Israel’s election season heated up this week as political parties rushed to submit their final list of candidates. Much is at stake: This time, unlike the elections of 2013, we don’t know who’s going to win. We ask Moment columnist Shmuel Rosner to outline a few possible scenarios and predict whether an ouster of Prime Minister Netanyahu is a real possibility.
Q. How are these elections different about the ones in 2013?
A. First of all, it’s an open election. We don’t know who’s going to win. Two years ago it was almost impossible for anyone to usurp Netanyahu and become prime minister. So the whole point of the election last cycle was to determine the kind of coalition Netanyahu was going to establish. This time it is not about the nature of the next Netanyahu coalition. It is about the question of whether it will be a Netanyahu coalition, or a coalition led by the Labor Party.
Q. What is the biggest challenge for each party?
A. No matter how you look at the numbers in current polls, you come up with the conclusion that it will be very difficult for anyone to form a coalition that will have any real stability to it. Netanyahu is probably going to be able to form a right-wing religious coalition, but he’ll still need at least one, possibly two centrist parties to join in. The friction will soon emerge. This coalition will also have many difficulties with the outside world. This is the problem for Netanyahu.
For Labor Part chairman Isaac Herzog, to form a coalition that will actually survive is going to be even more difficult. He will have to somehow perform the miracle of having a coalition that has both haredi and ultra-secularists, both the leftist and centrist-right. The only stable coalition we can imagine is a unity government.
I believe both Netanyahu and Herzog could work together in a unity government, but I am not sure their parties will allow it. Both find themselves in the weird position of being located more to the center than their actual parties. So Herzog is probably going to face opposition within his own party if he wants to go in a unity coalition with Netanyahu, and so will Netanyahu. No matter how you look at it, you end up with the conclusion that these elections are going to create yet another coalition that doesn’t survive for very long.
Q. You’ve described Netanyahu’s presidency as “unspectacular” and full of “missed opportunities.” But, realistically, how likely is he to lose?
A. The question is whether between him and his natural allies, Netanyahu can get enough of the votes to form a coalition quickly and efficiently that will be large enough to keep it together for a while. Or whether Herzog is going to be able to form a coalition whose main mission would be to get rid of Netanyahu. I believe that if Herzog is able to form a coalition, it will happen only because there might be enough parties or heads of parties in Israel that are so eager to end the era of Netanyahu that they might be willing to enter a coalition that isn’t going to be coherent nor stable in order for the Netanyahu era to end.
Q. How does personal leadership play into the elections?
A. One of the problems of replacing Netanyahu is that neither the center nor the left were able to produce someone who is very appealing to the Israeli voters. Thus far there is not a natural strong leader who has the appeal that former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had when he ran against former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir back in the early 90s. Back then, Shamir was a fairly strong prime minister, but Rabin was seen even by his opponents as a worthy opponent.
Today, the labor party has come up with what they have and is hoping that Herzog will somehow grow into the large shoes of a prime minister. But as of now, he’s not seen by the public as being on the same pedestal that Netanyahu is. He doesn’t have many followers as a person. He’s not yet a leader of masses. That’s why he needed to bring Tzipi Livni alongside him and have a group identity to his leadership rather than having him as the supposed successor to the leadership of Netanyahu.
There are many people who dislike Netanyahu and a significant number of people who might even hate him. But he also has a really significant constituency who follow him personally. Of course they support the party as well, but he has a personal charisma that has made him a leader for so many years. We’ve seen it in other leaders in Israel in the past, like the late leader Ariel Sharon.
Q. What do you predict will be the outcome?
A. If I needed to take a guess today, I think the most likely possibility is a right-wing religious coalition. That’s the easiest path to having a coalition, if you look at the numbers. But on the other hand it’s not the only path, and we still have many weeks to go before election day. There are many forces working against such a coalition, so I would not risk any prediction at this moment.