Five Thoughts On Israel’s Upcoming Elections

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At this point it is all but certain that the 19th Knesset will be dissolved and Israelis will head towards the polls in the spring. I wanted to put down a few thoughts after a whirlwind day that some argued wasn’t going to happen.

1. Operation Protective Edge still looms large. The Israeli media is going to focus on the budgetary disagreement between Bibi Netanyahu and Yair Lapid as the spark that led to early elections, and well it should. However, the disagreement is a direct result of this summer’s war in Gaza. Due to the conflict, Israel’s economy has slowed. It’s tourism industry is it tatters. Fitch Ratings recently revised Israel’s debt outlook due to the Netanyahu government’s efforts to consolidate the economy following its engagement with Hamas.

There are deeper questions as to whether the recent round of violence was preventable, and whether the government possessed advanced information regarding Hamas’s operational capabilities. Jerusalem’s unrest is evidence that the current government has still not addressed many of the core issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians – certainly one of the reasons for the summer’s conflict. So while a myriad of issues may be raised between now and election day, the undertones (and potentially the overtones) of this election will be dominated by the lessons learned this past summer in Gaza.

2. What of the Arab-Israelis? This may be considered a marginal storyline. Arab Israelis parties have never been a part of a coalition. Arab parties constitute only 11 out of 120 seats in the Knesset. But given the events in Gaza and the subsequent wave of protests in Jerusalem and Israel’s north, the story of Arab-Israeli voters is an important one. The 2013 elections witnessed the first increase in Arab-Israeli voter turnout since 2000. Considering the public attention drawn by MKs, including Ahmed Tibi, Hanin Zoabi (currently suspended from the Knesset and under investigation for incitement), and most recently Jamal Zahalka (see in this video) of Israel’s marginalization of Arabs, will Arab-Israeli turnout increase once again in order to take control of their political fate, or will it retract in protest to a government that does not reflect its values? How will politicians address Arab-Israeli voters in the hopes to curry their support? Will these elections leave the Arab population further disconnected from the country’s decision makers?

3. Don’t forget about Avigdor Liberman. There is a pantheon of fascinating political actors in Israel, all of whom will try to steal the limelight in the coming months, but Avigdor Liberman is the one to watch. Since 2009 he has functioned as Israel’s Foreign Minister, both as a coalition partner with Bibi’s Likud party, and on a joint Likud-Beiteinu ticket. It is public knowledge that he seeks the premiership, and since he was acquitted for fraud in November 2013, he has toned down his rhetoric and “cleaned up” his game.

He may be a hawk, but now he is a hawk who defended John Kerry on the record and spoke of the importance of US-Israeli relations when other Israeli politicians were ripping the Obama administration. He supports the settlements, but also the establishment of civil union laws.

A seasoned politician, Liberman will seek to maintain or increase his influence in the coming government, so for these reason he remains a kingmaker worth following, and perhaps a legitimate candidate to unseat Netanyahu.

4. The odds are against Yair Lapid. Historically, centrist parties like Lapid’s Yesh Atid are less successful in the ballot box the second time around. This is due to a number of reasons: voting patterns, party values, and the emergence of additional centrist parties. Right now, all of these factors are working against Lapid. In 2013, many left-wing voters chose Yesh Atid out of disappointment with the Labor Party and affinity with his cries for economic and social reform. Since, Labor has upgraded its leadership by replacing Shelly Yachimovitch with Isaac Herzog. Lapid’s efforts to induce reform, on the other hand, has also stagnated in the quagmire of Israeli parliamentary politics. Correspondingly, Yesh Atid’s message is becoming murkier as its collage of MKs, chosen in order to secure a broader audience, lack a unified voice and are frequently critiqued for their inexperience. The return of former Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon to politics is another threat to Yesh Atid’s success, as it will introduce another centrist party (albeit a center-right one) with an economic reform agenda. Lapid is going to have to work twice as hard to secure a coalition spot this time round.

5. Netanyahu is still king. Until proven otherwise, it should be assumed that Netanyahu is going to remain Israel’s prime minister in the coming government. None of his challengers have equal credentials, and each of them will experience extreme difficultly building a coalition. The fact that Netanyahu is pushing for elections should be interpreted as a sign that he wants them to take place – which should worry his rivals. Even with the blunders of the last year, Netanyahu’s position on Israeli security remains strong. His economic credentials may be somewhat weaker, but it is difficult to see the economy taking centerstage after the events this summer. If Bibi can dictate the narrative of security as his rivals target one another, he can will maintain his position at the top.

Elections in Israel are always filled with drama, but this round was triggered by politicians for politicians. Will the demands of Israelis go largely unheard by their elected officials? Only time will tell…

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel