Is Netanyahu Finished?

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December 10, 2014 1:57 p.m.

Unless you’re on the far right of Israeli politics, this has been an incredibly depressing few months in, for and about Israel. Amidst all the awful, last week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his erstwhile coalition partner (the politically inept) Yair Lapid’s bluff and booted him out of the governing coalition. This meant Netanyahu had to call for new elections (now scheduled for March). And it was universally assumed that this would lead to a strengthening of the parties of the right and thus a strengthening of Netanyahu’s hand.

But since then something weird has happened in the Israeli body politic.

It’s not that the conventional wisdom has necessarily changed about a more right-wing Knesset and thus government. But more and more people seem to think that calling for early elections may have been the biggest political error Netanyahu has ever made.

Whatever else you think of Netanyahu, as a canny political animal he is almost unrivaled in Israeli history. He is now Israel’s second longest serving Prime Minister after Ben Gurion. (He served almost uninterrupted from 1948 to 1963. And the only interruption was by his own choice. He also left office largely at a time of his choosing.) Once a decade or so Israeli politics tosses up a new savior, a new party out of nowhere that rockets to prominence with a centristy promise to break through the perennial logjams that define Israeli politics. They have one great election and almost always collapse in the next. Kadima, the late Ariel Sharon’s post-Likud vehicle, was the latest example before Lapid’s Yesh Atid. And both seem certain to share the same fate. Lapid was simply no match for Netanyahu at the wizardry and backstabbing and chess-playing that is Israeli coalition politics.

So Lapid’s out. And it looked like another victory for Netanyahu. So what happened?

A lot of people on the Israeli left and in the center think Netanyahu may be literally destroying Israel. The problem is that there isn’t that much left or even center left in Israel. But a mix of the inconclusive end to the most recent Gaza War, years of conniving and dickishness and not being rightwing enough for even more rightwing parties like the malignant HaBayit HaYehudi (Naftali Bennett’s religious nationalist party) have led to a coalescence of an “Anybody But Bibi” movement on the left and the right. 72% of Israelis say the poor relationship between Netanyahu and President Obama is harmful to Israel. 60% say they don’t want Netanyahu to serve as the next Prime Minister.

Now, I have to tell you: I will believe it when I see it. Everybody can be saying anyone but Netanyahu. But obviously the left and the right envision very different alternative scenarios to Netanyahu. And the complete impossibility of bridging that divide is precisely the kind of thing that keeps Netanyahu in power.

So what are the other options? Over the Labor Party’s disastrous last decade and a half it’s had a string of lackluster leaders. It may have a better one now, if not a more charismatic one, in Isaac Herzog, the scion of one of Israel’s most historic political families. And just today it’s been announced that Tzipi Livni is joining with Herzog to make a common anti-Netanyahu front. (Livni is former Likud, who followed Sharon into Kadima and then moved to her own list after losing a chance to lead Kadima.) I had thought the two parties were running as a united slate. But this report sounds like she’s actually joining Labor.

A new round of polls shows that Herzog and Livni together could likely displace Likud as the biggest party in the Knesset and thus the likely get the first chance to form a coalition. If this weren’t enough, Netanyahu seems likely to face a serious challenge for leadership of the Likud itself.

The only problem is that unity ticket would amount to only 24 seats, well short of the 61 seats required to form a government. And there are just a lot more parties on the right than on the center and the left. Bennet’s party may win as many as 15 seats. Rightwing foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s party will probably get upwards of 10. And then there’s another possible savior party like I mentioned above in the person Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud minister whose big claim to fame was breaking up the ridiculous mobile phone triopoly and lowering everyone’s cell phone bill. Current polls show his party winning 13 seats.

Those are different flavors or right but none – with the possible exception of Kahlon – seem like center. They’re definitely not left. So even if Likud falls to second place, it’s kind of hard to see how a center-left united front is able to form a government. To do so it would would have to pull together all the center and left, plus someone like Kahlon and perhaps even Lieberman and some religious party to have anything remotely like a durable governing coalition.

Put that all together and it’s very hard to see how Herzog or anybody but Netanyahu could be Israel’s next Prime Minister. But more and more people seem to think it actually is possible. So it definitely bears watching.

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