The World

Don’t Assume Benjamin Netanyahu’s Job Is Safe

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on November 18, 2014. 

Photo by GIL COHEN MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images

When Benjamin Netanyahu fired his finance and justice ministers this week and called for early elections to be held in three months, it seemed like the Israeli prime minister would likely retain his position and expand the power of his right-wing coalition. But some more recent developments suggest it may not be the slam dunk he was anticipating.

A new Jerusalem Post/Ma’ariv story finds that 60 percent of Israelis don’t want Netanyahu, the second-longest serving Israeli prime minister after David Ben-Gurion, to remain in that position. Respondents also chose former social services minister Moshe Kahlon and former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar over the prime minister in head-to-head comparisons. An earlier Haaretz poll had given Netanyahu the edge over his potential rivals, though also found that his approval rating had dropped to 38 percent, down dramatically from the 77 percent support he enjoyed during the August war in Gaza, with voters pessimistic about the state of the economy and feeling gloomy about political paralysis and continuing violence.

There are also now reports that an unlikely “anyone but Bibi” alliance could be in the works. That alliance could include Kahlon, a former Likudnik who argues that his old party is being taken over by the far right; Yair Lapid, the finance minister and former TV personality who Netanyahu fired from his cabinet earlier this week; and Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister and advocate for West Bank settlers who loathes Netanyahu and has been one of his most persistent critics from the right.

It’s a weird combination, though not actually much weirder than the government that collapsed this week. At times, it seemed like the main thing uniting Netanyahu’s ministers was that they were all trying to undermine him. That coalition included moderates like Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to go along with Lieberman and economy minister Naftali Bennett, both of whom would have been considered fringe right-wingers until a few years ago. (Those to the right of Netanhayu tend not to even give lip service to the two-state solution, oppose most negotiations with Palestinian leaders, and favor conservative social policies within Israel itself.)

With small samples sizes and a plethora of candidates, polls in Israel are notoriously unreliable—last year’s election, for instance, was much closer than anticipated. Polls only tell part of the story anyway, since the next government will almost certainly involve a multi-party coalition that comes together only after the votes are counted. The fact that parties seem increasingly willing to form coalitions with ideological foes only makes the outcome harder to predict.

With Israel’s economy slowing, bread and butter issues will probably dominate the run-up to the election. A January or February surprise, though, could bring security issues back to the forefront, and terrorist attacks have tended to lead to electoral victories for the Israeli right.

As Michael Koplow notes, even if Netanyahu comes out of the election with a larger right-wing coalition and sheds his nemesis Lapid in the process, that won’t necessarily give him more room for maneuver. It became obvious during the Gaza War that Netanyahu doesn’t have a lot of friends to his right, and hawks like Lieberman and Bennett were more effective at countering him than moderates like Lapid and Livni.

The overall trend lines in Israeli public opinion are also difficult to discern. The country often looks like its drifting inexorably to the right, leading to the rise of settler and Orthodox-linked parties that make Netanyahu’s Likud look moderate. But as Gershom Gorenberg points out, the right actually lost support in last year’s election, forcing Netanyahu into an unworkable coalition that clashed on everything from the economy to the U.S.-led peace negotiations.

As for America’s stake in this, even if Netanyahu is ousted, things won’t necessarily get easier if Lieberman or Bennett increase their influence in the next election. On the other hand, the White House at least would probably relish not having to talk to Bibi anymore