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Netanyahu, Likud Stand To Gain from Early Elections

Israel will  have an election on September 4, and polls indicate that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party will be reelected to lead the government.

A recent poll by Yediot Ahronot and the Dahaf Institute suggests Likud would become the largest party, increasing its presence in the 120-member Knesset from 27 seats to about 30. The same poll shows the opposition Kadima Party, which recently chose former general Shaul Mofaz as its new leader, would suffer a drastic fall from 28 seats to only 10.

The splits among Likud’s other rivals also show a strengthening of the party. Labor, which has embraced social issues, would grow from eight seats to 18, while a new centrist party created by former journalist Yair Lapid called Yesh Atid (There’s a Future) would take 11 seats. The right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party would shrink from 16 seats to 13.

If this poll proves accurate, Netanyahu will have a variety of options when it comes to forming a new coalition. Neither Kadima nor Labor nor Lapid’s party have ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led coalition. The prime minister might choose to construct a center-right government or a right-religious coalition of the type that currently exists, depending on the parliamentary arithmetic and his own preference.

The impetus for early elections is a disagreement between coalition members regarding reform to the Tal Law, which allows ultra-Orthodox Israelis to avoid military service. The law was recently struck down by Israel’s Supreme Court and will expire on August 1, requiring the Knesset to find some alternative law before then.

Disagreements over proposed reforms are the ostensible cause of rifts in the governing coalition. However, it is likely that coalition partners who want to have an election are simply using this issue as rationale to launch campaigns aimed at secular voters.

Several proposals have been formulated, the most significant coming from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. But by tightening up on ultra-Orthodox avoidance of military service, this proposal could lead religious parties to walk out of the coalition or at least to stop cooperating with their partners. Still, the government coalition retains a majority, and opposition no-confidence motions to be presented in coming weeks have no chance of passing. Thus, if elections are to be called it will be because key figures within the coalition have decided they want them.

Contrary to frequent foreign perceptions, Netanyahu’s governing style is characterized in practice by extreme caution and a desire not to move far beyond the existing consensus. The last three years have witnessed an unfamiliar quiet on the security front and an economic stability currently rivaled by few countries in the West. A solid centrist consensus of Israelis has concluded that -- for the moment -- there is no real partner on the splintered Palestinian political scene for making diplomatic progress, and that there are deep concerns regarding the chaotic neighborhood emerging in the wake of the Arab upheavals of 2011. Iran and its ambitions are also a matter of grave import. In such an environment, it is not hard to see why a pragmatic hawk of Netanyahu’s stripe looks like a “safe pair of hands” to many voters.

Critics of the prime minister see Netanyahu’s caution as being accompanied by a tendency to vacillate and by an absence of clear vision. One government insider revealed that the ambition of all Cabinet members is to be the last person to speak to Netanyahu before an important vote, as his reputation is that he is easily swung.

Whatever the truth of this assertion, the current government has delivered security quiet and economic stability to Israelis in the midst of regional and global political and economic tumult. This is the main reason why Netanyahu can feel confident about elections, and why if they are to take place he is reported to want them as soon as possible. As things look, he is correct from his standpoint: general elections in Israel are unlikely to produce any major change in the balance of political forces.