Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, pauses during a news conference at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium. (Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg)

Israeli Opposition Weighs Pact for Anti-Netanyahu ‘Revolution’

(Bloomberg) -- It’s practically an axiom of Israeli politics that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is invincible because he doesn’t have any serious challengers.

But what if the fragmented center-left opposition joined forces? Talk of a united front against Netanyahu percolated this week as polls showed him handily winning a fifth term in early elections, his popularity undented by a string of corruption allegations that threaten to land him in court. The Knesset formally voted Wednesday night to dissolve itself and hold elections April 9.

“All of us need to put our egos aside and work toward the shared goal of political revolution," Tzipi Livni, the parliamentary opposition head from the Zionist Union bloc, said Tuesday. “The only way to win is to join forces.”

Many on the center-left regard the upcoming vote as an especially critical definition of the country’s character. Peacemaking with the Palestinians stalled in 2014. Israel’s northern and southern frontiers are volatile. Critics don’t believe Netanyahu’s protestations of innocence and despise the thought that he could be re-elected while tainted by corruption suspicions.

Not that consolidation alone would ensure success in a country always run by coalition governments. A merged party would have to drain support from Netanyahu’s Likud-led bloc to change the balance of power between parliament’s center-right and center-left blocs. Recent polls show the center-right strengthening slightly.

Preemptive Timing

Netanyahu didn’t give specific reasons for bringing the vote forward, though there was speculation he acted to preempt a possible indictment. Some analysts said growing dissatisfaction with the rising cost of living and plunging stock markets may have also encouraged him to move up the election before the economy could become a major issue.

The prime minister consistently defeats ideological opponents and outmaneuvers rivals with a combination of political cunning and a reputation as a security hawk. The opposition has failed to field a leader with the charisma and gravitas needed to unseat him.

It’s also deeply splintered, with six parties. A merger would require some party leaders to give up their dreams of becoming premier.

Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party and finance minister in a previous Netanyahu government, thinks a consolidated bloc would be a good thing -- on condition he lead it. A poll published Tuesday gave his party the most seats after Likud, but at less than half its strength.

Center-left politicians will be looking at polls before deciding whether to create alliances, said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute research center. If they want to replace the prime minister and aren’t just jockeying to join a future Netanyahu cabinet, “they will need to join together, and that will probably become more likely as the polls stabilize” and unknowns clear up, Plesner said.

Security Credentials

One such unknown is Benny Gantz, one of several former military chiefs of staff eyeing a run. Security historically has been Israeli voters’ chief concern, and the general’s military credentials would offer a serious counterweight to Netanyahu -- especially now that Israel’s security situation has grown more precarious.

The surprise withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, expected within months, leaves Israel without a trusted bulwark against arch-foe Iran and its proxies operating there. Overnight, there were reports, unconfirmed by Israel, of Israeli airstrikes on targets in Syria associated with Iran or its Lebanese client Hezbollah. Israel has also been detecting and destroying tunnels Hezbollah dug under the border, ostensibly for a future attack.

Violence has also flared several times this year along Israel’s southern border with the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the militant Hamas group.

The survey published Tuesday found that if Gantz were to join Lapid’s party, it would win 26 seats to Likud’s 31. However, Gantz on Thursday registered his own party, called "Israel Resilience."

Two other ex-generals are looking at a political comeback. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who unseated Netanyahu after his first term in 1999, said this week that he’d consider joining a united center-left bloc even if he didn’t lead it, the Times of Israel reported. Moshe Ya’alon, like Barak a former military chief and defense minister, has formed his own party. There’s also been speculation that Gantz’s immediate predecessor, Gabi Ashkenazi, might enter politics, too.

A surprise result can’t be ruled out, Plesner said.

“It is more likely, or safer, to assume that Netanyahu will emerge the winner, but it is far from decided,” he said. “It will depend on political developments and the agenda. A very different outcome can emerge.”

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