Why This Israeli Election Is Different

Why This Israeli Election Is Different
AP Photo/Oded Balilty
Why This Israeli Election Is Different
AP Photo/Oded Balilty
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Tomorrow, Israelis will elect the 21st Knesset, or parliament, in Israel’s 70-year history. Politics are always tricky, and more so now. What’s real and what’s fake news? What does each candidate say and what do they actually intend to do?

In Israel’s representative parliamentary system, things can be even harder to understand. There are many parties. They rise and fall each year alongside the legacy parties, and there is a 3.25 percent threshold for admittance to the Knesset. The left-right paradigm breaks down differently in Israel than it does in the United States or Europe, and within the Israeli context, that paradigm is undergoing a fundamental realignment.

This year’s elections are vitally important. The outcome could have a major impact on Israel’s future, its role in the region, and its relationship with the United States and American Jews.

Who’s who?

Israel’s Knesset consists of 120 seats. Votes are for a pre-determined party list, meaning Israelis vote for a party and its candidate for prime minister with the same ballot. Two main parties are battling for the premiership and the right to form the governing coalition. The first is the ruling Likud party, headed by Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who seeks his fourth term as prime minister. Former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff and political rookie Benny Gantz is Netanyahu’s main competitor. Gantz leads the Blue and White Party alongside former Finance Minister Yair Lapid and another pair of former IDF chiefs, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi. Netanyahu stands to the right of center, while Gantz and Lapid bill themselves as the new “center,” a term that changes meaning from election to election. Each side expects to win some 30 seats.

To the left, we have the heir to Israel’s founding party, the left-of-center Avodah, or Labor. Further left sits Israel’s progressive party, Meretz. Together they are expected to land around 15 seats. Israel’s Arab minority (20 percent of the country) is represented in the main by two parties: Hadash/Ta’al is more moderate and seeks to integrate into Israeli society, and Ra’am/ Balad is the more Palestinian-nationalist and Islamist party. This latter might not pass the 3.25 percent entry threshold, a ratio that translates to 4 seats out of 120.

Floating alongside the Likud in the right-of-center space are two small parties: Kulanu, headed by current Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, and Gesher, headed by Orli Levi-Abekasis. Both lean right on security matters but have preferred to focus on economic and social matters. Both teeter on the verge of the electoral threshold.

To Likud’s right are a handful of small parties, some new and some more familiar. Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked broke away from the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party a few months back in order to form New Right, an alternative party that is younger, further to the right, and not beholden to religious interests. They are expected to barely pass the electoral threshold. What remained of Jewish Home merged with two religious-Zionist parties, each more right-wing on security and religious matters, to ensure they all pass the electoral threshold. This is called the Union of the Right Wing Parties and includes the Jewish Power party, whose head was banned from office by the election committee for blatant racism. Together, they are expected to pass the threshold. Former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is Our Home”) party offers a right-wing approach on security matters with a strong secular appeal, and it draws mainly on older Russian immigrant voters. Russians have integrated more and more into Israeli society, and Lieberman will struggle to pass the threshold.

There are two main ultra-Orthodox parties: United Torah Judaism represents the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, and Shas represents the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox. Both parties have committed voter bases, all but ensuring them tickets into the Knesset.

The last party is the surprise of these elections: Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut (“Identity”) party has shot up the polls based on an original but not fully understood platform that combines Jewish fundamentalism, far-right nationalism, and economic and social libertarianism. A sideshow just two months ago, Feiglin, who is accompanied by a maverick ultra-Orthodox rabbi and an anti-vaxxer, could be the kingmaker in these elections.

Did I forget anyone? I hope not. 

Likely outcomes

The publishing of polling data is forbidden in the days ahead of the elections, but the last polls gave a fair sense of where most parties stand. Barring an election day surprise, the two frontrunners will each take around 30 seats. The right-wing parties, however, are expected to win more than their left-wing counterparts. Right-wing parties, most of whom would sit in a Knesset with Netanyahu as prime minister, are expected to win around 65 seats. The parties that would refuse to sit with Netanyahu are expected to win no more than 55 seats. Considering this includes the Arab parties, who are not expected to actively partake in any governing coalition, this puts Blue and White considerably behind Netanyahu.

The president chooses the party he believes has the best chance of forming at least a 61-seat coalition as the ruling party -- and its head as the putative prime minister. This is usually the largest party, but not always. Gantz’s Blue and White could win more votes than Likud but lack the backing needed to assemble a coalition. If this is the case, Netanyahu will head the next government.

