You’ve certainly seen the headlines every few weeks. Bibi tells X party that if they can’t come to agreement on Y issue, he will simply go to early elections. It might be the draft. It might be the National Identity Law. It could be one of a dozen issues. If there is a problem within the coalition, the threat of new elections seems to act as a catalyst for conciliation.
In order to understand why this seems to be working, I need to clarify who is being threatened and how I interpret their view of the prime minister as well as the prospect of “early” elections.
PM Netanyahu is currently holding the record for the longest continuous term as prime minister of Israel. Combined with his first (short) term as prime minister, he has also served the second longest overall duration as the prime minister, after David Ben Gurion, who served as prime minister twice. There is no questioning that Bibi is a canny and crafty politician who knows how to consolidate his power and negate rivals.
Come July 2019 — and elections are currently scheduled for next November — Bibi will surpass Ben Gurion’s total days of service as prime minister. There’s no question that this is a major goal. So the first thing we know is that he must feel pretty confident in reelection. As well he should be.
All the polls currently being conducted (and they come out every few weeks) show that the current coalition should remain in power if elections were held at the present time. Sometimes they show a loss of a seat or two in total; other times they show a gain. But overall, things would remain fairly stable.
(For good reporting on Knesset voter polling and a summation on what it means, check out Jeremy’s Knesset Insider blog.)
In order to understand why the threats are effective, you have to understand the small print on the polling. For the past several months, in poll after poll, Likud has been projected to either keep the same number of seats or possibly grow by two to five seats. Other coalition partners also stay the same or grow — at the expense of the Shas (and by extension the chareidi) and Kulanu parties.
If elections were held today, those parties — one holding the Ministry of Finance portfolio and the other part of a larger chareidi voting bloc that leverages its votes to gain major benefits for their voters (as they should; that’s their whole purpose) — would lose three seats each. That’s not an insignificant number for parties holding seven to 10 seats. Losing seats means losing influence and money. And the kicker is that Bibi has shown in the past that he is not afraid to really stick it to them if need be.
What do I mean? Well, in the prior Knesset, Yesh Atid was a major coalition partner. They introduced many reforms — since rolled back or currently among the issues being fought over — from the draft to financing education. And Yesh Atid is polling to regain all (if not more) of the seats it lost in the last election.
That would set up an interesting situation. Technically, if he wanted to (and he has done so in the past), Bibi could join with Yesh Atid and another one or two minor parties and shut the door on the rest of them. They will find that their funding dries up and the policies they pursue have no advocate.
Having lived through this not so long ago, these parties have no desire to go back to such times. They need to figure out how to either reconnect with their voters or wait until external events cause a shift in voter allegiance back to their parties. In either case, snap elections are not at all in their best interests. They want to stay in power as long as possible.
On the flip side, Israeli polling has been inaccurate the past few elections. And voters will often vote differently when they get into the voting booth than they may have told a pollster. We’ve seen this in Israeli elections as well. The prime minister has learned that polling to gain seats in the Knesset and actually gaining them are two different things.
So he’s quite happy to stick with the current formula, one that keeps him as PM for the next year and counting. And, as the incredibly savvy politician that he is, he gets to play both sides of the equation for all it’s worth. Elections are a terrific threat; his current polling makes it an effective one as well because the people he is staring down know that he very well might not be the one to blink.
Shmuel Katz, his wife Goldie, and their six children made aliyah in July 2006. Before making aliyah, Shmuel was the executive director of the Yeshiva of South Shore in Hewlett. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.