Although Israelis are not scheduled to go to the polls until fall of 2013, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely expected to call for early elections, buoyed by public opinion surveys showing he would coast to a second term. Yet, Netanyahu may be more vulnerable than anticipated.
The confluence of the prime minister's poor performance on a wide range of issues and newly elected dynamic opposition leaders provides an opportunity for the centrist and left-leaning political parties to regroup and work toward an alternative electorally viable governing coalition.
During Netanyahu's term, the peace process has collapsed; settlements and illegal outposts in the West Bank have proliferated; relations with the United States, Israel's most important ally, have deteriorated; and Israel has become increasingly isolated. The Netanyahu government's saber rattling on Iran has worried not only Israel's western allies but also respected Israeli security figures, including former Mossad Directors Ephraim Halevy and Meir Dagan. Netanyahu's ultra-nationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is effectively persona non grata anywhere outside of Russia and the former Soviet Republics.
Under Netanyahu's watch, a series of ultra-nationalist and racist bills have been introduced in the Knesset that undermine the democratic fiber of Israeli society, further alienating Israel's Arab minority.
It is arguably in the socioeconomic arena, however, that the Netanyahu government is most vulnerable. The income gaps have widened during Netanyahu's term, with one-fourth of Israelis now living in poverty and the high cost of living affecting the majority of Israelis, a phenomenon that was given voice during the unprecedented social protests that gripped Israel last summer. At the same time, the deepening religious divide has been reinforced by an increase in ultra-Orthodox coercion during Netanyahu's term, in no small part because of the critical role the ultra-Orthodox parties play in Netanyahu's rightist-religious coalition.
Over the last three years, the government has been able to get by unscathed not due to its popularity -- Netanyahu's favorability rating has been consistently under the 50 percent mark -- but, rather, as a consequence of an unfocused and divided opposition. Indeed, support for the Israeli "peace camp" all but vanished in the wake of the second Palestinian Intifada that began in September 2000. Moreover, demographic changes in Israeli society and the absence of a strong opposition leader further eroded the Israeli left.
However, the recent primaries held by the two left-of-center parties have produced new leaders -- Shelly Yachimovich at the head of Labor and Zehava Gal-On at the head of Meretz -- who are energizing their bases and reaching out to potential new voters. Meanwhile, Tzipi Livni seems poised to defeat her challengers in the Kadima party's March 27 primary.
Despite being united in their desire to replace the Netanyahu government with a center-left coalition, each of these women appeals to a somewhat different audience. As leader of the opposition, Livni has been slamming the government's hard-line approach toward the Palestinians and its foot-dragging on the peace process. A former Likud legislator whose pragmatism led her to abandon the ideologically right-wing party, Livni joined former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in establishing the centrist Kadima party in 2005. She is appealing to the political center, well aware that a majority of Israelis, in contrast to most members of Netanyahu's government, support a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict.
Yachimovich, a social democrat, is focusing almost exclusively on socioeconomic matters and continues to be at the forefront of advocating for workers' rights and lowering the cost of living for average citizens. She has attempted to capitalize on last summer's social protests, which brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets who protested the tough social conditions facing Israeli society, such as high housing costs and economic inequality. Yachimovich's strategy is to win over many of these disgruntled citizens who may not share Labor's dovish agenda but who are fed up with the Netanyahu government's unbridled free market policies.
While both Livni and Yachimovich are pragmatists vying for the support of the centrist voter, Gal-On is an unabashed liberal ideologue who is aiming to galvanize listless left-wing voters who have drifted to other parties in the last decade. While she has no pretension of becoming the next prime minister, Gal-On aims to pick up enough seats to return Meretz to a mid-size party and a key partner in a center-left coalition led by either Livni or Yachimovich.
The energized new leadership of the opposition parties will not in itself bring about a center-left coalition. Demographics favor the right. Since 1989, over one million Russians have immigrated to Israel. The vast majority of these immigrants are staunch supporters of the right, an acknowledgment that landed former President Bill Clinton in hot water a few years ago. An increase in the birthrate of religious Jews -- particularly the ultra-Orthodox population -- similarly favors the Israeli right. Meanwhile, Israel's Arab citizens, who represent 20 percent of the population, have all but abandoned the Zionist parties in recent elections, dealing a major blow to the left.
By offering a clear change in course, the opposition parties have the raw material with which to neutralize the demographic advantages enjoyed by the right. A commitment to pursue a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to put a stop to settlement expansion, to improve relations with the United States, and to use a smart combination of diplomatic and covert means -- but avoid a reckless military adventure -- in order to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, will enable them to attract security-minded centrists. A pledge to fight all manifestations of anti-Arab discrimination and to address the serious socioeconomic needs of Israel's Arab citizens should help to win back the support of some of them in the next election. And a progressive, social-democratic agenda that reduces the social gaps, lowers the costs of living, and limits the influence of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate can potentially attract large numbers of mainstream secular Israelis frustrated with the government's lack of responsiveness to their concerns.
Although polls currently favor Netanyahu, support for him is shallow. A revitalized opposition that commits itself to a new set of national priorities has the opportunity to mount a serious challenge to Netanyahu and his rightist coalition in the next election.
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