Why Netanyahu Will Be the Big Loser in Israel's Election

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The current and future prime minister will be stuck with a coalition that's doomed to fail.

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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touches the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City after casting his ballot for the parliamentary election. (Pool/Reuters)

The most notable and most remarkable feature of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's current stint atop the government has been that it has lasted this long. Since Yitzhak Shamir's five-and-a-half-year term in office ended with his defeat in July 1992, only Ariel Sharon has served a longer uninterrupted stint as prime minister than Netanyahu. More incredibly, Netanyahu has been prime minister for nearly four years without an intervening election. In contrast, both Shamir and Sharon were re-elected twice during their terms. In fact, in Israeli history only Menachem Begin served a longer stint between elections than has Netanyahu. In some way, the widely mocked "King Bibi" moniker is actually well-deserved.

Stability has been a hallmark of Netanyahu's time in office in ways other than longevity. Israeli prime ministers generally spend time fending off threats from intransigent coalition partners looking to bring down the government if they don't get their way, but Netanyahu has not had to deal with much on this front. Despite presiding over a coalition with diverse interests and a significant secular-religious fault line, Netanyahu's government never faced a real prospect of falling -- and when serious issues arose, he was able to maneuver accordingly.

When the rank and file of the Labor Party decided it was time to leave the coalition due to Netanyahu's right-wing policies, Netanyahu and Labor leader Ehud Barak engineered a move in which Barak quit Labor and formed the Atzmaut Party. The rest of the Labor ministers were then forced to resign from their government posts while Netanyahu kept Barak and his conspirators in the coalition. When arguments over the Tal Law and ultra-Orthodox and Arab exemptions from the military draft became too heated, Netanyahu brought in Kadima to form a unity government and a coalition that would allow him to go in any direction he wanted without fear of the government falling.

When Netanyahu decided to call early elections, he did it because the political timing seemed favorable for him rather than because he was forced to. Despite his term being marked by no significant policy accomplishments or remarkable stances, Netanyahu has achieved a nearly unprecedented degree of governmental stability.

In contrast, the next Netanyahu government, which will almost certainly be the result of today's election, is not only going to be less stable on a daily basis than the previous one, but will also be likely to fall well before Netanyahu's term is up and before he is ready to call another round of elections. The new Israeli government is going to be facing enormous cross-cutting pressures from within its own ranks and from outside the country, and no matter how hard he tries to construct a stable coalition, there will be nothing Netanyahu can do to mitigate this problem. Rather, the coalition choices that Netanyahu makes are going to determine which set of pressures will ultimately bring him down. In essence, Netanyahu will be picking his poison rather than coming up with a cure.

There are two factors that are going to contribute to detonating Netanyahu's coveted stability. The first is that unlike during the past three plus years, Netanyahu is going to have a significant presence on his right flank both within his party and outside, creating constant pressure to take a harder line on settlements and the peace process. The Likud primary in November created the most right-wing version of the party that has ever existed. For instance, among the returning Likud MKs in the new Knesset will be theinciters of May's anti-immigrant race riot, a mass of supporters for annexing the West Bank, and new MK Moshe Feiglin who wants to be the Mohamed Morsi of anti-Arab remarks. This group largely distrusts Netanyahu and will be waiting to pounce at even the slightest digression from their preferred policy of holding on to the West Bank forever.

In addition, Netanyahu will be dealing with the newly empowered nationalist Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) Party, which is poised to become the third largest party in the Knesset. This party is led by Netanyahu's former chief of staff Naftali Bennett, who also advocates unilaterally annexing Area C of the West Bank and recently got into trouble for saying that he would refuse orders to evacuate settlements. ( He recanted after the predictable furor that arose.) Either as part of the coalition or as a constant thorn in Netanyahu's side, the large Habayit Hayehudi bloc will be pushing Netanyahu constantly to the right.

The second new factor, which operates at complete cross-purposes to the first, is that Netanyahu will be looking at a renewed push by outside actors on the peace process at a time in which international pressure on Israel is beginning to reach a critical mass. John Kerry is going to want to tackle the peace process as one of his priorities as Secretary of State, and Britain and France intend to present their own plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the support of Germany and possibly the full European Union. Anger toward Israel over settlements and the breakdown of the peace process has lately intensified. Whether this is justified or not, given Palestinian foot-dragging, the anger exists to the point that even Israeli diplomats are beginning to get frustrated over the heat they are taking over West Bank construction.

No matter what Netanyahu decides to do, he is going to be penned in. A more right-wing nationalist coalition will constantly be warding off attacks from Western states, the United Nations, and a larger left-wing and centrist peace bloc in the Knesset, and is unlikely to last very long. A more centrist coalition, or even a unity government, that slows down settlement building and re-enters into serious negotiations with the Palestinians is going to result in a possible rift that tears apart Likud and constant right-wing calls to bring down Netanyahu's government. The prime minister thus has two viable coalition options but neither of them is going to provide the relative calm and quiet of the past few years. Whichever path Netanyahu ultimately chooses, he is going to be facing another round of elections sooner rather than later.

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Michael Koplow

Michael J. Koplow is the program director of the Israel Institute and a Georgetown University Ph.D. candidate in Government specializing in the Middle Eastern politics and democratization. He has written for Foreign Policy and Security Studies, and writes regularly at Ottomans and Zionists.

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