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Netanyahu's Move to Right Leaves Opening for Olmert at Center

Netanyahu may lead the largest party following Likud's merger with Yisrael Beitenu, but not necessarily the most popular. Alon Pinkas writes that Ehud Olmert could lead a centrist bloc that poses a real challenge to the new alliance.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman hold a joint news conference in Jerusalem October 25, 2012. Netanyahu said on Thursday he was merging his Likud party with that of his ultra-nationalist coalition ally Lieberman in a hard-right tack ahead of Israel's Jan. 22 election.

This was supposed to be a Seinfeld election in Israel: no real agenda, no real visions, no big narratives except for "Iran" and all those urgent issues that the political system conveniently defers to the next generation.

But these elections are in fact historic for one reason: the first time ever not dealing with Israel's relations with the Arab world, or with the future of our cohabitation with the Palestinians. "Peace" is a T-shirt, and Palestinians exist is a parallel universe.

Now, with the audacious and strange merger between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman's Yisrael Beitenu Party, these elections seem to have metamorphosed into something completely different. They just may redefine the blurry political divide.

With the Netanyahu-Liberman merger, the Israeli center-right moved appreciably further to the right.

This means the center, that elusive and expensive piece of political real estate that politicians all over the world covet and pledge allegiance to, is now vacant.

As a result, the eternally confused, disoriented and factionalized center/center-left all of a sudden has somewhere to move to: the center, where most Israelis want to be.

Israeli public opinion in the last 20 years has exhibited the most erratic and inconsistent positions. On the Palestinian issue, it shifted significantly to the left. An average of 65% of Israelis support the two-state solution, provided there is a Palestinian interlocutor that is reliable and credible. Yet the Israeli electorate voted right, as if to ensure that the policy they desire is never implemented.

Israelis believe Netanyahu when he warns of the existential threat posed by Iran. Yet they don't buy into the panic, and they refuse to consider Iran the only legitimate issue around. They then empower Netanyahu again, essentially indicating that they don't expect him to deal adequately with what they actually perceive to be the most important issues: inequality and income disparity. If the Israeli electorate were an individual, bi-polarism would be the immediate diagnosis.

And here we go again. With his new coalition, Netanyahu almost certainly ensured he will remain prime minister by virtue of being the head of the biggest party after the January 22 elections. Liberman, realizing that he may have hit the ceiling of his electoral potential as a primarily "Russian" party (one supported predominantly by Israelis who immigrated from the former Soviet Union), moved to the mainstream of Israeli politics and positioned himself as the next leader of the right wing. Liberman's statement that a bigger party equals improved governability is true, and resonates with the public. The problem is it may ultimately not be such a big party after all, and what it stands for may not be very popular come January.

A deeper analysis suggests that this new entity is a very right-wing party that will appeal to fewer voters, rather than more. The Likudniks dislike Liberman's very secular stance on marriage and religious parties. "We can't vote for a 'pork-meat' party" was one of the initial responses from Likud's more traditional religious-light voters and politicians.

It may repel the Likudniks, who are not xenophobic as Liberman is perceived to be. It may equally repel the young, non-Russian Liberman voters, who dislike Netanyahu profoundly. It may repel the Russian voters, who will now be criticized and maligned by Likudniks for their condescension to the rank-and-file, traditional-religious Likud voter.

The one thing they will all have in common is their attitude toward the Arab world, their approach to the Palestinians, their distaste for Palestinian-Israelis (1.6 million live inside Israel proper). But it is a common denominator that puts them at odds with the rest of Israel, not to mention the world. They may very well end up with a Knesset plurality, but hardly a majority.

Likud and Yisrael Beitenu have a combined 42 mandates in the Knesset (27 and 15, respectively). Many would assume that the post-merger electoral sum would be greater than the parts, or so said US pollster Arthur Finkelstein, who advised both Netanyahu and Liberman on the merits of the merger.

That thinking is wrong. It is more reasonable to assume that the very different constituencies of these two parties and the repulsion they inspire may yield less than 42.

Even so, Netanyau will form the government barring a late, possibly game-changing entry into the fray of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who could lead a new centrist block that together with Labor, might rival or exceed the power of the new entity called Likud Beitenu.

Unless Olmert decides to run — a difficult decision for a man who was a victim of nothing less than a political-legal coup d'etat in 2008 — the new Likud Beitenu will essentially run unopposed insofar as who will form the next government. But if Olmert actually jumps in and creates a backlash against this right-wing merger, Netanyahu and Liberman may be in for a difficult ride.

Ambassador Alon Pinkas was Israel's consul general in New York, adviser to Shimon Peres and chief of staff to Ehud Barak and Shlomo Ben Ami. He is currently a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum (IPF).

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