Israel’s Potentially Existential Election

By Paul Scham | Scholar - The Middle East Institute | Jan 17, 2015
Israel’s Potentially Existential Election

Israel’s politics are always full of paradoxes. In the upcoming March 17 election, the central one is that the likely winner is perhaps the most disliked man in the country’s politics, namely the current prime minister, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu. Even many who will vote for him don’t like him. This is partly a function of his longevity in the top ranks; he first became PM in 1996, but others held the office from 1999 until he regained it in 2009, and he has made a lot of enemies over the years. It is also partly that the right feels that he is not stalwart enough on Greater Israel and that the left accuses him of wanting no peace deal at all. And it is partly the economy; high prices are hurting Israelis badly, and Netanyahu is largely blamed. But there are few others considered prime ministerial material, so the money is on Bibi to win.

This election could be considered existential, and it indeed may end up being a watershed. A significant part of the Israeli electorate has accepted right-wing ideologies, which could threaten Israel’s democratic nature, as well as deny Palestinians both a state of their own and collective national rights within Israel. But there is also widespread suspicion of the ideological right, even among those who feel that peace with the Palestinians is currently impossible. Many Israelis may end up voting for economic reasons, and religious-secular issues are still important to a significant slice of the electorate. The specific question for Israelis is whether they will choose to halt this progression toward the right or accept it, with consequences unknown but potentially game-changing.

The System, Parties, and Players

The modified two-party system that governed Israel until the 1990s has virtually disappeared.  Long gone are the days that one or both major parties (Labor or Likud or their predecessors) would win more than 40 or 50 Knesset seats. While Israel has never in its history had a non-coalition government, there has usually been a large party that led the government, one or two medium-size parties, and a few small parties.  Polls now show that each of the two major parties—Labor and Likud—will probably receive 22-24 seats (out of 120) each. As such, each will represent about a fifth of the electorate. However, being the number one vote getter is still vital, because that party will probably be selected by President Rivlin to get first crack at forming a coalition.

The Labor Party is already a coalition between party leader Isaac Herzog and former Foreign and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who will rotate the prime ministry if they win. Livni comes from an old Likud family, and has reached Labor by way of two now-defunct centrist parties, Kadima and Hatnua. Labor has been emphasizing Netanyahu’s failure to make peace and Israel’s deteriorating position in the world. With the rise of ISIS and the events in Paris, though, Likud and the far right are benefiting by asserting that Israel has no peace partner and that strength is what matters. “Peace” is being made into a euphemism for “surrender,” and the fear engendered recently is almost certain to bolster the right.

When Bibi first announced elections in December, he was seen as the probable favorite. Then, for a while, it seemed that his popularity was draining away, and his rivals, even from smaller parties, felt empowered. Now Netanyahu has consolidated his control of Likud, and his potential right-wing coalition seems increasingly difficult, though not impossible, to beat.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has made a career of being the bad boy of Israeli politics, but he had hoped in this election to be the kingmaker. However, his Yisrael Beiteinu Party is being decimated by a corruption investigation. The polls already show him at six to eight seats, down from 14 in the last election, when he ran with Likud. If his support keeps hemorrhaging, he could shrink to a minor player, or even fall below the 3.25 percent threshold and be shut out.  Conversely, his harping on being a victim of the establishment, with an investigation announced just as the campaign was launched, may get him some traction. In the last year Lieberman has tried to acquire a more moderate veneer, so he might be willing to join a Labor-led government, and even six seats might be crucial in forming a coalition.

Almost every Israeli election brings out a new centrist party, and this year’s entry—Kulanu—is led by Moshe Kahlon, a well-liked former Likud minister who has quarreled with Netanyahu.  He is now emphasizing his rightist, rather than centrist, credentials, having signed on to the right-wing mantras that Israel has no peace partner and that he would never divide Jerusalem. His campaign got off to a slow start, falling from a possible 11 seats to seven, but he may well rebound, and it is not inconceivable that he would sit in a coalition with Labor, given his dislike of Bibi, though ideologically he is more comfortable on the right.

The great centrist hope of the 2013 election, Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid Party, is bruised but still around. He spent the last two years as finance minister, usually a kiss of death in Israeli governments, and his poll numbers show him at 10 seats, barely half of the 19 he received last time. He is a classic centrist, blowing hot and cold on war and peace, but undoubtedly angry at Bibi, who blamed him for subverting the last government. He would necessarily be part of any center-left coalition, but it is questionable whether he would be willing to get out of his comfort zone for a realistic peace plan. His support comes from the secular middle class, which is most concerned about economic issues.