However, if Gantz wins by a large enough margin -- say 5 seats -- the president would be less likely to offer Netanyahu the first crack at putting together a coalition. Moreover, if a number of the smaller parties fall short of the threshold, a likely scenario, the redistribution of their votes among the parties that did pass could change the entire equation.

Therefore, Israelis could conceivably wake up Wednesday morning to some unexpected outcomes. Best to wait and see.

One possibility to keep in mind is that if Netanyahu is forced to step down due to anticipated indictments, we could see a reshuffling of the expected right-wing coalition into a unity government headed by Likud and Blue and White in some sort of rotational, power-sharing government.

Left, right, center? Depends what Issue we are discussing

Notions like left and right usually connote a party’s position on security, social, and economic matters. In Israel, we could say the left has traditionally promoted a combination of more government regulation, socialist-leaning economic policies, secular or liberal attitudes on social-religious matters, and actively seeking to end the conflict with the Palestinians and the control over them. Traditionally, the right has stood for the exact opposite set of policies, with some exceptions among the ultra-Orthodox who never fit these labels.

The past two decades have seen a scrambling of these definitions and groupings. Although you still have a left and a right by self-definition, you have a significant group of Israelis -- one-third, if not more -- who eschew such definitions and place themselves in the less-definable center. Although taking heat from the ideological left and right as being indecisive or simply confused about themselves, the new center simply doesn’t fit into existing paradigms.

For example, we can talk about a right and left as concerns security and the matter of a potential Palestinian state. The left seeks to end the occupation of the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria (depending on your political views). It believes Israel can reach a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinian Authority and wants to dismantle outlying settlements (outside of the major blocs, which have near-consensus support in Israel). The center would support all of that in theory but doesn’t believe there is a negotiating partner capable of upholding such a deal on the other side. Centrists talk about stopping or even dismantling outlying settlements, but retaining military control, to preserve the possibility of a future, demilitarized Palestinian state. It’s important to recall that the centrist Blue and White party just happens to be led by three former IDF Chiefs, in part to neutralize the right’s claim that it is the only side that can ensure Israel’s security in a country that can literally go to war at any given time.

The right has a range of opinions on this issue. The range starts from essentially what the center believes, but with more skepticism; to allowing a sub-state entity with local autonomy; to encouraging migration (with economic incentives); to full annexation and offering either limited-rights residency or even full citizenship to those who swear loyalty to Israel (as a Jewish state of course). These positions shouldn’t be able to exist in the same coalition, but they do share one major characteristic: They believe there is absolutely nobody to trust on the other side. They also share the notion that the Palestinians missed their opportunity and will have to settle with less than what was previously offered them. As to Gaza, suffice it to say that no mainstream party really knows what to do with the intransigent Hamas and the growing humanitarian disaster in the coastal strip. So far, aside from “we’ll handle it better,” nobody is really offering an alternative.

Beyond security, “right” and “left” don’t translate to economic matters or questions of religion and state. This is partly why the “center” has come into play as a new construct. Meretz and Avodah certainly represent the classic left. But while Blue and White is centrist on security matters, it espouses free-market capitalism on economic issues alongside greater separation of religion and state. Yisrael Beiteinu is “right” on security matters but “left” on religion and state. Bennett’s New Right is “right” on security, “right” on free-market capitalism, but “center” on religion and state matters. Kulanu and Gesher are “center” or “right” on security matters but support a wider economic and social safety net, along traditionally leftist lines. Zehut totally shuffles the cards by offering hard-right security policies alongside a total separation of religion and state.

What are these elections really about?

Beyond labels, there seem to be two main issues at play in these elections -- issues that have been dividing Israeli society for at least four years. The first issue is Netanyahu himself. The prime minister faces indictment in three different corruption and breach of public trust cases in the coming year. These investigations have been ongoing throughout his entire previous term. The public is essentially split on Netanyahu. Clearly a talented and experienced politician, Netanyahu has led a campaign to sow public mistrust of the press (all biased leftists), the judicial system (activists leftists), and even the police (out to get him). That the attorney general and former police chief were his own appointments is of little consequence. By bypassing the mainstream press and making deft use of social media, Netanyahu has managed to galvanize half of the public behind him against these institutions. Public trust in the press, judiciary, and police has never been lower. Recall that elections were originally scheduled for November. Netanyahu pushed for early elections, seeking to upend the timing of potential indictments and bring public counter-pressure to the impending hearings.

Moreover, it is no longer clear where Netanyahu stops and the party and government begin. Most of the Likud campaign ads are personally focused on Netanyahu and it is no accident that he is also defense minister as well as foreign affairs and health minister. Is Netanyahu channeling his inner Louis XIV (“L'État, c'est moi”)? Does he believe that he is the state? It's not clear, to voters or to the Likud party itself, that he can tell the difference anymore. In many ways, this election is therefore a referendum on Netanyahu. Indeed, there are few practical policy differences between Likud and Blue and White. Netanyahu is the difference.

