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Power couple who may yet lead Israel

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November 24, 2016 23:21

On Monday night, the Knesset overwhelmingly voted to dissolve itself, putting paid to the theories of a last-minute, alternative coalition.

Elections on March 17, 2015 are now unavoidable, and the next few weeks will be focused on primaries, alliance-building and selecting candidates as each party scrambles to build a list it hopes will be attractive to the Israeli voters.

Elections in Israel are usually longer, more protracted affairs, with the list-building and campaigning stages each drawn out for months, followed by the third and final stage, the horse-trading to build a ruling coalition once the results are known.

This time around, it already feels as if the three stages are being compressed into one.

That is because the single, overriding issue over which the campaign will be fought is not the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, Iran's nuclear programme, the cost of living or the tug-of-war between state and religion, but simply the question of whether Benjamin Netanyahu will remain prime minister.

Bibi may be less popular, but he would find coalition building easier than Herzog

Some parties, such as Likud and Shas, have not even sorted out their leadership issues. Likud will hold primaries for party leader in a few weeks, and while Mr Netanyahu is fully expected to win, he may yet have to fight a damaging challenge from the popular former minister Gideon Saar.

Meanwhile, Moshe Kahlon's new centrist and social-affairs focused party, already riding high in the polls, does not even have a name yet.

The candidates are already busy campaigning while - at the same time - feverishly calculating how many seats they will need to build a coalition come March 18.

Reports that Mr Netanyahu has already promised Habayit Hayehudi's leader, Naftali Bennett, the post of defence minister in his next government, were swiftly denied, but are a reflection of how the players are already looking two stages ahead.

The most significant development so far is the partnership between Labour leader Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah.

The polls are already giving their joint party more seats in the next Knesset than Likud, even before the official announcement of the tie-up came.

The polls this week also indicated two contradictory trends. Netanyahu's popularity ratings are plummeting; for the first time a similar proportion of Israeli voters responded that Mr Herzog was as suitable a candidate as the incumbent. On the other hand, the majority of the right-wing and religious parties in the next Knesset still seems impregnable.

On Mr Netahyahu's chances, voters may be looking for the "new car smell", as described by US President Barack Obama. Mr Netanyahu may still be able to pass his MOT, but he clearly does not command the enthusiasm he once did even among his core voting base.

As unpopular as the prime minister may be, it still seems that he would have an easier time building a coalition on the day after elections than Mr Herzog, even if Labour - with Ms Livni - does hold more seats in the new Knesset.

A Herzog-led coalition would have to include wildly disparate parties including left-wing Meretz and right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu and ultra-secular Yesh Atid along with the Charedi parties. If Mr Herzog finds a way to get Zehava Galon, Avigdor Lieberman, Yair Lapid and Arye Deri to sit around the same cabinet table, he will be prime minister.

Not long ago, such an outcome seemed impossible and it still looks unlikely now. However, if the anti-Netanyahu dynamic that is already characterising this campaign intensifies, strange and previously unthinkable partnerships with the sole aim
of denying the prime minister a fourth term may suddenly become conceivable.

November 24, 2016 23:21

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