Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu overrode the concerns of his own Likud Party to announce a merger with the extreme right wing Yisrael Beitenu Party. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is a prominent member of Yisrael Beitenu. The party has introduced legislation calling for investigations into the funding and activities of Israeli Arab groups, with an understood overflow into targeting liberals.
According to Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, the deal was cut by Netanyahu without consultation with his party. The party’s central committee had no vote in the merger and no voice in the terms of it. Party members are not going to overturn the Prime Minister’s decision because three new polls show the merger will assure them of winning the January parliamentary elections.
Just as troubling is Netanyahu’s statement that the merger would not alter the nature of Likud, was intended to guarantee Likud’s majority in the Knesset and no one in Yisrael Beitenu would supplant him as head of the party and of Israel. “I’ve got news for you. I intend to lead Israel for many years to come!”
Kings and dictators believe that they have a divine right to rule, not democratically elected Presidents and Prime Ministers. Democracies flourish through the back-and-forth exchange of power between the right, center and left and through compromise among the three. A true democracy invariably gravitates to the center as the optimum way to serve all the citizens through compromise between the furthest positions.
There are 120 seats in the Knesset. There are approximately 14 political parties in Israel. A ruling majority occurs when a party wins 61 of those Knesset seats and the leader of that party becomes Prime Minister. Netanyahu has been leading with coalition of right-leaning and right wing parties that gave him between 65 and 74 seats. But parts of that coalition have fallen away, in particular the Labor Party and the newly formed Independence Party. The polls are indicating a clear election of 35 to 43 members from the Likud-Beintenu merger, but not a clear majority. Netanyahu would have to forge a new coalition. That may not be as easy as it has been in the past. The polls show 20 to 23 seats for the Labor Party, and 12 to 15 for centrist parties. That leaves between 39 and 53 seats that could be divided up among the minor parties or simply up for grabs by the major political divisions.
One important note about those polls. When Benjamin Netanyahu is put up against the leaders of the other parties as a choice for Prime Minister, he out-polls them, but – big but here – he polls equally to “don’t know-no opinion.” Only when Netanyahu is the only person on the poll does he come out with a resounding majority.
There are attempts underway to hold American-style debates before the January election, as was done in England’s last election. Though the individual party leaders are not actually being voted on for Prime Minister, these debates help solidify the positions of the parties. At last report, only Netanyahu had not responded to the idea. The British debates resulted in neither Labor nor Conservatives winning a clear majority in Parliament and both parties fighting to create a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, which held enough seats to create the majority. It was the strongest showing ever for the perpetually third-place Lib-Dems and many attribute it to the debate performance of Nick Clegg.
Already there are negotiations underway among the other parties to forge mergers for the purpose of denying Likud a victory in January. It is one thing for Netanyahu to think that the merger with Beitenu will win the parliament for him, it is another when one realizes that winning only 35 to 43 seats represents an enormous opportunity for the other factions in Israel to regain control of the government. Joining with Beitenu limits the number of minor parties willing to be part of such a government.
In some ways, the Israeli election will mirror ours. It will come down to how completely Netanyahu can convince the people of Israel that they want to keep repressing both Arab Israelis and Palestinians for the sake of “security” because we all “know” how dangerous those Muslims are. We will see how well can Netanyahu persuade the electorate that they must bomb-bomb-bomb-bomb-bomb Iran and get the United States to sort it out for them. He must walk that fine line between giving lip service to a two-state solution while encouraging the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the ambitions of Revisionist Zionists who claim Israel must include all lands from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. And he must convince the Israeli electorate that the Arab Spring is a threat to their existence and the West must eradicate it now, return the Middle East to the control of Europe and the United States. He must, therefore, be their Mitt Romney when playing to the far right wing in America.