When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a few days ago that Israel would hold elections ahead of schedule, a consensus quickly affirmed that Netanyahu and his rightist coalition would emerge even stronger after Israelis vote.
The odds, no doubt, favor that outcome. Otherwise, Netanyahu would not have chosen this moment to roll the dice. And yet, in the never-a-dull-day theater of Israeli politics, I wouldn’t take any outcome for granted.
Netanyahu decided to call elections — likely to happen this January — when his coalition reached a stalemate in drafting a politically difficult budget for 2013. The economy is slowing, and the government will have to cut expenses — every politicians’ least favorite activity. But it wasn’t just the budget.
By law, the prime minister could wait until October 2013 to face the voters, but he was looking for the right moment to maximize the size of his coalition, his power and his ability to maneuver through tough decisions, including what to do about Iran in the months ahead. With an economic slowdown expected and the polls showing his popularity climbing, it seemed better to move now than to wait.
Netanyahu, however, has more to worry about than the consensus about his impending victory indicates.
To be sure, he is Israel’s most popular politician today (not counting President Shimon Peres, who has become a beloved figure but is more a national symbol than an active politician).
The fact, however, is that Israelis don’t like their politicians anymore. Not even Netanyahu. He may be the most popular of the bunch, but his approval rating is nothing to crow about. Despite what you might have heard, most Israelis are not happy with his performance.
Israel’s most popular politician has an approval of just 38 percent, according to the most recent poll. Luckily for him, that’s far ahead of all his challengers. But it points to a serious vulnerability.
In the country’s parliamentary system, voters cast their ballot for political parties, not individuals. And no party has any hope of gaining a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Instead, coalitions are cobbled together, sometimes uniting fierce rivals.
The election will not take place for a few months, so politicos will engage in furious deal-making, and politicking in the weeks ahead.
For political junkies, this is a feast. Even if Netanyahu keeps his job as prime minister, heading the governing coalition, the election could reshape the government and the opposition.
There are several key figures to watch. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is reportedly considering jumping back into the fray. His legal troubles over corruption charges have not ended, but he has so far been cleared of the most damning charges.
Olmert was one of the three principals in the once-dominant Kadima party, founded by the legendary and controversial Ariel Sharon. The third one was former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who recently stepped aside after losing a party leadership contest.
Under Livni, Kadima won the most seats in the last election. It still holds more seats than any other party in the Knesset, but the polls say the next election will decimate it.
Surveys claim say if the vote were held now, Netanyahu’s Likud would win 28 seats, just one more than in the 2009 election, but more than any other party. The second place would go to Labor, under its current leader, the former journalist Shelly Yacimovich.
Another interesting player is Defense Minister Ehud Barak, also a former prime minister. He broke away from Labor and formed his own party, Ha’atzmaut. But polls say the party would not get enough votes to win any seats. So Barak is probably talking to Olmert and Netanyahu and Yacimovich, weighing his options.
Keep an eye on Olmert, Livni and Barak, and also on former military chief Gaby Ashkenazi, said to be considering an alliance with Olmert. Then there’s the television personality Yair Lapid, who recently entered politics. They are all centrists, with name recognition, who might decide to work together to unseat the rightist coalition.
Netanyahu enjoys support from his right-of-center coalition partners, but many settlers are angry with him for not supporting them strongly enough. He needs to watch both flanks.
Then there’s that other flank, the American one. The outcome of the U.S. election in November will play a role in Israel. Many Israelis are deeply unhappy about Netanyahu’s tense relationship with President Obama, many blame the prime minister. If Obama wins, it could hurt Netanyahu. A Romney victory would help him.
The pundits are right that Netanyahu is likely to keep his job, but they are wrong to think he has an unbreakable lock on victory. As ever, interesting times in that patch of world.