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Israeli elections could be happening soon. Here’s what you should know.

- November 21, 2018
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement in Tel Aviv on Nov. 18. Netanyahu says he will take over temporarily as defense minister as early elections loom. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Head of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party Avigdor Liberman resigned as defense minister in the aftermath of another flare-up of violence between Israel and Hamas. Protesting what he called Israel’s too-soft policy on Hamas, Liberman took his five-member party out of the government coalition of religious and right-wing parties and called for new elections. Leaving the government with 61 seats in the Knesset, barely a majority out of 120, this stirred discussion among politicians and observers about whether Israel would have to go to elections now or wait until November 2019, the requisite date according to law.

Once elections are called, there would be at least three months before the vote takes place. Such a lapse poses risks for the parties as new escalations of violence between Israel and Hamas might cause the public to blame them. Or Netanyahu’s legal troubles (he is under investigation for alleged corruption) could catch up to him.

The question on everyone’s mind, then, is: Can Benjamin Netanyahu keep the coalition together? And if not, can he win the election and gain a fifth term as prime minister?

Then and now

Netanyahu had only 61 seats when his right-wing Likud party formed the government after the 2015 election. But it was always more durable than conventional wisdom thought, for two reasons. One, none of the parties in the coalition wanted to take a chance on new elections; fear of losing support kept them together. Two, there was always the chance that an outside party would be brought in to shore up the government’s numbers — as indeed happened when Liberman entered the coalition in May 2016.

So what’s changed? First, Liberman has been unhappy with how things have gone for him and for Israel. He is generally hawkish on foreign policy, and would prefer to take a hard line against Hamas, including using military force, although he has tempered those hard-line tendencies before. This time, though, he seems genuinely angry that Israel agreed to a cease-fire. But he also sees that his term as defense minister hadn’t strengthened him as a contender in the eyes of Jewish Israeli voters. A poll conducted after the cease-fire found that 69 percent of Israelis were unhappy with how Liberman handled the crisis, but 74 percent were also unhappy with Netanyahu. Given this discontent, Liberman thinks he can play up Netanyahu’s mishandling by emphasizing that it prevented him from using greater force against Hamas.

He might be right. In three surveys conducted over the weekend, Liberman’s resignation was seen as appropriate by 55 to 59 percent of the public, while 75 percent agreed that the cease-fire was “giving in to terror.” In all three polls, support for Liberman’s party increased by one to three seats.

Second, Liberman’s resignation convinced the other parties that the old, but slim, 61-seat majority was too fragile because the nearness of the election has made them jittery. Party leaders don’t want to be held responsible for triggering new elections. They do, however, want to force other party leaders to bring down the government and take the blame even while they see how much they can push their own demands within the government.

Risk factors at play

Despite these conditions, the coalition and the election are still Netanyahu’s to lose. Indeed, conditions in 2018 are very similar to conditions in 2014, when observers wondered whether a July war between Israel and Hamas would bring Netanyahu down. Netanyahu is risk-averse, but he is also a good politician, so he knows how to provoke emotional reactions in the electorate that would channel their votes toward his party. He is also very lucky, in that no other party has a leader with the charisma, political courage, vision and institutional support to challenge him, so that Jewish Israelis typically see him as better than the other options.

In addition, Gaza isn’t a problem of Netanyahu’s making. Previous Israeli prime ministers haven’t been able to deal with it because there are structural conditions in place that no Israeli or Palestinian leader has been able to break down.

The security implications of Hamas in Gaza pose a threat to any Israeli government, since Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist. But since right-wing governments proclaim they are better at defense and security issues, they face a particular pressure to deal with it. Combined, these two conditions lead to the reality that the status quo is still the safest bet for a right-wing Israeli government.

For his part, Netanyahu has sought to avoid Gaza and prioritizes the status quo. He wasn’t looking for escalation or to use military force as an electoral prop,  because if Israel got bogged down in an extended fight or Israeli civilians died as a result of rocket fire, then his credibility would be shot. He often presents himself as the best protector of Israel’s security, so a drawn-out fight with Hamas that includes Israeli casualties would undermine that image.

This helps explain, too, why Netanyahu doesn’t want elections now: Vocal segments of the public are already angry at the cease-fire and the lack of a military response to Hamas rockets. The longer it takes to get to elections, the less intense the public memory of this moment will be.

The other parties in the government are still reluctant to take a chance on new elections, especially if they are seen as the cause of them. Naftali Bennett, leader of the rightist-religious Zionist Bayit Yehudi party and considered a challenger to Netanyahu from the right, originally demanded that he be appointed defense minister in Liberman’s place or else his party would leave the government. When Netanyahu refused, Bennett walked his threat back and said he’s content to be considered a candidate for the position. Moshe Kahlon, of the center-right Kulanu party, insists that the government cannot effectively govern with a one-seat majority, but he has not moved to pull out of the coalition and will be meeting with Netanyahu soon to further discuss this.

In the coming weeks, any of his coalition partners could still decide to bring down the government. For the moment, though, it is limping along. It’s worth noting, too, that relations with the United States under President Trump, and the Trump peace plan, haven’t played any role in these developments. This isn’t unusual; contrary to popular belief, the United States isn’t a major factor in Israeli elections. This time, especially, it’s all about the parties’ political maneuverings.

Brent Sasley is associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington and co-author of “Politics in Israel: Governing a Complex Society.”