Israel's 34th government has completed four full years, but elections will now be held seven months before the scheduled date in November. How many times in the past year did this moment seem imminent? The last time, when Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman resigned several weeks ago, seemed especially significant. The tables have turned quite a few times since then before yesterday's announcement of early elections. Where does each of the main players in Israeli politics stand in the wake of this decision?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: The security cloud has passed
April 2019 is Netanyahu's preferred time for elections. His situation is better today than it would have been had the announcement of elections come immediately after Liberman's resignation. Netanyahu preferred elections in May (after Israel Independence Day and the Eurovision song contest) or in November (the original date), but the prospect of elections with Liberman, Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, and Minister of Education Naftali Bennett accusing him of not being concerned enough about state security was unattractive for Netanyahu. In the past few weeks, Netanyahu has managed to recover his security standing as a result of the tunnels operation in the north, among other reasons, and to quieten those critical voices. What about the investigations? The fact that the criminal cases against Netanyahu are nearing a conclusion may also have precipitated the decision. The truth is, however, that this situation is so complicated that even Netanyahu and his associates do not know the "right" date from this perspective.
Shaked and Bennett: Their capitulation caused them no harm
As of now, it appears that Shaked and Bennett's withdrawal of their ultimatum demanding Bennett's appointment as minister of defense caused no special harm to them or their party - certainly not as much damage as would have occurred had they been blamed for dismantling a rightwing government. The Jewish Home Party is Netanyahu's natural partner for forming the next government, and it is likely that Shaked and Bennett will be in a fairly comfortable situation when the next coalition is assembled; they will be able to sit with Netanyahu, and perhaps even improve their bargaining power. It all depends, of course, on how many seats they (and former IDF Chief of Staff Lieut. Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz) win in the elections.
Moshe Kahlon: Mr. Cost of Living's test
The minister of finance wanted elections some weeks ago, and made no secret of it. Since then, the price hikes crisis has confronted him with a difficult challenge, in addition to the likely appearance on the political scene of Benny Gantz with a party aiming at Kahlon's constituency. The minister of finance will have to labor mightily in the coming weeks to prove to his voters that he is still the white knight of keeping the cost of living low and cutting taxes. All that remains now is to hope that he conducts his election economics responsibly.
Liberman: Quiet on the borders means he loses
Liberman is one of the big losers from the coalition surviving his resignation as minister of defense. Netanyahu took his place as a matter of course. The effect of the northern tunnel exposure campaign detracted from Liberman's arguments about Netanyahu's irresponsibility on the southern front. Politically speaking, as long as the Gaza Strip remains calm, Liberman, with his message about the need to take a more aggressive position, is the big loser from the timing of the elections, especially because Liberman long ago lost one of his party's major electoral assets - MK Orly Levi-Abekasis. At the same time, Liberman always keeps several surprises and scenarios in reserve, and has probably not spoken his last word.
Gantz: Hot air or the real thing?
The announcement of elections catches Gantz with his hypothetical political party and the possibility of a partnership with one existing party or another still being an unrealized election surprise. Recent polls predict that Gantz will win over 10 Knesset seats and pose a challenge to Netanyahu (albeit a slight one). At the same time, Gantz also suffered a blow in recent days when Fifth Dimension, a company of which he was chairperson, closed down, and its employees were laid off. Gantz kept his head down and the storm passed, at least for now, but the new player on the political scene needs to practice the sentence that Netanyahu has already forgotten: "You know how to get into elections, but not what you'll get out of them."
Lapid: The best time for him
After four years in opposition, the elections are coming at the best possible time for Yesh Atid Party chairperson MK Yair Lapid. He is prepared for them, his field staff is prepared, and he is ready to state that he is running for prime minister, no less. Lapid may have avoided severe imbroglios during his years in opposition, but he is far from achieving the leadership position that he seeks, certainly when he has been careful not to rule out joining a Netanyahu government. The fact that he refused to support the military draft bill in its current form makes him more attractive to his constituency, but also confronts him with an old dilemma: how to run for prime minister without serving in the same coalition with the haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) parties.
Gabbay: Problems in his party and the polls
The struggle against the cost of living and the resumption of public discourse about the natural gas plan are good for Zionist Union Party chairperson Avi Gabbay, the plan's leading opponent. This discourse, however, has not gone beyond a relatively limited group. The showing of Gabbay and the Zionist Union in the polls is far from encouraging, to say the least, and the shaky state of relations within the party and with opposition chairperson MK Tzipi Livni are weighing him down. Will he succeed in recapturing the magic that led him to the leadership of the party? Doing so on a national scale will probably be more difficult. Will he agree to step aside in favor of Benny Gantz? Not in the foreseeable future.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on December 25, 2018
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