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The Israel Elections: Expect More Surprises

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It is arguably true that there is never a dull moment in Israel, a small country, but a big producer of news, the latest have to do with internal politics, ever a source of drama, excitement and surprises. The current chapter deals with the decision by PM Netanyahu to call early elections, almost a year ahead of time, and with what has already transpired since then, and what is still in store. The PM is the hero of the drama, standing in the center of all the major happenings, presumably in command of the situation, working according to a well-crafted plan of action. Or so it seems, and in reality, may just be a facade.

When Netanyahu dissolved the Knesset, he told the nation that the economic situation was still good by all accounts, and the Iran nuclear program require bold and early decisions, and it was his belief that the results would be such that he would have a renewed and overwhelming mandate to make these necessary decisions. The PM knows a thing or two about polls, so it was assumed that coming to his decision, he possessed complimentary polls which tended to substantiate his expectations; but then, this is Israel, and matters started to go awry.

First, came the resignation of the most popular Likud minister, Moshe Kachlon, a rising star in the party, a son of immigrants from Libya, who in a short span of time became the leader of the left-wing of the Likud party. For those who raise their eyebrows as to the "strange" combination of left-wing and Likud, they ought to know that the party has traditionally had a very strong populist wing, advocating social and economic policies, which would have placed them firmly in the left-wing of the Democratic party in the U.S. In fact, the majority of Likud voters are blue-collar workers, mostly of Sepharadic origin, whereas PM Netanyahu is seen as the ultimate free-marketeer, whose policies can place him in the conservative wing of the Republican party. Kachlon did not like Netanyahu's policies, even though the Israeli economy is highly praised by the IMF and the World Bank. Whereas Netanyahu was planning some major austerity measures intended to deal with the anticipated impending world recession, Kachlon backed a policy of generous government welfare.

So, the popular minister resigned, and the immediate speculation was that he did not share Netanyahu's optimism regarding the election results, and did not want to be associated with a defeat. These speculations were intensified when most of the early polling taken after Netanyahu's announcement seemed to indicate a loss of seats for Likud, not one that could endanger the establishment of a Likud-led government, but enough to create instability after the elections.

Then came another surprising development, and this is the return of the Charismatic Arye Der'I to the leadership of the Shas party, an ultra-Orthodox Sepharadic party, a loyal partner of Likud governments. While Shas is, by and large, a hawkish, right-wing party, Arye Der'I is not. This was another blow to Netanyahu's plans. But Netanyahu, in typical fashion, reacted quickly -- some already argue too quickly, maybe even in some panic -- and yesterday he inflicted on the Israeli public the biggest political bombshell of the season. He merged Likud with the Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel is our home" in Hebrew) party of his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and together the two parties, which represent the secular wing of the Israeli Nationalist Right, seem to be invincible in the coming elections, likely to be able to form the new government with two of the three religious parties, and possibly with what is left of the Kadima party.

Well, if it was so simple, it would not be in common with Israeli politics. Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu are very different in many respects, so the initial voices from Likud indicate that many there are unhappy, some who support Kachlon, some who object to Lieberman's much more militant posture, which they claim will drag Likud from the center to the far right. Some of these Likudniks are concerned that this unity will lead to Lieberman becoming Netanyahu's heir apparent. Be that as it may, the history of political mergers in Israel shows that they do not always pay off politically and bring the desired dividends of extra seats in the Knesset.

What is clear though is that the unity in the right poses a major challenge to the center and left-wing Zionist parties. Here is where we may be faced with the next surprise, and this is the possibility that a union of these parties, but without the extreme left-wing Meretz party, could be appealing enough to moderate Likudniks, who do not like the shift to the radical right.

It is too early to predict with certainty future developments, but it surely is going to be interesting. Much more than what was anticipated by Netanyahu even a week ago.