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Israeli Elections Offer Two Paths

Interviewee: Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 17, 2013

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Just days away from parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely expected to form a new government in coming weeks, but what that coalition will look like is still unclear, says Robert M. Danin, a leading Middle East expert for CFR. He says there are two likely scenarios: One is a hard-right government made up of political and religious parties. The second is a broad coalition that includes center-left parties. "Netanyahu will try to form the largest coalition possible, because he wants to be in a situation where no one party can bring him down if it leaves the coalition," says Danin.

Israel holds parliamentary elections on Tuesday, January 22, and all indications point to Netanyahu emerging as the leader of a ruling coalition. But will it be much different from what we've had since 2009 vis-à-vis tensions with the United States, stalemate with the Palestinians, and threats to attack Iran?

In Israeli politics, there are two phases: the phase before the election and the phase after the election. And in many ways, the period after the election can be much more interesting than the phase before. That's because under the Israeli system, President [Peres] taps the party that is most likely to be able to form a coalition of sixty-one seats or more, a majority within the Knesset, to form the next government. Netanyahu's party, Likud, did not gain the most votes. It came in second to then-Prime Minister Livni's Kadima Party, but Kadima was unable to form a coalition. The question in 2013 is what kind of a coalition will Netanyahu be able to put together, assuming he's tapped to do so. There are a very high number of undecided voters at this point. We are within one week of the elections, and estimates show that anywhere from 20 to 25 percent of the electorate is undecided. And another 25 percent of voters have said that they might change their mind. So it's very fluid.

Could Netanyahu be upset?

"In Israeli politics, there are two phases: the phase before the election and the phase after the election. And in many ways, the period after the election can be much more interesting than the phase before."

It's not likely that we're going to see a dramatic shift from what we can project. But there will be variations, because the margin of error is larger than one would expect. It's not that someone is going to surprise us and Netanyahu will not be prime minister, or that his party will not emerge in the lead. That will not happen. But the size of the vote going to other parties is unknown. And that will be critical in terms of the kind of coalition he will likely put together.

What are the possibilities here?

We're looking at two scenarios. The one that most people assume will transpire is a hard-right scenario. In the run-up to the election, Netanyahu united his party with Avigdor Liberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party. So it's a fusion party. And this new party that was put together for the election, Bibi's party and Avigdor Liberman's party, is expected to do very well.

When Likud's central committee drew up its list of candidates, it lurched very far to the right. So the people who constitute the party list going into this election are much more rightist-oriented than those in parliament now. That is important to keep in mind. Liberman's party is also right-wing. But what's interesting about this party is that it's a secular party. And so the challenge for Netanyahu is if he wants to forge a coalition of the right with Naftali Bennett's new party, Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), which is expected, it's projected to get thirteen to fourteen seats. But that's an ideological party, and we would also likely see some of the religious parties added. Now, in the run-up to the election, some of the religious parties have been fighting with elements within Bibi's coalition--basically with Liberman's people, who are secular. So there has been a lot of infighting within the right.

Within this right-wing coalition, what are the issues?

One of the key issues Netanyahu must face is the budget. And he is clearly leaning toward making severe budget cuts. Now the religious parties are invested in getting money for their schools and institutions. So that poses a challenge, because it'll be expensive for the government to bring those parties into the coalition. If Netanyahu really wants to cut the budget, then it is harder to do that with the religious parties in the ruling coalition.

"As soon as President Obama's national security team is confirmed, and as soon as Netanyahu's government is formed, maybe even sooner, we will see a return to the kind of steady tempo of high-level consultations that we saw throughout last year between senior Israeli and U.S. defense officials. "

So that turns us to an alternative option. In that option, Netanyahu turns to the center-left parties. Now there are three parties that are likely to emerge strong, but not strong enough--strong in the sense that they will be players, but they will be not strong enough to be winners. Two of those parties are new parties. One is the party of a man named Yair Lapid called "There is a Future Party," polling at about 11 seats out of the 120. The other possible participant is Tzipi Livni, who has formed a new party and is polling around seven to nine seats. Neither of them has ruled out their participation in a coalition with Netanyahu. The third element of the center-left is the Labor party, which is polling quite well at anywhere from sixteen to eighteen seats.

Now those three parties have tried to unite, but they have mainly just fought with each other. So in this campaign, you had elements on the right fighting amongst themselves and you had elements on the center-left fighting amongst themselves. In summary, Bibi can try and form a right-wing/religious party coalition, but that comes with a lot of problems. He can try to bring some of these center parties in, mainly Livni's party and Yair Lapid's party, and he will clearly try to do that. Netanyahu will try to form the largest coalition possible, because he wants to be in a situation where no one party can bring him down if it leaves the coalition. What is interesting is that the run-up to the election is marked by mudslinging. And then the period after the election is characterized by parties trying to show how they can actually get along and be members of this coalition. In the month following January 22, there will be endless backroom dealing to try cobbling a coalition that Netanyahu can then take to the president and say, "This is my government that has more than sixty-one seats in the Knesset."

I've noticed that the word "Iran" rarely comes up in Israeli political discourse. Why is that?

It does seem odd, but this has been an election that has been dominated by economic and social issues, and to a certain extent, by personalities. But foreign policy has not been part of the debate, except to the extent that some of the criticisms directed at the prime minister have been about his handling of Israel's relationship with the United States, Europe, and the Arab world. Netanyahu has been very vague. He has talked about Iran as a challenge, but that's it. No policy specifics, no description of what that means. He also has evoked Syria as a challenge. Basically he just says, "We are going to face tough challenges, and I'm the guy to lead the country to face them."

You have spent a good deal of your time dealing with Israeli-Palestinian issues. Are chances for progress in Israeli-Palestinian issues dead?

"Netanyahu will try to form the largest coalition possible, because he wants to be in a situation where no one party can bring him down if it leaves the coalition."

I'd say dormant; it's never quite dead. For the time being, this issue has been on the backburner because of domestic issues in Israel, the [recent] U.S. elections, and the fact that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas took a different approach seeking non-member status at the U.N. General Assembly in November--a move that triggered a strong Israeli government reaction, some would say punishment, since then. Now, that makes for good politics for Netanyahu, who is leading a party of the right, as I described. The question is: After January 22, how will Netanyahu act, recognizing that there is an administration in Washington that would like to see a more robust Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

It has been widely reported over the past four years that Netanyahu and President Obama are not very close. Obama was recently invited to Israel for the ninetieth birthday of President Shimon Peres in June, which promises to be a big affair. Do you think Obama will accept this invitation and maybe turn it into a trip around Israel? He hasn't been to Israel as president.

I would be surprised if President Obama accepts that invitation. My sense is that we are much more likely to see the new Secretary of State John Kerry, assuming he's confirmed, be the one who's really out in front, at least at the onset, of this issue for the administration. I don't think the president is keen to get himself involved in dealing with Israel in the period ahead. But that's just a guess.

Washington's concerns in the Middle East right now are Syria, Egypt, and Iran down the road. Have the Israelis now come to grips with the fact that the United States is not going to rush into a military confrontation with Iran?

I expect that as soon as President Obama's national security team is confirmed, and as soon as Netanyahu's government is formed, maybe even sooner, we will see a return to the kind of steady tempo of high-level consultations that we saw throughout last year between senior Israeli and U.S. defense officials. Indeed, Ehud Barak, the defense minister, was here in Washington just a few days ago and met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and White House officials. So that is going to continue. This will continue to be one of, if not the top, item on the U.S.-Israel bilateral agenda and both sides have a very strong interest in being as closely aligned as possible in this dialogue about Iran, despite the strains in U.S.-Israel relations.

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