Tel Aviv — Ahead of the final weekend of one of the most lackluster campaigns in recent history, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears destined for re-election.
Even Labor leader Shelly Yachimovitch, who is far behind, fights the sense of inevitability, reminding audiences that the prime minister has not been divinely anointed king of Israel.
That’s because for the first time in at least a generation, Israel’s election campaign has been nearly devoid of any debate over peace with the Palestinians or any suspense regarding who will lead its next government. Thanks to the instability of the Arab Spring and the lack of any formidable rivals, Netanyahu has had an easy time convincing Israelis that he’s the “strongest” leader to protect the Jewish state from regional turmoil. The only question left unanswered regards what type of coalition government the prime minister will be able to form.
“You’ve always had an ‘either-or’ choice, but now there’s no fight, no challenge. … That’s what elections come down to — it’s personalities,” said Amir Mizroch, the editor of the English edition of the daily newspaper Yisrael Hayom.
“Almost right from the start, the election results have been predetermined,” Mizroch continued. “Everyone understood that, because when the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu joined their lists, they were so far ahead in the polls. They showed that the vast number of Israelis see Netanyahu as the only leader — and that took the impetus out of the election. In a way, [convincing voters of that fact] was a critical master stroke by Netanyahu.”
Neither Yachimovitch nor Yair Lapid, who founded the centrist Yesh Atid party as a defender of the middle class, were perceived as having enough of a résumé to match Netanyahu. And even though Tzippi Livni won more votes than Netanyahu in 2009, the former foreign minister was burdened by an unsuccessful tenure as opposition leader.
Polls show Israel’s right-wing and religious parties with steady majorities of about 67 seats of the 120-seat Knesset. While Likud-Beiteinu is polling around 35 seats, Labor trails far behind in the upper teens.
Though Labor will likely gain seats in the new Knesset, Yachimovitch’s campaign strategy — ignoring foreign policy and trying instead to harness the socioeconomic malaise of the 2011 tent protests — failed to catch on. The decision to downplay the peace process drew fire from Labor stalwarts and left an opening for Livni to start her own party to push a peace accord.
“What’s happened on the center-left is that most of the parties have given up on foreign policy, because their positions are perceived by the majority of Israelis as a joke,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “So they’ve shifted to domestic issues. Given that Israel’s security situation is becoming more acute given everything that’s happening in the region, more Israelis will vote on security than on domestic issues. “The fact that the center-left abrogated their foreign policy,” Halevi continued, “means that they really handed the election to the right, so the real struggle is between the pragmatic right and the ideological right.” He was referring to the competition between Netanyahu and the Jewish Home party of Naftali Bennett, which represents the settler movement (Bennett supports annexing the West Bank) and has surged in the polls.
Even though polls found that a large percentage of Israelis are just as worried about socioeconomic issues, such as the cost of living, as peace and security, most of the campaign was focused on the latter.
Only in the last two weeks of the campaign did the news agenda shift toward the economy: a government report that Israel’s 2012 budget deficit was twice what was planned kicked up criticism of the Netanyahu government’s fiscal performance and sharpened questions aimed at the prime minister about what he’ll do to pass a more balanced budget.
In an interview Monday night with Channel 2 news, Netanyahu was deliberately vague, promising he wouldn’t raise taxes, refusing to specify what budget cuts he made and speculating that maybe Israel would get unexpected tax revenue. But it wasn’t expected to give Labor a boost. Israeli pollster Stephan Miller said that Labor and Yachimovich failed to grab voters’ attention with their economic plan.
“Policies are important in campaigns. In the past four years, what specific policies on socioeconomic issues has the Labor Party addressed? What have they championed? What have they proposed? Opposed?” Miller wrote in an e-mail message. “I don’t think voters know what the party is offering that’s different from Netanyahu.”
Another home-stretch bump came on Monday evening, when American Jewish author and columnist Jeffrey Goldberg reported that President Barack Obama considered Netanyahu’s policy toward the Palestinians as self-destructive for Israel. Goldberg wrote in a Bloomberg View column that the president considers the Israeli prime minister a political coward and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas weak, making the president unlikely to invest time in restarting peace talks.
Livni said Goldberg’s report should be a wake-up call to Israelis, but analysts don’t expect the latest installment of the dysfunctional relationship between Netanyahu and Obama to upset the prime minster’s re-election drive.
Still, the election remains relevant because it will determine the balance of power in the parliament among the parties, and what type of coalition Netanyahu will be able to form.
In fact, many experts believe that building a stable coalition government will be much more difficult for Netanyahu than winning the campaign.
Loath to the idea of being the most moderate leader in a hard-right coalition, the Israeli prime minister is expected to court the three Israeli center-left parties to join his coalition.
But this might be difficult. Labor has already ruled out joining a new Netanyahu government. Livni has not closed the door entirely, but has said she refuses to be a fig leaf for a government that doesn’t pursue the peace process. Lapid of the Yesh Atid party seems to be the most open to joining a government, but he has said that he refuses to sit in a cabinet with the ultra-Orthodox parties.
The strength of the Likud-Beiteinu party is one of the key unknowns, as polls predict that it is slipping. The fewer seats it wins, the more difficulty it will have courting coalition partners.
“Yisrael Beiteinu and the religious parties will not have an automatic majority,” said Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at Hebrew University. “And so, [Netanyahu] will have to maneuver between the centrist parties and Bennett, which makes things more problematic.
“Netanyahu called elections,” Hazan continued, “but he might end up with a worse situation than he had before — with less power than he had in the last government.”