TEL AVIV (JTA) — It wasn’t Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for early elections that was unusual. After all, only a few governments have served a full term in Israel’s 64-year history.
What was unusual was that seemingly everyone on Israel’s political spectrum — from left to right — appeared to agree that there was no real contest about who would be the next prime minister. Barring any major surprises, Netanyahu is expected to win a third term handily when voting is held early next year; elections had been scheduled for October 2013.
“Netanyahu looks like an authoritative and experienced statesman, with no present alternative,” Aluf Benn, Haaretz’s editor in chief, noted in an Op-Ed.
It’s not that there’s no opposition to Netanyahu in Israel.
Shelly Yachimovich, leader of the center-left Labor Party, has called his conservative economic policies a “violent jungle,” according to Maariv. Shaul Mofaz, leader of the centrist Kadima Party, criticized Netanyahu’s “lack of judgment” on a potential attack on Iran’s nuclear program.
Zahava Gal-On, leader of the leftist Meretz Party, asked in a Facebook post on Tuesday whether voters “want four more years of trampling democracy, damaging human rights, freedom of expression, free assembly and protest?” Even Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister and Netanyahu’s coalition partner, has been sparring with the prime minister over U.S.-Israel relations.
But none of these political leaders represents a formidable challenge to Netanyahu. Nor is the current balance of power between right and left, which currently favors the right, expected to change. The seats split between Israel’s center-left and left parties may change configuration, but the right-wing bloc in Netanyahu’s coalition is expected to keep its dominant position.
Kadima, the 6-year-old party started by Ariel Sharon that won the most seats in the last election, in February 2009, is likely to cede the most ground. Some polls predict that Kadima, which was part of the Netanyahu government this year for more than two months, will win as few as eight seats.
The Labor Party is likely to pick up many of the voters defecting from Kadima. Polls show Yachimovich could lift Labor to as many as 20 seats, up sharply from the eight it now has but significantly down for a party that once was one of the two main parties in Israel.
As a sign of Netanyahu’s strength, both Kadima and Labor are seen as potential coalition partners for Likud, and neither Yachimovich nor Mofaz have ruled that out. The only non-Arab party that has vowed not to join Netanyahu in a coalition is Meretz, which controls just four seats.
“It will be entertaining to watch them fight for their place in line,” columnist Yossi Verter wrote in Haaretz.
Netanyahu cited his coalition’s failure to pass a budget as the reason for calling the early elections now.
As it has for his entire term, the issue of how to stop Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program could dominate the campaign. In addition, the Arab Spring and the regional instability in Egypt and Syria may work to Netanyahu’s advantage, according to Hebrew University political science professor Avraham Diskin.
“If people see there’s a threat, people always go to the right,” Diskin told JTA.
The only real threats to Netanyahu’s third term are not in the Knesset right now. They include Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister from Kadima who recently was cleared of the corruption case that prompted his resignation in 2008; Livni, who resigned from the Knesset after losing to Mofaz in Kadima primaries in March; and Yair Lapid, a journalist turned politician who has founded a new centrist secular party called Yesh Atid, which translates as There is a Future.
But Olmert still faces corruption charges in other trials, and he has not yet said whether he will try to make a political comeback. Olmert said he will reach a decision in a few days. At least one Likud Knesset member, Tzipi Hotovely, reportedly is looking into legal options to ban Olmert from running, given the indictments he still faces.
It’s also unclear whether Livni will run or which party she’d join if she does. Livni has failed twice to form the coalition government that would have made her prime minister — once when she inherited Kadima’s mantle after Olmert’s resignation, and then when Kadima edged the Likud by one seat in the 2009 elections.
As for Lapid, while his entrance into politics was greeted by much hype — he’s also the son of the late secular politician Yosef “Tommy” Lapid — he has no experience in government and is not considered a viable alternative to Netanyahu when it comes to Israel’s foreign policy challenges.
Yachimovich and Lapid could try to swing the campaign back to the economy, playing to the economic liberalism advocated by Israelis in the mass socioeconomic protests of the summer of 2011. But even there Netanyahu is seen as having significant advantages: The economic crisis that slammed the United States and Europe largely has bypassed Israel.
Netanyahu “has the ability to say there’s a world crisis and it’s only hit Israel lightly,” Gideon Rahat, another Hebrew University political science professor, told JTA. “The social protests did not succeed in topping the agenda.”
In his speech announcing the early elections, Netanyahu touted the stability of his current coalition, which excluding this year’s brief unity government has fluctuated between 64 and 68 members since 2009 without any real coalition crises.
Netanyahu owes that stability to a solid bloc of right-wing parties including the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu headed by Avigdor Liberman; the religious nationalist HaBayit HaYehudi; the Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party; and United Torah Judaism.
These parties, polls show, will not grow or shrink substantially, with one possible wild card: Aryeh Deri, the former Shas leader who left politics in 2000 after being convicted of corruption. Deri may run again, even if it means starting a rival party to Shas. Should he win a small bloc of seats, he could become a kingmaker to either a right-wing or left-wing coalition.