Will the Likud coalition and Netanyahu continue to lead?

The announcement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud coalition partners, on Christmas Eve, 2018, calling for early elections scheduled to be held on April 9, 2019, has plunged Israel into a political frenzy. The declared reason for an election that few of the coalition partners really wanted, was cited by the government as differences within the coalition over the new military conscription bill affecting exemption for ultra-orthodox Jews or Yeshiva students in particular. 

Netanyahu’s government had a mandate to govern for another year (November 2019) unless the opposition unseated it in a “no confidence vote,” that did not occur. The ostensible reason for the early elections is the departure of Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Our Home (Israel Beitenu) from the coalition along with its 5 seats in the 120 seat Knesset (Israeli Parliament), which left the Likud coalition with a single majority vote of one, or 61 seats. 

Speculations by some in the Israeli media, that Netanyahu was driven to have the snap elections namely because of his legal troubles, before the attorney general decides whether to follow police recommendations to indict him, obfuscate the fact that Netanyahu is still the most popular politician in Israel. All polls have shown that Netanyahu is far ahead of his nearest rival in the post of Prime Minister.  Moreover, the same polls have shown that the Likud, with Netanyahu at its helm, would retain its strength and perhaps even make additional gains in the upcoming elections.

Clearly, none of the contenders for prime minister have the accumulated experience Netanyahu has, nor the economic credentials he has earned in transforming the Israeli economy. Netanyahu’s warm relations with world leaders including U.S. President Donald Trump and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are examples, to name a few. In addition to being Prime Minister for 13 years, Netanyahu served as Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Finance Minister under PM Sharon, Foreign Minister since 2015, and Defense Minister in 2018. No other candidate can match his credentials, especially if one adds his educational background as a graduate of MIT, and Harvard, and his military service as a Captain in the elite Sayeret Matkal.  

Israeli pollsters have recorded the following results on January 4th, 2019, polling for the National Legislative Elections to be held on April 9, 2019. Makor Rishon (1/4/2019) has Likud (led by Netanyahu) with 26 seats, Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid’s party) 17, Joint List (Arab list) 12, Hosen (Gen. Benny Gantz’s new party) 12, Labor 10, New Right (Naftali Bennett’s new party) 10, United Torah Judaism (UTJ) 6, Jewish Home (without Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, and Mualem) 5, Shas (the Sephardic Orthodox party led by Areyeh Deri) ) 5, Meretz 5, Gesher (Orly Levy-Abekasis party. She had left Israel Beitenu to form her own list.  She is the daughter for former Likud Vice premier David Levy.) 4, Israel Beitenu (Avigdor Lieberman’s party) 4, and Kulanu (Led by Finance minister Moshe Kahlon) 4. Tzipi Livni was removed by Labor party chairman Avi Gabai, from the partnership called the Zionist Camp. (Labor will resume its previous name.) Her party, Hatnuah, received 0 seats in the poll. The threshold for gaining a seat is 3.25% of the vote.

Maariv’s poll (Israeli daily newspaper) has Likud at 30, the Arab Joint List 13, Hosen 12, Yesh Atid 12, New Right 11, Labor 8, UTJ 7, Meretz 5, Shas 5, Kulanu 5, Jewish Home 4, Israel Beitenu 4, and Gesher 4. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah again received 0 seats. 

Under Makor Rishons scenario, the Likud and the Center-right coalition would safely master 56 mandates, or the combined mandates of the Likud, Bennett’s New Right, UTJ, Shas, Jewish Home, and Kulanu. The Center/center-left bloc combining Yesh Atid, Labor, and Meretz would receive 32 seats.   Assuming that Gantz’s Hosen, Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu, and Orly Levy’s Gesher will be joining the center-left bloc, the combined total would only be 52. The Arab Joint List could silently back such a coalition, but it still would be a fragile and ineffective government that will not last long. Conversely, Benny Gantz might just as well decide to go with the Likud coalition. This would create a secure coalition government with 68 seats. Netanyahu would likely reward Gantz by handing him the Defense portfolio.

The Maariv poll is even more favorable to a center-right coalition government. It would give Likud, New Right, UTJ, Kulanu, Shas, and Jewish Home a majority of 62 without having to resort to other parties.  Netanyahu would likely seek a wider coalition as to not depend on Bennett or the religious parties, and invite Gantz to join the coalition. With 11 seats, Bennett would demand the Foreign Ministry in addition to Ayelet Shaked keeping the Justice portfolio, along with the Education portfolio.

There is a strong likelihood that Moshe Ya’alon, the former Defense Minister and the IDF Chief-of-Staff, will throw his hat into the political ring, and form his own party. That would split the center-left votes even further. This would mean that at least two former Chief-of-Staff will split many of the center and center-left votes, especially if Ehud Barak, the former Prime Minister and Chief-of-Staff enters the race, too. There are some reports of talks between Gantz and Ya’alon on a possible merger of forces. Walla News reported that Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch might join the Likud list, adding another ranking IDF officer to the race.  According to Walla News, Gantz’s new party will take away votes from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and from the center-left. In recent weeks Kulanu has lost two of its star MK’s, Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. retired from politics, and Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, who has joined the Likud.

In a Walla News December 27, 2018 poll, the center-right coalition led by Netanyahu is once again triumphant with 58 mandates, against the center-center left parties including Gantz’s Hosen, who together can count on only 51, excluding the Arab Joint List with 11 mandates. In the Walla poll, should Gantz run as an independent, Likud led by Netanyahu will receive 31 seats, Gantz’s Hosen 14, Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid 12, The New Right/Jewish Home headed by Bennett 11. The Arab Joint List, led by Ayman Odeh 11, Labor/Zionist Camp led by Avi Gabai 9, UTJ led by Rabbi Yaakov Linzman 7, Meretz headed by Tamar Zandberg 6, Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu 5, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu 5, Orly Levy’s Gesher 5, and Ariyeh Deri’s Shas 4.

Much can happen between now and Election Day on April 9, 2019.  However, given the strength of the Israeli economy, and the warm relations between the Trump administration and PM Netanyahu, Israeli voters are looking for social and economic stability. The security situation is somewhat worrisome. Hamas’ continued attempts to disrupt life for Israelis living in the Western Negev has to come to an end, and the Israeli government is likely to address that in the coming months. In the north, the Lebanese-Shiite terrorist Hezbollah backed by Iran, seeks to open two fronts against Israel, both in southern Lebanon, and the Golan Heights. The IDF surprised the group by finding and blowing up Hezbollah’s terror tunnels. On this front, Netanyahu’s has been most vigilant, albeit, the proliferation of army generals joining the political fray on both sides of the political divide, would make security a major issue in the coming months. In the end, however, unless Netanyahu is indicted and goes to prison, Israel will continue to be governed by the Likud coalition and Netanyahu as Prime Minister.