By DAVID RUBIN—
After the latest clash between Prime Minister Netanyahu (Likud) and Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), it has become clear that Israel is heading to early elections, with only half of the current term having been concluded. The main questions:
1. Why couldn’t this coalition last?
2. What can we expect in the upcoming election campaign? In other words, who will be the winners/losers and what will be the surprises?
Several things were working against the long-term cohesion of the current coalition from the start, although there was some short-term unity of purpose on particular issues.
There was unity, more or less, on the basics of promoting a free market economy, while encouraging employment to reduce poverty. That issue was one of the unifying factors that led to the draft law, which was designed, for all its flaws, to gradually move towards a more equal arrangement of military service and work in Israeli society, which, if successful, still has the potential to reduce poverty, strengthen the army, and bring the various sectors of society together.
There was also unity of purpose on the issue of making government smaller and decreasing the amount of parties. This was accomplished by raising the minimum amount of votes needed by each party, a positive change which forces the members of the resultant larger parties to actually try to work together. The current tension between Uriel Ariel’s Tekuma faction and Bayit Yehudi party leader Naftali Bennett is a case in point. The differences on issues of substance are relatively small and certainly don’t warrant another national religious break-off party, which not only would hurt Bayit Yehudi’s present and future growth, but would most likely leave Tekuma out of the Knesset since it would be unlikely to get the minimum number of votes, thereby ignoring the will of its voters. In short, under the current system, it is certainly worthwhile to resolve differences over the selection of candidates. A free and fair primary in Bayit Yehudi in which all party members can vote will result in a candidates list and a party platform that will reflect the will of the voters. Break-off parties no longer have a good chance of getting elected and for that reason, it pays to unite.
The problem with the current coalition was that with all of these challenges having been at least partially legislated, there were fewer unifying issues on the coalition agenda, which shifted the focus to the more ideological, hence more divisive issues, such as the Jewish State bill, relations with the Palestinian Authority’s Hamas-Fatah government, or ending the unofficial freeze on the issuing of new permits for Jews to build homes in Judea, Samaria, and Jerusalem. While targeted cutting of taxes can often be very useful in a free economy, Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s 0% VAT law was only necessary because of a simultaneous and irrational freeze on building in the biblical heartland of Israel. Opening up the markets would bring a boom in Judea, Samaria, and Jerusalem, which in turn would lower the cost of housing throughout the country. This was but one divisive issue that tore apart the coalition.
Last but not least, it is true that Ministers Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Tzippi Livni (HaTnuah) seemed to often forget that they were a part of a coalition that didn’t reflect their left-wing agenda. In fact, Lapid seemed to foolishly move further left as the months progressed and as his poll numbers dropped.
So what can we expect in these elections? Every election campaign has its own unexpected twists and turns, but some trends are clear:
1. The Likud should be able to hold its own, especially if it runs a clear issues-oriented campaign and avoids (unlike last time) bashing the national religious public and its rabbis, a foolish strategy that turned off more voters from voting Likud than from voting Bayit Yehudi.
2. Israel Beytenu will lose some of its strength, especially with party leader Avigdor Liberman’s anticipated promotion of his “Divide the Land” peace plan, which will cost him some right-wing voters without bringing in the moderates.
3. Yesh Atid will lose at least several seats, partially due to the need for a finance minister to call for unpopular cutbacks in public services, but mostly due to the arrogant and often amateurish way that its leader and a few of his top associates related to coalition colleagues and to Prime Minister Netanyahu.
4. Bayit Yehudi will grow substantially if, and only if, unity, or at least the appearance of unity is achieved. National religious and traditional voters get very upset when there is an absence of peace in the Jewish home or, in this case, in the Jewish Home party (Bayit Yehudi).
5. Look for a slight rise in the UTJ numbers and a drop in mandates for Shas, which has been reduced in stature since the loss of its spiritual leader.
6. The Arab parties will at least partially merge, thereby keeping their current strength.
7. Last but not least, former Likud Minister Moshe Kahlon’s new party will become the latest, if not the greatest, “center party”, the perennial “surprise” party that everyone will be talking about. This will be especially true if he places on his candidates list an interesting and diverse mix of name personalities who have so far avoided controversy. On the downside, these parties that try to attract non-ideological “stars” usually don’t seem to last, or at least always lose popularity after the election. Just ask Yair Lapid and his 19 seat “centrist party” about that.