Election Analysis: Arabs Could Knock Netanyahu from Power

Who will lead the government next? Israeli Knesset Building. Illustrative. By Joshua Spurlock.

Who will lead the government next? Israeli Knesset Building. Illustrative. By Joshua Spurlock.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is one of the longest-serving prime ministers in Israel’s history, but his stay atop the Israeli government could end soon if a surprise put a center-left government into power following the March 17 elections.

The Israeli election system, fragmented by nearly a dozen legitimate parties, regularly results in a coalition alliance of a variety of medium and smaller parties, with the leading party naming the prime minister. As a result, one or two of those smaller parties can determine which party controls the government by putting that coalition over the top. And in a stunner, it could be an Israeli Arab party that does that this time and ends Netanyahu’s premiership.

Traditionally, the Arab parties have refused to join any coalition in a general boycott of the ruling government. But Stephan Miller, an American-Israeli pollster and political strategist at 202 Strategies, told The Mideast Update in an exclusive interview that there are signs the Arab parties may join a center-left government after all.

“Recent polling among the Arab-Israeli population suggests a desire for their leadership to join the government, but it’s not up to the party itself per se as much as it is up to single leaders,” said Miller in an email.

That’s why it still seems unlikely. One of the leading candidates for the United Arab List party, a combination of multiple smaller Israeli Arab parties, told Haaretz recently he wouldn’t join any government unless Israel withdrew from the territories claimed by Palestinians. And even a left-wing government would have trouble making that happen considering the current situation with the Palestinians.

Furthermore, Miller pointed out that the Arab party is actually a group of smaller parties, which could fracture over the issue of joining the government. A single party of four or five seats may not matter in deciding the ruling coalition in the 120-seat Israeli parliament, known as the Knesset.

One of the latest polls, from i24 News, shows the United Arab List garnering 12 seats, while a poll published in Israel Hayom last week had them winning 13.

But even with the Arab parties joining the government, the race to 61-seats looks to favor the center-right, led by Netanyahu’s Likud party. The poll from i24 News shows the center-right bloc winning around 70 seats, led by Likud with 26 seats. The Israel Hayom poll has the center-right winning 66 seats.

However, that center-right bloc depends on the 16-seats held by the religious parties staying with them, and Miller pointed out that they have joined left-leaning governments before, “and with the right incentives, will do so again.” Considering many in the Israeli religious community come from lower income families, government subsidies tend to be a key issue for the parties.

But that could be an issue for the center-left, where one of the major parties—Yesh Atid—has an economic bent that may not jell with those government subsidies. Yet while Yesh Atid could create problems for the religious parties, the religious will need to forgive someone in order to join a government—as the current Likud-led government didn’t bring them into the coalition this past time.

One potential wild card swing vote will be the new Kulanu party, which is led by a former Likud member, Moshe Kahlon. Miller said the party’s supporters have an ideology “rooted deeply in the center-right” and Kahlon’s strength “comes in part at the expense of the Likud.” So would Kahlon’s Kulanu party join a Likud government with shared interests? Or would Kahlon decide he left Likud for a reason and prefer to join the left-leaning Zionist Union party?

That combination of unpredictability—the Arabs, the religious, and Kulanu all potentially joining a center-left government—create a number of scenarios in which the left-wing led by the Zionist Union party wrests control from Netanyahu.

In the end, the polls have shown that the center-right have a straighter path to winning the Knesset, meaning Netanyahu has a good chance at re-election as prime minister. But every election there are surprises, and Miller believes that the Zionist Union, which is the first or second-largest party in the polls, will do better than expected. Whether that brings a center-left government to power or not, Miller thinks the clock is ticking for Netanyahu’s leadership.

“Should Netanyahu become Israel’s next Prime Minister again, he will likely have a lame-duck term of less than two years,” said Miller, highlighting the turbulent Israeli political world. “Should he lose in a week’s time, there will be a long and bloody process to crown the next leader of the right. Either way—expect some fascinating politics!”

In the unpredictable world of Israeli elections, that’s the one thing to be expected.

(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, March 9, 2016)


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