Why Israel's Political Center and Left Shouldn't Unite Against Netanyahu

Opponents of the prime minister's new mega-party have a better chance of defeating him on their own.

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Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu (L) and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (R) in Tel Aviv. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

The unification of the two largest right-wing parties in Israel -- Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu -- is leading to speculation that the center-left will follow suit by uniting themselves into one large party for the upcoming January elections. This would be a serious mistake. Unification on the right is not a threat to the center-left, but rather an opportunity.

In uniting his Likud party with Yisrael Beiteinu, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hopes to forge the largest party and therefore maximize the chances of leading the next government. However, Israeli politics is primarily a game of blocs, not parties. After all, Kadima has been the largest party for the last four years and yet the right-religious bloc, led by Netanyahu, has dominated the government. Until now, the right-religious bloc has also sustained an absolute majority in the polls predicting the upcoming election results.

The key, therefore, is to attract voters that swing between the blocs -- Israel's swing voters. There are three such swing groups in Israeli politics today: Those who adopt a centrist, moderate stand on peace and security; those who are protesting the high cost of living, known in Israel as "the cottage cheese vote"; and those who are primarily concerned with religion and state, particularly countering the influence and special treatment of ultra-Orthodox haredim.

Until the unification with Yisrael Beiteinu, Netanyahu had the support of the first group -- particularly in dealing with Iran and the Palestinians. But by bringing in Avigdor Leiberman, a former leader of the Israeli far-right seen as an extremist on foreign policy, at least part that swing vote is now in play. A rejuvenated Kadima party -- including a high profile Likud defector like Dan Meridor, along with former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and high-ranking former generals -- would be well placed to appeal to this first group.

Meanwhile, the loss of Likud's star social-issues champion, Moshe Kahlon, creates opportunities for the Labor party -- which under Shelly Yechimovich has consistently emphasized socio-economic issues.

As for the third group, Lieberman has made a lot of his secular credentials, but Netanyahu himself may lose this constituency. He backed the haredi parties rather than support Yochanan Plessner's popular plan to ease the haredim into the Israeli army and the workforce. These people could now be attracted to the new Yesh Atid party led by Yair Lapid, who is the son of Tommy Lapid -- the most well-known, outspoken, and politically successful champion of anti-haredism in recent memory.

So why not unite all these forces in a single party? Because there are a significant number of people who may shift their vote away from the right -- perhaps because of the cost of living or the power of the haredim -- who still believe that Netanyahu is the best candidate to lead Israel in terms of peace and security. In the past, many of these voters opted for Tommy Lapid's Shinui, or the Pensioners party. If the center and left unites, Netanyahu will be able to make the campaign about leadership and security, his strong suits. If, however, the center and left remain in separate parties, they can credibly focus their own campaigns on the key issues with the swing electorate, issues on which they each individually -- though not collectively -- have credibility.

Presented by

Jonathan Rynhold is a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and a visiting professor of Israel Studies at George Washington University.

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