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Israel elections 101: How fractures on political right could hurt Netanyahu

Three former Likud colleagues of Netanyahu, now his political rivals, are leading their own parties in Israel's March elections. By splitting the right-wing vote, could they swing the next coalition to the left?

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    In this Dec. 28, 2014 file photo, Israel's Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman, speaks to the media ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu is competing in parliamentary elections in March.
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As Israel’s election campaign kicks off, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is rallying supporters to defeat “the Left.’’ But a trio of right-wing politicians, all former members of his Likud party, is causing him just as much trouble.

The Likud is running neck and neck in the polls with the dovish Labor party – now bolstered by an alliance with centrist Tzipi Livni – though the rightward shift of Israel’s electorate still makes Mr. Netanyahu the favorite to form a coalition after the March 17 vote.

That said, the prime minister’s former Likud colleagues, all of whom have served in his cabinets, are splitting the right-wing vote, and some could even help coronate Labor chairman Yitzhak Herzog, holding open the possibility of a dramatic swing in Israeli policies on settlements and negotiations with the Palestinians.

“The right is not quite as cohesive as it looks, and that could make the election interesting,” says Jonathan Rhynhold, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.

The rightist triumvirate appeal to traditional sub-constituencies in the Likud: Moshe Kahlon, leader of the center-right Kulanu, is reaching out to working-class Jews of Middle Eastern descent; Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, relies on hawkish secular Russian immigrants; and Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, appeals to the religious-nationalist camp.

The first two parties could prove to be the swing votes between a dovish government that would seek to restart peace talks with the Palestinians and a government led by Netanyahu that would most likely seek to perpetuate the status quo. The third is seeking to push the Likud to take more steps to make Israel's rule over the West Bank permanent. (In a bid to woo votes from Mr. Bennett, Netanyahu has already declared he doesn't expect to evacuate settlements after the next election.)

What unites the three?

“All of them aspire to be prime minister. All of them have a personal grudge between them and the prime minister from the period in which they worked together,’’ said Ofer Zalzburg, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Vying for coalition spots

At a minimum, Netanyahu’s rivals on the right are all likely to play central roles in Israel’s post-election coalition tussle. Most will find themselves in the coalition, no matter who leads it, and likely will have the power to topple it.

Mr. Kahlon, a popular former communications minister, is making his first run as a party leader after pulling out of Netanyahu’s government in 2012. He is hoping to steal Likud’s long-time loyal constituency of Middle Eastern Jewish voters. The mostly working-class Sephardim are known to be relatively moderate on issues of peace with the Palestinians and are receptive to criticism that Netanyahu’s government hasn’t done enough to ease the high cost of living for Israel’s middle class.

Kahlon is crafting much of his campaign to capitalize on growing public frustration over socio-economic issues – runaway real estate and consumer prices – after mass street demonstrations in 2011.

After making a name for himself by slashing Israeli mobile phone service bills some 90 percent by introducing more  competition, Kahlon is promising wider economic reform aimed at lowering prices. A campaign video from his party complains that politicians work for Israel’s business tycoons rather than the ordinary voter. 

“His agenda is mostly a domestic agenda by breaking up Israeli monopolies and oligarchs,” said Ofer Zalzburg, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Kahlon also seems to be staking out centrist positions on foreign policy. Last month, he introduced Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the US and a supporter of unilateral pullbacks in the West Bank, as Kulanu’s diplomatic star.

At the press conference announcing that Mr. Oren would run on Kulanu's list, Kahlon criticized Netanyahu when he warned that, “genuine friends of Israel are distancing themselves, and Israel’s place in the world is not like it was in the past.” He also has invoked the example of the late Menahem Begin, the Likud prime minister who traded land for peace with Egypt.

Centrist attraction

Because of those overtures toward the center, most observers believe Kahlon could join with either Netanyahu or Herzog. And support for him from undecided voters could surge, as it did for centrist newcomers in the past three elections, says Nehemia Gershuni Aylho, a political analyst.

“People say they want something different, and new,” he says. “When they go to cast their vote, they say, I want chance of a change, so they vote for Kahlon because he is the person who hasn’t disappointed.”

Tzachi Hanegbi, a Likud lawmaker close to Netanyahu, played down the threat of the right-wing rivals. They would have “zero” impact on Netanyahu, he said, arguing that splinter parties are short-lived in Israeli politics. 

Mr. Lieberman, the foreign minister who set up a right-wing party based mainly on fellow immigrants from the Soviet Union and is believed to aspire to lead Israel’s right, also could form an alliance with Herzog in order to unseat Netanyahu.

For most of his tenure as Netanyahu’s foreign minister Lieberman has staked out positions more hawkish than the prime minister. He assailed the credentials of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a partner in negotiations, argued that reaching a definitive peace accord was impossible in the short term, and pressed for the Israeli army to reconquer the Gaza Strip during the 2014 war with Hamas.

Nevertheless he, too, has been trying to lure voters from the center. He has criticized Netanyahu's government for mismanaging relations with the US – an issue that worries a broad swath of Israelis – and recently told an audience at Tel Aviv University that Israel must seek a peace agreement or face rising international isolation.

Recent polls, meanwhile, suggest his popularity is waning as first and second-generation immigrants are less inclined to vote for a Russian party. Another complication: Israeli police are investigating his party over allegations of official bribery, money laundering, and kickbacks, charges he denies.

'Stop apologizing'

Unlike Lieberman and Kahlon, Economy Minister Bennett and his Jewish Home party isn't tacking to the center of Israeli politics. The party speaks to right-wing ideologues who favor annexation of the West Bank rather than territorial compromise. Bennett took a party that used to be confined to the niche of nationalist religious Jews who backed settlements and tried to expand its appeal to mainstream Israel by bringing secular Israelis onto the list and, for the first time, stressing a socio-economic agenda.

 Insisting that Israelis should stand firm on refusing a Palestinian state, his campaign has adopted the slogan “stop apologizing.” Jewish Home campaign videos feature Bennett scolding former US diplomat Martin Indyk and posing for pictures with Likud supporters who hail him as “our man in the Knesset” and a “real Rightist.”

Until now most of his fire has been aimed at the Israeli left: the stop apologizing commercial lampoons what rightists view as spineless Tel Aviv liberal slackers.

But when the campaign heats up, he may be directing some of his criticism at Netanyahu. He could slam him over failed peace talks, the inconclusive Gaza war, and recent unrest in Jerusalem. That’s because Bennett wants his party to eventually displace Likud as the largest party of the right.

“Right now, his campaign is targeted at the left, but that might change as we proceed into the election,” said Tal Schneider, an Israeli political blogger and analyst. “The Likud has to watch out for hostile fire on all sides.”

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