Israel’s Potentially Existential Election

January 17, 2015 Updated: January 17, 2015

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.

Continue reading this article at the Middle East Institute. Republished with permission from the Middle East Institute.

Paul Scham is executive director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, where he teaches courses on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is co-editor of Shared Histories (2006), which explores the role of Israeli and Palestinian historical narratives in the conflict, and is managing editor of the Israel Studies Review. He blogs here.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.