The three most important pieces of information to know about Tuesday’s upcoming national elections in Israel are: Bibi Netanyahu will emerge as prime minister for another term; the government will move further to the right and the electoral system is in desperate need of change, a major factor in the disturbing polarization we are witnessing.
The findings of the numerous election polls shift from day to day, but it seems clear the coalition formed between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu will receive the most votes, and therefore the most seats in the next Knesset — though probably fewer than they would have won had they not joined forces to run together.
The center-right Likud won 27 seats in the most recent, 2009, national elections, and Yisrael Betenu, made up primarily of secular, Russian speakers, won 15. (Kadima, then led by Tzipi Livni, won the most seats, 28, but was unable to put together a coalition of at least 61 to give it a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.)
Recent polls show the Likud-Yisrael Betenu effort ending up with 30-some seats, down from the 42 they held separately, and Labor a distant second with about 16 seats.
One key question of this election campaign was why would Netanyahu, a shrewd politician who would have emerged victorious without partnering with Lieberman, choose to join political forces with his controversial foreign minister, whose outspoken hardline views on Arabs have labeled him a racist to many?
And as it turned out, Lieberman was forced to step down from his cabinet post in December to face charges of breach of trust and fraud, the culmination of a longstanding case, though he insists he will be cleared and back in office.
Netanyahu made the decision to run with Lieberman because he sensed the need to shore up support on his right. His instincts were born out by the fact that the biggest threat in the campaign has come from Naftali Bennett, a little-known leader of the settlement movement whose charge against Netanyahu — that he talks tough on settlement expansion but has little to show for it — has had remarkable political traction.
Bennett, 40, has impressive credentials to lead his Jewish Home religious Zionist party. The son of American immigrants, he was an elite IDF soldier and a former top aide to Netanyahu who headed the Yesha Council of Settlements (though he lives inside the Green Line) after selling his software company several years ago for $145 million. His the-hell-with-the-international-community campaign message, appealing to both religious and secular Israelis on the right, is that it is time to acknowledge there will be no Palestinian state anytime soon and to call on Israel to annex 60 percent of the West Bank.
Jewish Home is taking seats away from Likud-Yisrael Betenu and is third in the polls, predicted to win 13 or 14 seats, just behind Labor.
Ironically, Netanyahu, who is perceived in the U.S. and in much of the world as a hard right-wing leader, now looks more like a centrist at home since he publicly supports a two-state solution and while he has announced plans to build in the settlements, he has not yet done so.
The parties on the left may end up with as many seats in the Knesset as they have now, but they are more splintered because of their insistence on running separately rather than forming blocs. Shelly Yachimovich, a 52-year-old former journalist, leads Labor. Tzipi Livni formed the Movement party, current defense minister Ehud Barak started the Independence party, and popular TV personality Yair Lapid’s founded Yesh Atid, a party based on social-justice issues.
A powerful sign of the changing political climate is that the centrist Kadima party that won the most seats in the last election is not expected to win any in this one.
For the most part the parties on the left have focused on domestic social issues and made little effort to address the security threats that most worry Israelis: the increasingly violent civil war in Syria; the new Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Egypt; the worsening standoff with the Palestinians; and most of all, Iran’s ongoing effort to develop nuclear arms.
Recent history has shown that when Israelis feel more secure, they vote left and seek negotiations with their Arab neighbors; they favor the right when they feel threatened. And this may well be the most unsettling period in the history of the Jewish state, given the dramatic changes taking place in the Arab world and the fear of Iran’s might.
The Likud party itself has moved from right to extreme right. Highly respected veterans like Dan Meridor and Benny Begin were replaced high on the ticket by hardliners like Moshe Feiglin, who supports a Jewish rather than a democratic state and speaks of transfer of the Arab population.
A newly elected Netanyahu would have a hard time finding party support for attempts at compromise with the Palestinians, should pressure increase from Washington.
But with the Mahmoud Abbas-led Fatah faction moving closer to reconciliation with Hamas, the terror group controlling Gaza, Netanyahu’s contention that he has no reliable negotiating partner may sound more credible to the Obama administration.
One bright note for those looking for liberal advances from the next Knesset is the possibility of Netanyahu forming a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox religious parties that have resisted liberalizing conversion standards and drafting yeshiva students.
But much depends on the political jockeying and backroom deals that take place after the balloting to determine the parties that join the ruling coalition.
Which brings us to underlying root of Israel’s political instability: an electoral system that as Gidi Grinstein, founder of the Re’ut Institute, a Tel Aviv-based think tank, noted recently, “encourages divisiveness among the public.”
He pointed out that the 34 parties competing in this election “distinguish themselves by inciting and polarizing: religious vs. secular, poor vs. rich, Ashkenazim vs. Sephardim, periphery against center, hawk against doves, and Jews against Arabs.”
This is nothing new, and any number of thoughtful proposals to simplify and Americanize the Israeli process have been advanced over the years, including making Knesset members accountable to their constituents rather than their party, and raising the electoral threshold from 2 percent to 4 or 5 percent, which would limit the number of small parties winning Knesset seats and oblige them to form coalitions.
Grinstein suggests an amendment that would ensure that the head of the party with the most votes becomes prime minister, encouraging candidates to be more centrist and willing to form alliances.
But such changes would require Knesset members to vote themselves out of power, relinquishing the cars and other perks at their disposal that symbolize political leaders who put their own interests over the nation’s.
For now, it appears certain Israel’s next government will have the same prime minister as today, but one more likely to push for settlement expansion than peace talks with the Palestinians, and a continued rocky relationship with the White House.
What could change all of that is if President Obama indicates a willingness to take on Iran militarily in return for Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.