According to recent polls, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is cruising to reelection. His Likud party is expected to win 30 or 31 Knesset mandates, up from 27 three years ago and way ahead of second-place Labor, which the polls predict may gain about four or five seats to 17-18. Much has changed in the political landscape since 2009 — parties splintering, leaders ousted, new parties created — but despite Labor’s resurgence under new chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich and the creation of a new populist party by former TV personality Yair Lapid, Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc can reasonably expect to stay in power. Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and Shas alone could get about 55 seats; add to that the seats of the United Torah Judaism and Jewish Home parties, and Netanyahu has a comfortable majority. But Lapid — whose new Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party is expected to win up to a dozen seats — is not the only wild card. Ousted Shas member Haim Amsellem hopes to enter the Knesset with his newly founded Am Shalem (A Complete Nation) party, and ex-minister (and ex-con) Aryeh Deri is still considering whether to field his own faction. That could cost Shas important mandates, which might force Netanyahu to look for another coalition partner — perhaps the far-right National Union. And that, in turn, could push him even further to the right and toward a collision course with the US.
There is also always the possibility that a small niche party will surprise the political establishment, as Rafi Eitan’s Pensioners Party did in 2006 when it garnered seven seats. In 2009, the Green Movement-Meimad, headed by Rabbi Michael Melchior, almost made it to the Knesset. The rival Green Party, which ran separately, had split the environmentalist vote, but if the two camps, which recently merged, run a joint list and manage to recruit a compelling leader, there’s a small chance it could prove the surprise of the summer. The fate of Defense Minister Ehud Barak is unclear, as all polls predict certain death (that is, zero Knesset mandates) for his Atzmaut (Independence) party. And if Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman gets indicted for corruption charges in the next few weeks, as is expected, that could shake up the entire political system and help Netanyahu to an even more comfortable majority. Tzipi Livni, the former head of the opposition, is out the door for all intents and purposes.
Having said all of which, the Israeli political landscape is notoriously volatile, and the polls have often been proven wrong. Netanyahu has indicated he wants early elections, and the surveys all show he’ll win, but all kinds of unexpected factors can play havoc with results between now and polling day. He’ll know if his timing was right only when the exit polls are broadcast at the end of election day. And even those sophisticated surveys have been known to go a little bit awry.