Nothing is a certainty in Israeli politics, but it looks like on this coming Sunday PM Binyamin Netanyahu is going to call for "early" elections to take place sometime in September or October 2012. Let's assume the rumors and leaks swirling through the Israeli media are accurate, and take a look at the landscape as a summer election campaign approaches.
Most important: one has to factor in a domestic election campaign regarding speculation concerning a possible Israeli strike on Iran anytime this year. It is hard to imagine that such a strike would be initiated during an election cycle. Were Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to order a strike during the summer, it would be the equivalent of a mega-"October surprise" and would be an impossible shock to the system, necessitating a suspension of the election for a time. So I think it is fair to draw a simple conclusion: elections in the fall means no Israeli airstrike on Iran for the remainder of 2012.
The standard narrative going into an election cycle is clear: Netanyahu believes that a quick snap election will help solidify his party the Likud. The Israeli center and left are in disarray. All the polls, which are a snapshot of the Israeli electorate's mood as of the moment, suggest that Netanyahu and Likud will do just fine, and will be able to assemble another right-leaning government in time to face either an Obama or (better yet, from Netanyahu's view) Romney White House. The tough decisions of a new budget will be better served by a new coalition agreement. Thus, elections.
Here are the facts: Russians will vote for Russians. Religious Jews will vote for religious parties. That takes care of roughly a third of the Israeli electorate. On domestic and budgetary issues, these two camps are at loggerheads -- in fact the move to early elections has something to do with the incompatibility of these two political camps. Any new coalition will have to choose between one or the other, or else finesse a way to include both. It won't be the Israeli-Palestinian strife or the Iran problem that will matter to these two camps.
Two thirds of the Israeli electorate then divides between a roughly steady 40% supporting Likud and its satellite parties, a steady 40% supporting Labor, or other centrist-left factions, and a typically 20% of undecided voters who might break one way or the other depending on the vagaries of the day. If that undecided middle breaks in the direction of an anti-Netanyahu political figure, there is a chance of unseating Bibi. Still, all this points to a likely third primeministership for Netanyahu. Nevertheless, there are some things we all should be looking for in the coming months which could upset this scenario.
There is good reason to believe that the summer of 2012 will witness
another round of social justice protests in Tel Aviv, spreading to other
cities. Very little has changed in the structure of the Israeli economy
between the summer of 2011 and today, and many of the issues raised by
last summer's #j14 protests (income inequality, housing shortages, and a
stifling cost of living) are still of vital concern to Israeli citizens.
If the social protest movement is able to reignite the base in the
summer of 2012, it will serve as a platform for criticism of the current
government, and will have a potential wildcard effect on the vote. Last
year's protests, begun in mid-July, peaked in late August and early
September. The party best positioned to take advantage of this protest
sentiment is Labor, whose current leader MK Shelly Yachimovich has made
the economy and social justice the centerpiece of Labor's message.
Kadima, the artificial vanity party creation of Ariel Sharon which drew supporters back in 2005 from both Labor and Likud (and in fact won the largest block of votes in the last round of elections, held in 2009) is likely not going to be as much a factor in the 2012 elections. I expect a large wave of public and private defections from Shaul Mofaz's Kadima to Likud and to Labor. The new face in Israeli politics is former television news reader Yair Lapid, who has only stumbled in the months since he announced his turn to politics. I do not expect great things from Lapid.
One positive from all the maneuvering and defections of the last 4 years will be the end of Ehud Barak. His vanity party Independence (Atzma'ut) will simply disappear, and bring to an end (at least for now) the strange career of Barak.
To sum up: the deck is stacked in Netanyahu's favor, but there are some wildcard factors that might unexpectedly produce a change. I'm looking for Labor and Yachimovich to improve, and Mofaz and Kadima to falter. It's always possible some new charismatic figure might emerge in the coming months, but I judge that an unlikely development. I'll keep an eye on this campaign (if it emerges), and report back to all (4) of you.