his coalition.
Further, Netanyahu has successfully overcome another potential hurdle to his stability by convincing all members of his coalition to support a two-year budget plan; failure to pass a budget on time leads to automatic early elections in Israel. Political analyst Hanan Crystal explains that the passing of the two-year budget not only buys coalition peace by avoiding the need to go through the often-volatile budget debate next year, but also “means we’re likely to have a stable government for at least two years and that we will not have to go to elections until 2019.”
Crystal tells JNS.org that Israel’s political right, which includes all of the haredi parties and the Shas party, is much stronger than the center and left combined. He contends that Netanyahu has no one to compete with him within the Likud party.
“That is the situation,” says Crystal.
But as anyone who follows Israeli politics knows, “even the unlikely can be materialized,” Kenig says.
So if Netanyahu called for elections tomorrow, would any of the “Herzliya contenders” be legitimate competition for prime minister?
Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak hinted that he might make a political comeback. Journalist and blogger Tal Schneider—the former Washington, DC correspondent for the Hebrew daily newspaper Ma’ariv—says she doesn’t see it happening. That’s not because Israel isn’t big on political “comebacks”—it is—but instead, it’s because Barak has no party and no following.
Schneider says that if one looks at Israel’s history, having Barak at the helm would seem less far-fetched. In Israel’s short 70-year existence, four prime ministers have left that office but assumed it again at a later juncture—including Netanyahu.
Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin resigned in 1977 over a financial scandal, only to be promoted to defense minister in 1984 and then re-elected to the premiership in 1992.
Ariel Sharon pulled off what was perhaps the most dramatic comeback in Israeli political history. Sharon, who was widely blamed for two massacres in the 1982 Lebanon War (during which he served as defense minister), and was even coined the “Butcher of Beirut,” won the premiership in 2001. He spent years in lower-level government positions, only to re-surface as prime minister when Israelis were ready for a strong, no-nonsense leader.
Barak already tried to make one comeback. He first entered politics shortly before the assassination of Rabin in 1995 and was elected prime minister on behalf of the Labor Party in 1999; his government collapsed two years later. He returned to politics in 2004, marketing himself as a reformed political leader who had learned from his mistakes. He was elected head of Labor in 2007. But in 2009, the last time he led Labor into elections, the party suffered its worst defeat ever, securing only 13 seats in the Knesset.
“It seems like there isn’t a big welcome for him in the Israeli left or center for him,” says Schneider.
“He has no chance,” adds Crystal.
More likely competition for Netanyahu is a center-left party bloc, which has been proposed by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Kenig explains that the only way to try to topple Netanyahu and his government “is by launching with real strength and the only way you can do that is with a broad front that would include all the center and center-left political parties. Even then, I am not sure it would succeed.”
Livni is suggesting a massive open primary, in which all members of these parties would join together and decide the candidate to run against Netanyahu in the next general election. Kenig says that while he believes Livni understands what needs to be done—and she took the first steps before the previous Israeli election, when she merged her Hatnuah party with Labor to form the Zionist Union—he is not confident that she “has much of chance of taking the leadership of such a broad front.”
“Israeli center parties are the wind of the times—something temporary,” says Schneider. “None of them hold for more than 10 to 15 years.”
Other potential contenders come from Netanyahu’s own party and political orientation are Ya’alon, Gideon Sa’ar, and Moshe Kahlon. Kenig says that these individuals could put out a more centrist (as opposed to center-right) platform to compete with Netanyahu, “but we just don’t know.”
Among the contenders, experts say Ya’alon would have an edge. A poll published in May by the Knesset Channel found 52 percent of Jewish Israelis preferred Ya’alon as defense minister to Lieberman (31 percent).
“It is a custom in Israel that generals are good prime minister material,” since they don’t have to prove their capabilities on the security front, Schneider says.
Another potential war-hero challenger would be former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who stepped down in February 2015. A three-year mandatory “cooling-off” period would mean he would only be eligible to run for office at the end of 2018. A November 2015 poll by Channel 2 found that if a race would have been held at that time, Gantz would have likely defeated Netanyahu. Today, it’s unclear.
“Gantz is making a lot of noise,” says Crystal, “but we really have no idea of his intentions. Netanyahu could call elections earlier, and then he wouldn’t even be able to run.”
The other individual who seems to be trying to position himself as competition for Netanyahu is former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party. At Herzliya, Lapid laid out a seven-point plan for his premiership.
“Lapid currently seems like he has a better chance than any other leader on the spectrum of Yesh Atid and leftward,” says Kenig. “Lapid’s lack of political skills will make it very difficult for him to achieve the top position.”
Crystal says the only way Israelis should expect to be at the polls in the near future is if an unforeseen event forces Netanyahu to call for early elections or for the coalition to dissolve.
“I don’t see any reason to break [the coalition],” says Crystal. “But things can always change.”
***Full disclosure: Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman is director of international communications at the Israel Democracy Institute, where Ofer Kenig is also employed.