Joshua Tucker: As part of our continuing series of election reports, the following is a pre-election report from Sefi Keller, a graduate student in political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on the Israeli presidential election.
In slightly under three weeks, Israel will be holding its 20th parliamentary election, which was declared after a long period of internal power struggles within the ruling coalition. Eventually, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to dissolve the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) after less than two years out of a four-year term. The initial public response to the election was outrage, with the common opinion being that the election is a waste of public funds caused by ego-driven quarrels rather than legitimate policy disagreements. However, that sentiment seems to have withered down as the election became more competitive and surprising.
Political parties in Israel can be categorized into five groups: Right, center, left, ultra-orthodox (“Haredi”) and Arabs. The right consists of Likud, the Jewish Home, and Yisrael Beiteinu. In the center we can find two parties: Yesh Atid and Kulanu. The left parties are the Zionist Camp (a union of Labor and Ha’tnua) and Meretz. In a historic move, the Arab parties decided to unite in the coming election and to run together as one united party. The Haredi (ultra-orthodox) parties also considered the idea of unity briefly but eventually decided to stay as separate parties: United Torah Judaism party (UTJ) for the Ashkenazi Haredis, Shas party for the Sephardic Haredis and Yachad for the hard-right wing Haredis.
The current government was formed by a coalition of center-right parties, in contrast to the right-Haredi coalition who ruled before. However, the coming election might put an end to the Netanyahu regime, which has been in power since 2009. The alternative to Netanyahu is the political couple Issac Hertzog and Tzipi Livni. Together, they lead the Zionist Camp alliance and aim to bring the Labor party back to power for the first time since 2001. Do they have a chance? The polls suggests a complicated answer.
Here are the numbers from the most recent polls (there are 120 members of Knesset): Likud 24; Zionist Camp 23; Jewish Home 13; United Arab Party 13; Yesh Atid 8; Shas 8; Kulanu 8; UTJ 8; Yisrael Beiteinu 6; Meretz 5 and Yachad 4. The first thing that pops up is just how close the leading parties are, with just one seat separating them. However, what bothers the Zionist Camp is not so much the number of votes it will receive but rather the number of votes that will be cast in favor of the political center.
In 2009, Kadima (led by Livni) was the biggest party and received one more seat than the Likud. Despite that, President Shimon Peres gave the task of forming the government to Netanyahu. Peres did not decide to give Netanyahu the task out of kindness or personal affection toward him (Netanyahu had Peres beat in the 1996 election), but rather because the political reality demanded it seeing as Netanyhu had something that Livni did not — the ability to form a coalition. Will Livni and Hertzog have a coalition this time around? Well, maybe. Currently, the left, the center and the Haredi parties together can combine for 64 seats — a narrow, yet possible, coalition.
A major obstacle standing in Labor’s way to power is the unpopularity of the Haredi parties. Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, owes much of his political capital to his tough stand against Haredi privileges. As much as Lapid wants to see Netanyahu gone, sitting with the Haredis in one government is a heavy price to pay. On the other hand, it is important to remember that Israel’s political history is full of examples of politicians “wearing a shtreimel (Haredi hat) for peace“, as former Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni once said. Though in theory, Hertzog and Livni can leave the Haredi parties out of the coalition and take the Arab party instead; however, this is very unlikely since Arab parties historically refuse to take part in any government.
Interestingly, Both the Zionist Camp and Likud are using the same slogan in their political campaign: “It’s either us or them”. The chosen slogan, together with the polls that consistently show the two parties go neck to neck, are helping the big parties “steal” substantial amount of votes from the hard right (Jewish home) and the hard left (Meretz). While the Jewish Home party responds by attacking the political left, Meretz chooses to show its vitality by attacking the Labor party. Perhaps the reason for the difference in reaction is the level of threat facing the party. The Jewish Home can “afford” to lose a few more seats in favor of a right-wing coalition. Meretz, on the other hand, will be completely annihilated if it will lose two more seats and thus fall beneath the new Knesset threshold of at least four seats.
The issues in this election shift and turn as the Zionist Camp prefers to talk about the economy while Likud opts to set a national security agenda. However, one thing that both sides are happy to talk about is foreign interference in the democratic election process. Netanyahu was highly criticized on his decision to accept House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to appear before Congress so close to the election and without coordinating his speech with the White House first. Hertzog and Livni were also criticized for the American funded organization “V15” which is claimed to be a Labor super PAC. It is still unclear whether V15 activity is consistent with Israeli law, but the news about the hiring of Jeremy Bird (“Obama’s campaigner”) by the organization was enough to raise public outrage.
The probability of a left government is not particularly high, yet it still exists. Such a regime would clearly mean a shift in policy, but not as big of a shift as some may think. Labor has already declared that they will appoint Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg to the role of minister of finance. It is the same Trajtenberg who was appointed by Netanyahu to chair the special committee tasked with recommending economic reforms. In terms of the negotiations with the Palestinians, it’s important to remember that Livni was already in charge of the negotiations twice before: both under Olmert (2008) and under Netanyahu (2014). As mentioned before, a left-wing government will inevitably include Haredi parties who will veto any change in the status quo regarding matters of church and state. Having said all that, it would still be a mistake to underplay the importance of the possible return of Labor to power after 14 years.