This is no small matter. Many Blue and White voters who might otherwise vote Likud feel that Netanyahu, in an attempt to shield himself from his legal woes, might trade important political favors to the more extreme religious or nationalist right that could cause deep and long-term changes to the nation's character. Netanyahu supporters, on the other hand, draw on his real foreign-policy achievements and his personal relations with many world leaders. With Israel surrounded by threats, they argue that now is not the time to put political novices at the helm. The allegations of corruption are either overstated or conspiratorial, they add, and entirely forgivable given the experience and stability Netanyahu brings to the office.

But there is a larger issue at stake, one that perhaps is drawing the new division between Israel’s left and right: What does it means to be a representative democracy? Does being a democracy mean that the government should reflect the will of the majority of voters or does being a democracy mean safeguarding freedom of press, an independent judiciary, rule of law, and respect for individual and minority rights? The current forces of the new right, including the aptly named New Right party and rising stars within the Likud, are pushing for major reforms to rein in the judicial activism of the Supreme Court and a greater democratic say in appointing its justices as well as lower-court judges. They also want to give the Knesset the ability to overturn the Court’s decisions with a special majority. Taken together with the unprecedented attacks on the press and the integrity of the police, we can see a clear and new fault-line. The more liberal old guard of the Likud, most of which has been slowly pushed out of the party by the more populist new guard, is uncomfortable with this development. Indeed, one of its most prominent members endorsed the Blue and White party last week.

Regional and international implications

If the outcome is as predicted by most political observers, the next government will look a lot like the current one, only with more confidence and a stronger hard-right contingent on security and matters of religion and state.

As for the region, many are anxiously awaiting the Trump administration’s peace plan, expected to be presented following the elections. Parties to the right of Likud have already proclaimed their rejection of any such agreement. Netanyahu, seeking to take away last-second votes from his right-wing adversaries, stated in a series of rare radio and television interviews that he would seek annexation of (parts of?) the West Bank, something he has hesitated to say before. Is this an election-week jump to the right? Or has he abandoned any pretense to supporting a two-state solution? Is he preparing skeptical right-wing voters for political compromise with the Palestinians? Or is he emboldened by recent diplomatic victories, such as on the Golan Heights, and going for broke? It's hard to know at this point. Keep in mind that it was right-winger Menachem Begin who made peace with Egypt and returned the Sinai Peninsula despite strong opposition on the right, and Ariel Sharon who withdrew from Gaza, against similar opposition.

Whatever happens on the Palestinian issue will surely affect Israel’s regional standing. Israel has taken its once-secret relations with the Sunni Arab world to new levels in recent years. It has been able to do so thanks to Arab fears of a resurgent Iran, a regional sense of abandonment by the United States, and growing apathy toward the Palestinian cause. But part of that relies at least on the illusion that Israel seeks peace with the Palestinians. Should Israel discard even this illusion, the Arabs would be hard-pressed to continue this positive regional trend without risking their own internal political stability.

The same holds true for Israel’s relationship with the United States and American Jews. Israel has become more and more of a partisan issue in American politics. There are a number of reasons for this, from domestic political and social trends in the United States, to the lack of progress on the Palestinian issue and Netanyahu's openly challenging President Obama, to Israel's domestic shift to the right in recent decades. With roughly 70 percent of American Jews being loyal Democrats, Israel risks cementing its perceived abandonment of half of America and most of American Jews in order to curry favor with the other half -- a risky strategy in the long run.

Given the likelihood that a right-wing government will continue to take hardline stances on matters of religion and state, Israel risks further alienating most American Jews, who have been able to overlook, to some extent, the diplomatic stalemate with the Palestinians. Furthermore, Israel could find itself continuing along the path of deepening relations with the Trumps, Putins, Bolsonaros, Modis, and Orbans of the world, at the expense of more moderate leaders. If the Democrats retake the White House, Israel’s standing in Washington will surely be affected, and American Jews will be more hesitant to come to its rescue as they have done in the past.

Right, left, center, whatever -- the outcome of these elections will have more significance than most realize. How this plays out, we will find out in the coming weeks. One thing is for certain: If you live in Israel, make sure to vote.

Dan Feferman is a major (res.) in the Israel Defense Forces, where he served as a foreign policy planner, assistant to the deputy chief of staff, and as an intelligence analyst. He researches, writes and speaks on Israel and the Middle East. The views expressed are the author's own.



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