With no significant challengers, Israel's Likud prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu faces the prospect of being the longest-serving prime minister since Ben-Gurion.

This article was originally posted on October 24, 2014 in the Middle East Eye and is being reposted on ECFR with full permission from the original publication. 

Binyamin Netanyahu’s mandate still has two years to run and, despite some recent party squabbles, the Likud prime minister is not yet facing any significant challenger, either from the right or from the left. Yet this enviable situation might be precisely why Israel looks increasingly set to go to an early general election, either in late 2015 or in late 2016.

The initiative comes this time from Netanyahu himself, who last week launched the process of calling a leadership contest in the Likud for late 2015. If successful, the move will clear the way for a general election within three months at most.

Although Netanyahu’s star is definitely on the wane, his leadership has not yet officially been challenged.

His most formidable rival within the Likud, Gideon Sa’ar, shocked observers last month when he announced he would be stepping down from his post as interior minister and withdrawing from active politics altogether.

Some analysts, including this author, speculated that Sa’ar was merely taking a step back before launching a leadership challenge to Netanyahu from a more comfortable distance, and that Netanyahu would need to move swiftly before Sa’ar could consolidate support. Whether or not this was the intended effect of Netanyahu’s current manoeuvre or not, so far Sa’ar is yet to throw down the gauntlet - and it’s not clear if he is going to run at all.

“Sa’ar said he’s bailing out to spend more time with his family,” said journalist Tal Schneider, the author of Israel’s only parliamentary politics blog. “While this makes sense considering his newly wed wife and newly born baby, the general understanding is that Sa’ar believes the Likud and/or Netanyahu are going to lose some of their clout, and he would rather watch this potential downfall from the sidelines.”

No real contest

Netanyahu, meanwhile, appears to be taking no chances, working actively to demote Sa’ar allies from key positions within the party. Other potential leadership contestants include defence minister Moshe Ya’alon (who last week embarked on a highly atypical spree of interviews with nearly all of the Israeli media), and transport minister Yisrael Katz (who is so far actively siding with Netanyahu), but neither appears to be a real threat to the prime minister.

“The real contest will be between Netanyahu and Moshe Feiglin,” said Schneider, “and Netanyahu will take it 70-30.”

Feiglin is the far-right marker of the Likud, a veteran leader of a particularly hardline faction of the Israeli settler movement and a longtime advocate of Israel regaining full ownership of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Despite a widely advertised ambition to take over the Likud, Feiglin has so far failed in all his leadership challenges, fighting an uphill battle against many in the party - including Netanyahu - who consider his outspoken religious nationalism an embarrassment. He is nevertheless seen as a cold, shrewd operator who enjoys considerable influence among the Likud’s younger and more electable MKs.

Unexpected events can include a deterioration of the security situation that Netanyahu will handle too carefully for the public’s liking, or a sudden resurgence of interest in socio-economic issues - the one policy area in which Israelis consistently disapprove of Netanyahu and his cabinet. Some signs of the latter appeared last week, when Israelis were rattled by a series of unflattering comparisons between the quality and cost of living in Israel and the same indicators in Berlin.

A resurgence of the socio-economic discontent would play into the hands of the emerging party of Moshe Kahlon, another former Netanyahu ally who resigned ahead of the 2013 elections and is widely expected to introduce a technocratic party with a social justice bend when Israel next goes to the polls. An escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would strengthen the hand of Netanyahu’s rightwing critics within the Likud, as well as that of his erstwhile coalition partner, Nafatli Bennett.

As of today, neither rival is strong enough to replace Netanyahu as the head of the Israeli state - but they might chip significantly at his parliamentary clout, leading to a coalition even more consolidated and impasse-prone than it is today.

Dismal state of the left

The fact that the conversation in Israel focuses largely on threats to Netanyahu from the centre rightwards belies the dismal state of the Israeli left. Despite electing the least controversial chairman in years - Isaac Herzog - and keeping completely mum over the Gaza war, Labor remains the sick man of Israeli politics, unable to overcome the double revulsion Israelis feel against the party responsible for the failed Oslo Process and the political home of the entitled old Labor Zionist elites. It is still falling far short of the minimal 19-20 seats a party would need to lead a coalition government, and most of the parties likely to gain a significant number of seats are far to the right of Labor.

The only exception is the liberal-Zionist Meretz, which has been growing steadily up from the six seats it won in the latest elections, and has even weathered the jingoist mood swing of the last war relatively unbattered. Still, most of its votes are likely to be gained from Yair Lapid’s discredited Yesh Atid party, leaving the rightwing bloc largely intact. Israel’s Palestinian parties, including Palestinian-Jewish Hadash, are at present unlikely to pass the newly raised electoral barrier, which poses the question of a parliament with the least Palestinian representation since the founding of the state.

“What's amazing that with a government that has been such an abysmal failure on key fronts, that it may very well last that long,” said Israeli pollster and +972 Magazine blogger Dahlia Scheindlin.

“Governments have fallen far faster in Israel and it's a sign that [the] public is largely buying the prevailing myth - that Netanyahu is best on Iran, and that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict maintenance is the best that can be done.”

“But they’re buying it at the cost of any progress on the socio-economic front, entrenching the pattern of war every other year, and wilfully ignoring the rapid, nearly irreversible, changes on the ground under these last two Netanyahu governments.”

So far, no coherent organisation has stepped up to effectively challenge Netanyahu’s socio-economic policy at the polls, and Israelis lack any incentive or pressure to protest these irreversible changes - including the largest settlement construction spree since the 1990s. Unless either appears on the scene, and unless he miscalculates disastrously, Netanyahu is set to win a general election for the third consecutive time and fourth time overall - breaking the record of the state’s founding prime minister, David Ben Gurion. The changes Netanyahu is leading in the Israeli economy and on occupied West Bank ground are more than likely to continue.

Read more on: The Middle East and North Africa, Israel / Palestine

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