Israel’s Referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu

McHenry Lee, JHU:

On March 3rd, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington DC to address both Houses of Congress in a controversial speech. He passionately implored the United States to reject the proposed nuclear deal with Iran. In a show of support for deal, the Obama administration and many Democrats in Congress refused to meet with the Prime Minister. The speech was also contentious back home for the Prime Minister. Many Israeli’s saw their Netanyahu’s trip to America as a campaign move, one designed to show the Israeli people that their leader was not afraid to stand up to the nation’s strongest strongest ally. Netanyahu has always been seen as a strong leader, and the Iran speech indicates his desire to maintain his hawkish image. Nonetheless, in order to fully understand Netanyahu’s motivations, we must first understand the current political situation back in Israel.

The Israeli Knesset, the country’s legislative branch, is largely similar to that of the British Parliament. The President is directly elected by a majority of the members of parliament and in turn the President appoints the Prime Minister. The President’s role is largely ceremonial with most of the executive power vested with the Prime Minister. In order to win a seat in the Knesset and have a say on electing the Prime Minister and voting on legislation, a political party must get at least 3.25% of the total popular vote. Because of this low threshold, 12 different parties currently have at least one seat in the legislative body. This results in largely fractured and weak ruling alliances. The party with the largest support, the Likud, only has 31 of a possible 120 seats. Therefore, it’s common for parties to form governing coalitions in order to attain a legislative majority. In 2013, Netanyahu’s Likud Party formed a center right alliance with the Yesh Atid, the Jewish Home, and the Hatnuah for a 68-seat majority.

Those elected to the Knesset generally serve a 4-year term, but the Prime Minister has the power to call national elections at his discretion or whenever a ruling alliance breaks up, just as Netanyhau did last December. After a disagreement between the Likud and the Hatnuah over a controversial legislative proposal describing Israel as the Nation of the Jewish People, Netanyahu was forced call elections. The Hatnuah left the governing majority because they saw this move as dangerous because it could alienate both Israel’s sizeable Arab minority and the secular Jewish community. With their governing ability compromised after losing the majority, the Likud had to call for new elections if they wanted to remain in power.

After they broke away, the Hatnuah formed a new alliance with the Labor Party, creating a center left ticket called the Zionist Union in opposition to Netanyahu and the Likud. If the ZU wins a majority on March 17th, they would nominate Isaac Herzog as their choice for Prime Minister. Herzog is the former Minister of Housing, Social Welfare, and Tourism and has been described in the past as a competent but not too charismatic politician. Not known for his charm or oratory skills, Herzog has instead risen through the ranks because of his knowledge of the issues and his ability to make legislative deals. However, he has recently taken been hailed as the leader of this new coalition largely because he is described as a sort of anti-Netanyahu. Despite his perceived shortcomings, Herzog has skyrocketed in popularity because of his willingness to stand up and oppose the current ruling majority. Many Israelis are upset with the Likud and its leader for failing to protect Israeli security despite its hardline stance on Gaza and the West Bank. Herzog and the Zionist Union have thus campaigned on the policies of re-igniting diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinian Authority while also cutting back on military incursions into the Gaza Strip. They have also hit the Likud for their failure to address socioeconomic issues, such as the high cost and living and the lack of affordable housing. As a center-left coalition, the Zionist Union say that they would focus more of Israel’s resources on domestic issues instead of funding costly conflicts with the Palestinians.

Largely because of the popularity of Herzog and the collapse of the Hatnuah and Likud alliance, this election is in essence a referendum on Netanyahu’s term as Prime Minister. In order to counter this, Netanyahu has gone on the offensive and has tried to remind the Israeli people of his foreign policy prowess. He has brought the Iranian Nuclear Issue to the forefront of Israeli politics by traveling to the United States in an effort to try and prevent a nuclear weapon from getting in the hands of the Ayatollahs in Tehran. Although his speech to Congress might just be political posturing, it also served to remind Israeli voters that their current Prime Minister is willing to stand up to President Obama, who is not seen favorably back in Israel. In short, Netanyahu wants to make the election about security, as is evident in their recently launched massive media campaign. However, will it be enough?

Many polling sources place the election at a dead heat. Most early surveys gave the Likud a slight lead, mainly because of their new alliance with the Jewish Home, a right of center religious party. However, several polls since March 10th have given the edge to the Zionist Union. It is important to note, however, that polling Israeli elections is notoriously difficult largely because pollsters have yet to find an accurate way to incorporate the 3.25% threshold for a seat in the Knesset into their polling models. Some models only ask voters about parties that are likely to reach that threshold while other polls ignore the threshold all together. Therefore, it is hard to predict how many of the smaller parties can reach the 3.25% need and in essence take away seats from the two larger alliances. However, this speculation is all thrown out the window on march 13th, as Israeli law prohibits any new polls from being released four days before voters cast their ballots. Regardless, the general consensus is that the opposition is beginning to gain steam. The earlier the election takes place, the better for the Likud because anti-Netanyahu sentiments have begun to build, climaxing in a 40,000 person rally in Tel Aviv the other day. However, the Zionist Union still has the difficult job of convincing the Israeli people to reject their current leadership, one that was overwhelmingly elected to power only two and a half years ago. Ultimately the election will come down to turnout, especially for the smaller Arab Parties who have the ability to steal seats from the Likud and the Zionist Union.

This election is fundamentally a referendum on the current majority. If Netanyahu is able to stay in power, it will be because Israelis still view him as strong and competent leader who is willing to make the difficult but necessary decisions to secure Israel’s national interests. If the Zionist Union prevails, it will be because they convinced voters that Netanyahu has been too extreme in his responses to Gaza and Iran while simultaneously ignoring domestic and social problems. Even if the Likud or the Zionist Union emerge on Tuesday with a clear majority, the losing side could form another alliance with a minority party and overtake the winner. As a result, it is just as important to focus on how many seats are allocated to these smaller minority parties. Given the Likud’s past ability to form alliances, expect them to emerge from the process with a governing majority, even if they don’t win as many seats on Tuesday as the Zionist Union. Netanyahu will likely remain the Israeli Prime Minister despite his current unpopularity because of the sizable conservative and religious base that he draws support from. He and his party will likely be able to form a new alliance with smaller center right parties to continue governing Israel for the next several years.

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