Israel is buzzing this week after a dramatic few days in which Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu dismissed two coalition partners (Yesh Atid headed by Yair Lapid, and Hatnua led by Tzipi Livni) for refusing to support the governmental agenda. The Knesset will likely be dissolved over the coming days paving the way for an election to be held in March 2015.
Although things change in Israeli politics faster than Twitter can spew out news, and with such a relatively long election cycle, there are sure to be twists and turns, nonetheless some observations are worth making.
An election of choice
Although Netanyahu has tried to spin this as him cracking down on disloyalty within his ministerial team, the reality is the way he has gone about this political maneuver shows that he believes elections now are in the best interests of the Likud party.
In a meeting with his Finance Minister Yair Lapid, the main Centrist voice in his coalition, Netanyahu made a series of demands which he knew would not be accepted. His demand for support for legislation favoured by the hardline members of Likud, and dismissal of various Left-of-Centre interventions in the economy, effectively required both Yesh Atid and Hatnua to erase the political differences between themselves and the Likud.
Netanyahu instead could have tried to muddle through, continuing his current governmental policy of not rocking the boat and trying to chart a middle way between the religious-nationalist Bayit Yehudi and the more secularly-minded Centre-Left. It appears that he has come to the conclusion that will leave him as the 'nothing' man of Israeli politics, little more than a schoolteacher who has lost control of his students.
The Netanyahu swing to the Right is political not principled
When discussing Israeli politics with anyone, one can always tell their level of knowledge by how they see Netanyahu. If they see him as an uncompromising, hardline Revisionist who embodies the worst in Israel, then you know they do not know what they are talking about.
The most frustrating thing about Netanyahu – both for those on the Left and the Right – is that no one truly knows either what he believes, nor what he thinks is achievable. He is not some ideologue when it comes to the Territories, and clearly sees the settlements through the lens of security not religion (he is widely understood to be secular).
The recent reintroduction of home-demolition against terrorists, support (albeit tepid) for the Rightist ‘Jewish State Law’, labelling of President Abbas as a terror-supporter and allusions to ISIS appearing in the Territories should Israel withdraw are even more obviously the plays for political support from the Right in the lead up to an election now than they were a month ago.
There is no Sharon, Rabin or Begin on the horizon
No party has a standard bearer who is capable of reshaping the political landscape in Israel during this election. The Right-wing does not have a Begin like figure to stand tall for the Revisionist message, withstand the political pressure to compromise and hold on to every inch of the Land of Israel. Naftali Bennet lacks appeal beyond a very narrow constituency, while Netanyahu does not even believe in such an ideology.
The Left-wing does not have a Rabin waiting in the wings, capable of inspiring confidence on matters of security while nonetheless being committed to a grand settlement of the Palestinian question. In fact, few on the Left even believe such a figure can emerge, and certainly not the admirable but uninspiring Isaac Herzog of the Labor party.
The Centre has a gluttony of leaders without followers, and certainly no one who could gain the sort of support that Ariel Sharon commanded when he created Kadima and held a government together out of sheer force of will. Yair Lapid remains much more persuasive when not discussing the most important issue (HaMatzav – the situation/conflict), while Tzipi Livni has surely run out of chances to become the great Israeli leader so many thought she might become. The idea that Moshe Kahlon can run as the saviour of the nation based on having reduced phone charges is uninspiring to say the least.
It is against this backdrop that the hyper-cautious Netanyahu has called an election. He is betting that when the chips are down there will be no one else that for either the Israeli people to vote for in sufficient number, or (much more importantly) the Israeli President to ask to form a government.
Netanyahu is following in the example of every non-ideological incumbent who is out of ideas as to how to redefine the national dialogue. He is hoping that the Israeli public will decide quite simply: Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.
With things as close, uncertain, and risky as they are in Israeli politics today, it may just be that this is the time Israelis decide it is better to bet with either the Centre-Left or the Right, than continue the stagnation of the Nothing.
By Philip A. Gardner