Jonathan Rosen
The Jerusalem Post (Opinion)
January 25, 2012 - 1:00am

Despite the fact that no formal announcement has been made, the prevalent assessment in political corridors is that a general election in Israel will be held by October 2012. The primaries that have been scheduled by the Likud and Kadima, as well as Yair Lapid’s decision to enter the political arena, have contributed to that sense of momentum.

Figures from within the Prime Minister’s Office, moreover, reportedly shared with journalists a number of weeks ago that Netanyahu would prefer to seek reelection before a second-term Barack Obama was potentially seated in the White House.

On the assumption that elections indeed will be held by October, Netanyahu is likely to try to utilize three important events that appear on his calendar in the next few months to build a campaign that will cast him as a pragmatic centrist. In current polls, the right-wing bloc still wins a majority of the seats in Knesset, which would almost assure Netanyahu’s reelection as prime minister. However, that majority is slim, one that an energized Kadima and Lapid’s campaign could upend.

As such, in the balance Netanyahu will be less concerned with alienating voters by not being “right-wing enough.” Netanyahu knows that even if voters who once voted for the Likud gravitate to parties further to the Right, he is still likely to be prime minister because they will continue to vote for a party within his bloc. Rather, Netanyahu’s focus will be turned to preventing a different type of flight from the party – one-time Likud voters who now might be inclined to cast ballots either for Kadima or Lapid.

If enough of those voters gravitate away from the Likud to parties outside the right-wing bloc, that could shift the balance between the blocs and dash Netanyahu’s hopes of being reelected prime minister.

That being the case, Netanyahu can be expected to build a campaign designed to appeal to the undecided voters in the center, and not the right wing. As noted, he is likely to try to utilize three upcoming events to do so.

The first is the Likud primary, scheduled for January 31. Running against no one but the far-right candidate Moshe Feiglin, this race will be the first step in Netanyahu’s effort to cast himself as a centrist.

On the reasonable assumption that Netanyahu does defeat Feiglin, his renewed mandate from the Likud will provided him with the political clout needed to deal with two other issues on the horizon and leverage them to his benefit.

The first is Migron. The state has made a commitment to the High Court of Justice to remove the unauthorized settlement outpost by April. As opposed to some of the other outposts that have been removed by the state in the past few weeks, Migron is large, being home to some 50 families, and is well-established, with at least some permanent structures on the ground.

Removing Migron is likely to anger members of his faction and coalition, to understate matters, and might even precipitate a no-confidence motion or other measures that would dissolve the government and lead to early elections. At the same time, however, such a step could be utilized by Netanyahu to signal to the deliberating voters in the center that he is serious about upholding the rule of law and about reaching a territorial compromise, a necessary component of the two-state solution that he publicly endorsed in his 2009 Bar Ilan speech.

A second and related issue is the government’s commitment to the international Middle East Quartet to submit a proposal for future borders and security arrangements in a final-status arrangement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has rejected the Palestinian interpretation of the time frame, which would put the Quartet’s deadline at January 26, just days before the Likud primary. Rather, Netanyahu has insisted that Israel will present its proposal on security and borders only toward the end of March.

Many columnists in the Israeli media, such as Ben Caspit in Ma’ariv this past Friday, have suggested that Netanyahu’s demand to push off the submission date was nothing more than a transparent bid for time.

However, it would seem plausible that while Netanyahu might be averse to suggesting far-reaching territorial concessions before competing in the Likud primary, his situation will be vastly changed once he has been reconfirmed as the party leader next week.

At that point, he will be running for prime minister, and not for Likud chairman, and his campaign will be designed to win as much support from the undecided voters in the center as possible. A proposal on borders, while it is certain to outrage some members of his party and coalition, would serve the purposes of Netanyahu, who will be seeking broad public support when heading into elections.

If toppled by the right wing over either Migron or his government’s proposal on Israel’s future border, Netanyahu will be able to say to the undecided voters in the center that, contrary to the image that some journalists have tried to paint of him, he is both a man with plan and prepared to put his money where his mouth is.

A rift with the more extreme parts of the right wing over those issues would serve Netanyahu’s purposes, allowing him to say to the public that he has demonstrated that he is practical centrist who is prepared to take steps to advance a political solution with the Palestinians, and not the hesitant procrastinator that Caspit and others say he is.

If Netanyahu succeeds in maintaining the majority currently enjoyed by the Likud and the right-wing bloc, he is likely to be the next prime minister, provided the Likud remains the largest party within that bloc. If, however, enough deliberating voters who cast a ballot for the Likud in 2009 are persuaded to cast a ballot for Kadima or Lapid in 2012, the right-wing bloc could lose its majority, ushering a very different coalition into power.


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