Tel Aviv Diary: Netanyahu Faces Tough Reelection Fight

Israeli Knesset dissolves
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves after a vote to dissolve the Israeli parliament, also known as the Knesset, in Jerusalem December 8, 2014. Baz Ratner/Reuters

Over the weekend the Israeli newspapers were filled with headlines like "The Moment of Decision" and "Fateful Moments," all referring to the question of whether the Israeli Knesset would indeed vote to disband and call for new elections, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened last week.

The question was relevant, since three years ago (at the last moment, on the verge of new elections) the Head of Kadima, Shaul Mofaz, agreed to join the Netanyahu government and hold off elections.

From the moment that Netanyahu gave his speech announcing his call for elections (and in part as a result of the uncharacteristically poor speech he delivered), the political momentum has clearly moved away from Netanyahu. The consensus had been that Netanyahu regretted his decision to call for new elections and that he would make one last effort to create an alternative coalition to the one he had with the minister of finance, Yair Lapid, and the Minister of Justice, Tzipi Livni.

Unfortunately for Netanyahu, he was not able to convince the minister of foreign affairs, Avidgor Lieberman, to agree to be in the same government with members of the Ultra-Orthodox parties. Therefore, new elections became inevitable. Tonight the votes were cast and the current Knesset has officially been dissolved. The new elections are set for March 17 2015.

For Netanyahu, the coming months will not be easy. Before he can run in the general election he faces a primary challenge from as many as three rival candidates in his own party. The most serious competition could be from his former minister of interior, Gideon Sa'ar, who resigned three months ago. Sa'ar is a popular figure in the ruling Likud party – more popular than Netanyahu.

Until now, Netanyahu could count on being nominated. Polls had clearly shown that the Likud would do substantially better with Netanyahu heading the list than anyone else. Polls taken in the last few days show that the Likud will do just as well if any of the three potential contenders were to replace Netanyahu. Once you lose the air of inevitability, anything is possible.

It is clear Netanyahu is panicking. Today he came out in support of eliminating the Value Added Tax (V.A.T.) – similar to sales tax in the U.S. – on basic food. Many would consider that a reasonable idea, even if there are challenges. The problem is that when a cabinet minister suggested that idea two months ago, Netanyahu was the greatest critic of the idea. Clearly with the campaign not even underway, the prime minister is giving a new definition to the term "election economics."

While no respected sources claimed that yesterday's alleged Israeli air attack on arms heading for Hezbollah in Syria was fueled by the upcoming elections, the very fact that the issue was even raised and briefly considered shows the lack of faith people have in the government. The concern in Israel tonight is that Hezbollah might retaliate this time, despite the fact that many of its men are bogged down fighting in Syria. Today's statement by Russia demanding an explanation for why Israel effectively destroyed Russian weapons being given to a terrorist organization (Hezbollah) surprised Israeli officials.

If Prime Minister Netanyahu successfully navigates the Likud primaries, he will then have to face the general election. At first glance, that should be an easier challenge. Israeli political views have been drifting rightward, thus, to some extent the results of the elections are preordained.

'Rightly or wrongly, the majority of Israelis are very skeptical about the chances of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians.'

However, the outcome may not be as inevitable as it appears. Much will depend on the campaign of the Center-Left. If the Center-Left runs a campaign with the peace process as a center point, they will lose. Rightly or wrongly, the majority of Israelis are very skeptical about the chances of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians. As such, a campaign predicated on reaching peace is likely to be defeated.

Conversely, the message of the speech given by the Israeli minister of the economy Naftali Bennett at the Saban Conference in Washington, DC on Saturday night resonated with many Israelis – i.e. Stop wasting our time with the peace process. We are not going to reach peace.

At the same time, most Israelis are not willing to live with the international consequences of the policies that Bennett proposes. Most Israelis see themselves as part of a modern state that is more connected to Europe and the US than the Middle East. Most Israelis want to think of themselves as part of a vibrant democracy. Most Israelis support the continued occupation of the West Bank – not because Judea and Samaria was the heart of the ancient Jewish homeland – but because they are afraid that turning that land over to a third party will endanger their very existence.

If the leaders of the Center-Left of the political spectrum succeed in making this new election a referendum on what sort of country Israelis want to live in in the coming decades they stand a chance of upsetting the common wisdom and reversing recent trends. Otherwise the upcoming elections are likely to do little more than trigger endless hours of pundits arguing and enriching the media companies that run the campaigns.

Historian Marc Schulman is the editor of historycentral.com.

Tel Aviv Diary: Netanyahu Faces Tough Reelection Fight | Opinion