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  • Will Netanyahu Remain Israel’s Prime Minister?

    Israel’s Knesset voted Wednesday to dissolve, kickstarting a period of likely uncertainty and infighting, culminating in elections slated for March 17.

    The vote was triggered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu firing two prominent cabinet members on Tuesday and calling for elections. Both deposed ministers are heads of other parties, which constituted the ruling Likud party’s inter-party coalition: Justice Minister Tzipi Livni of the Hatnuah party, and Finance Minister Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid. In a speech following the firings, Netanyahu accused them of “opposition from within the government.”

    “I don’t think Netanyahu would have called elections unless he was betting on himself,” Danielle Pletka, a top Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. But, Pletka insisted, “the Israeli public is notoriously fickle,” and there may be surprising changes before the elections in March.

    The Guardian reported Tuesday that a flash poll predicted top results for Netanyahu’s Likud, together with Jewish Home, which advocates the expansion of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian-held West Bank.

    And while several key policy issues are at stake, Neri Zilber, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, emphasized to TheDCNF that “personalities played a big part” in the dissolution of the cabinet, pointing out that until recently the cabinet was unified on the national budget and several other key initiatives. “Netanyahu was feeling pressure, especially from his right flank,” just as “Livni had to deliver to her own voters on the center-left.”

    But despite today’s confidence in victory for Netanyahu and his right-wing allies, analyst Michael Koplow wrote Wednesday that “the real political threat to Netanyahu comes not from his left but from his right.” Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, enjoys greater support among settlers, Haredi Jews, and other key members of Israel’s right-wing voter base.

    Moreover, Koplow wrote, the disgruntled Livni and Lapid may band together to provide  an alternative to Netanyahu’s Likud government by the time Israelis go to the polls in March. In his farewell speech on Wednesday, Lapid vowed that Netanyahu would “not form the next government” and “won’t be the prime minister” after the elections, attracting significant attention.

    Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, suggested a number of other possibilities. “Every one of Israel’s party leaders has had a tumultuous relationship with Netanyahu,” he told TheDCNF, and while Lapid or Bennett may present a challenge to Netanyahu, other credible threats may emerge from right-wing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman or Likud’s economic reformer Moshe Kahlon.

    As they face the chaotic Middle East of 2014, Sachs says, “the security issue is back” at the forefront of Israeli voters’ minds. Netanyahu’s challenge is retaining public support despite recent threats to Israel’s safety — a sharp contrast to the relative calm that Israel enjoyed for most of his tenure.

    When asked if a new government would affect Israel’s standing in the region, Pletka stressed the difference between “core Israeli issues” on which there is broad internal consensus, such as defense against Iran, and “political” ones, including the peace process with the Palestinians. Cohesion over those “Israeli issues,” she said, are unlikely to lead to changes in Israeli policy in the Middle East outside its immediate backyard.

    Zilber concurred, predicting that in the heat of the election “you’ll see heightened rhetoric because people are campaigning, but as far as actual substantive moves, no, I don’t see it.” But on the peace process, if Netanyahu consolidates his power, Zilber said that “any margin for movement would be limited, if not completely eliminated.”

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