Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Does Netanyahu cheer for Bayit HaYehudi?

Today is January 22, 2013--election day in Israel. Here's a look at Israel's most exciting new political party--Bayit HaYehudi ('Jewish Home')--and a brief primer on how Israel's national elections work.
As citizens across Israel prepare to vote today, many on the political Right are excited. There is a new team in town—Bayit HaYehudi. What was once an almost invisible pro-Israel Rightist Party has united with the National Union Party to create a new voice with a new leader, Naftali Bennet, Benjamin Netanyahu’s former Chief of Staff. Suddenly, Bayit HaYehudi is invisible no longer. Just a week before the election, it polled at 14 seats in the next Knesset.

Supporters of Bayit HaYehudi are delighted. They believe that 14 seats would make them the third largest Party in the Knesset, behind only Likud-Beiteinu and Labor. With that kind of showing, they could be invited into Israel’s most exclusive ‘club’—the government.

They shouldn’t get too excited. Even if they become the third largest Party, they could still lose—and take the Right with them.

Israeli politics are not about Knesset seats won in an election. They are about power politics after the election. If you don’t understand this, your vote could be wasted.

Consider the election process. You don’t vote for a person. You vote for a Party. The winning Party does not automatically win anything. The Party that wins must form a government. That government has to control 61 seats (of 120 total seats) in the Knesset. If Likud-Beiteinu wins, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu should be the next Prime Minister. But—as of the latest polls-- his Party projects at 34 seats. To become Prime Minister, he needs 27 more.

Where will those seats come from?

This is where Bayit HaYehudi supporters get excited. They read polls that give them 14 seats. If Party-head Bennet teams up with Labor (projected today to win 17 seats), Bayit HaYehudi might swing a deal whereby Netanyahu joins with them and Labor to get 65 seats, not 61. If Bennet can do that, Bayit HaYehudi will have risen from nowhere to power-broker.

It would be a great story. Could it happen? Don’t bet on it.

If you look at recent polls, you will discover there are multiple ways Netanyahu could create a ruling coalition without Bayit HaYehudi. Political professionals believe that Netanyahu does not want hawks in his new government (Bennet is supposed to be a hawk). Netanyahu appears to want a Left-Center coalition. Depending on whose polls you read, he might be able to do that with Labor and Yesh Atid. Alternatively, he could choose Labor and Shas-- or Labor, Shas, and Yesh Atid.  He might even consider Livni, if her campaign doesn’t implode before the election—or other combinations that include more Haredi Parties, not less (while the leaders of Labor and Yesh Atid have announced they would not join a Netanyahu coalition, some discount that as  political manoeuvring, not political ideology).

If you want to play this game of ’61-plus’ for yourself, go to Shmuel Rosner on JewishJournal.com, Rosner’s Domain. There, you’ll get a running average of multiple polls and current standings for each Party (the numbers for Bayit HaYehudi appear under ‘National Union’). Try to find 61 seats without ‘National Union’. It’ll be easy.

Many Right-leaning Likud voters remain in Likud because they want to support Likud faction-head Moshe Feiglin. Feiglin has become a strong pro-Israel advocate who develops Rightist power inside Likud. He is now on the verge of expanding that power just as Bennet works to attract his (Feiglin’s) support-base over to Bayit HaYehudi. The rationale is simple: a Rightist vote for Likud is not a vote for the Right, but another vote for a Left-leaning Netanyahu. The political proposition is, give Bennet that vote and he will truly represent the Right.

It’s a powerful argument. Many like it. But it won’t succeed. Too much can go wrong, too much has to go exactly right for it to work—and the odds don’t favour success.

Here’s why it won’t work: in a new Netanyahu government, Bennet would need at least 27 seats (to create the possibility of a strong Bennet-Netanyahu coalition) in order to have any chance of forcing Netanyahu to the Right. That is simply not going to happen in this election. What will happen, however, is that if Bennet does not win big, he could indeed potentially control 10-17 seats—and end up outside the new government coalition, powerless; meanwhile, If voters abandon Feiglin for Bennet, Feiglin’s influence inside Likud could get slashed.

So if Bennet wins those 10-17 seats, the Right could be this election’s biggest losers.  The Right needs to strengthen its influence inside the government. Bennet’s ‘success’ could easily create the opposite effect--reducing Rightist influence in the government. That’s not what the Right wants. But it’s exactly what Netanyahu wants.

Vote for Bennet, and the Right’s power could be gutted.

That’s how Israel’s politics works.

Remember, politics in Israel is not transparent. Against a strong incumbent, voting for an appealing message (Bennet) doesn’t mean anything. It’s what happens after the election that counts. If you want to win something against a strong incumbent, you do not vote for a message; you vote for one who gives you the most leverage after the voting is over.

That leverage would come from the largest faction in Likud—Feiglin’s Manhigut Yehudit—if Likud gets the votes needed to bolster that faction. In fact, given how the Likud candidate list looks right now (thanks to Feiglin’s efforts), the more seats Likud wins, the greater will be Feiglin’s influence.

The moment of truth for the Right is this: if it wants any leverage at all in a Netanyahu government, its only power-player is Feiglin.

Bennet, on the other hand, takes the Right in a different direction. If anything, his presence in this year’s election does not promise leverage to the Right. Instead, his presence could be the blessing Netanyahu seeks if he wishes to shrink the Right’s influence. If Bennet wins big—but not big enough--the Right loses.

As I have suggested two days ago (see Sunday, January 20, 2013, below, Is Naftali Bennet a Titanic for the Right?), Bennet creates a second problem for the Right: if his political views are truly closer to Netanyahu's than the Right, his presence on the scene does not enhance the Right; it enhances Netanyahu.

Put another way, Bayit HaYehudi today does not strengthen the Right. It threatens the Right.

Look, voting for a message is attractive. It’s what we all want to do. But Israeli politics only rarely allows us to ‘vote the message’. Most of the time, Israeli politics is about leverage.

If voters on the Right do not understand this, they will vote their ‘hearts’—and then lose.

That’s a good deal for Netanyahu.

Does the Prime Minister cheer for his former Chief of Staff?

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