Then there are the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties. The oldest of these is United Torah Judaism, representing Ashkenazi Haredim, which will probably receive the same seven seats as in 2013 and is most compatible with a right-wing coalition, but that is not set in stone. Opposite in the ultra-Orthodox arena, and for several decades larger and more active, is Shas, which caters to Jews from Arab and Muslim countries. Its founding patriarch, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, died last year, and the party has split, with a former leader, Eli Yishai, forming his own party, Ha’am Itanu. Yishai is politically right wing, but his party may not reach the electoral threshold. If it does, he would join a rightist coalition. If it fails, the Haredi influence will diminish somewhat. Shas is now led by Yishai’s rival, Aryeh Deri, whose own sympathies are with the peace forces, but his constituency is right wing. The Haredim usually go with the right, but Shas has joined left-wing coalitions before and conceivably could do so this time. One issue is that Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu) are militantly secular, and it is dubious that any Haredi party would sit in a government with them. But stranger things have happened.

The current Wunderkind of Israeli politics is Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home Party, which is a spruced-up and somewhat modernized version of the old National Religious Party. It doesn’t hurt that he is young, a self-made entrepreneur, and “Anglo-Saxon” (his family moved to Israel from San Francisco in 1967). Bennett is somewhat moderate on religious and social issues, but is ultra hard-line on war and peace. He has been in his element since the Paris attacks, portraying Palestinians as al-Qa‘ida and ISIS rolled into one, and completely opposed to any Palestinian state. He portrays himself as the only genuine hard-liner, which Bibi is trying hard to refute, and his success is shown by the fact that his party is the only one that is doing appreciably better in the polls than it did in the last election (16 seats compared to 11). Though he and Netanyahu famously do not get along, they will necessarily be the core of any right-wing coalition, with probably around 40 seats between them.

On the left is Meretz, the only party that still raises the banner of the Israeli “Zionist left” and unequivocally supports both Israel as a Jewish state and a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.  Meretz is sometimes labeled as stodgy and elitist even by its admirers, but its stand is clear on both social and peace issues. However, its peace policies do not seem to reflect the mood of more than a small part of the Jewish Israeli electorate, even though a majority is in favor of some form of two-state solution, and it seems stuck at six seats in the polls, the same number it had in the old Knesset. It, with Labor, would necessarily be the core of any left-wing coalition, and it openly hopes to pull any such government to the left.  Some pundits have urged it to join with Labor in the election, but it fears that its voice would be drowned out if it did so.

What is left are what are usually called the “Arab parties” or, more correctly, the non-Zionist parties. Israeli Palestinians (aka Israeli Arabs) are always divided among themselves, including nationalist, Islamist, and Communist factions. Many feel that the new 3.25 percent threshold was primarily intended to limit the number of Arab Knesset members because some parties will not reach it. Unity discussions have gone on for weeks, and it now looks as if there will be two parties, which may together come to a couple more seats than the 11 they had in the previous Knesset.

However, no Israeli government has ever included these parties in its coalition. Yitzhak Rabin’s second government (1992-96) used them to reach a ‘blocking majority,” whereby they propped up the coalition without being part of it. It is not clear whether these parties would be invited into a left-center government or not, nor whether they would accept such an invitation. It is also murky as to whether a government could function that included such a broad span of views and ideologies such as theirs and those of Lapid and/or Lieberman.

Conclusion

At this point most Israeli Jews, like most Palestinians, simply do not believe that their adversaries want peace—or at least that it is possible within the next decade. Thus, decisions about the conflict seem somewhat removed from reality. On the other hand, many Israelis are hurting from the record-high prices, though they are starting to realize that there may not be a quick fix for that, either. The left-wing parties try hard to point out the connection between the two issues in that high defense budgets plus expanding settlements necessarily means less for the civilian economy, but this has not yet caught on with the general population. But while ordinary Israelis may respond to nationalist appeals more than they used to, the majority still does not swallow the ideology of Greater Israel.

The Israeli public is more fragmented than it has ever been before, which the lack of large, consensus parties like Likud and Labor clearly show. In the current climate, people are more likely to vote their fears than their hopes (which they feel were dashed), and thus, by accreting various parties, the right seems more likely to put together a coalition. One possible wild card is the Israeli Palestinian vote. Their rate of participation has been falling for years, which is a measure of their feeling of powerlessness to change things. If a significantly higher percentage of them vote for the non-Zionist parties, Meretz, and Labor, the conventional wisdom might be upset.

The election is existential, not in the sense that Israel would not exist after it, but that if Israelis vote to continue down the same road, it will be harder and harder to change course. There is a moderately clear choice on the right and a less clear choice on the left. But if the disparate center-left forms a government, it might succeed in heading off the country’s advance toward isolation and extreme nationalism—and even begin moving again toward the old Zionist dream of “normality.”

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