A week is a long time in politics, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously quipped in 1964.
But short of unforeseen circumstances, it won’t be enough time to turn the tide for Israel’s center-left, facing likely defeat by the center-right block of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party plus the nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu in the upcoming election for the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, on January 22.
That’s despite the fact that Beiteinu leader, and former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman is being indicted on allegations of fraud and breach of trust, and that many of Likud’s own supporters still haven’t forgiven Netanyahu for what they considered a premature ceasefire in the war with Hamas in Gaza last November.
“My opinion is that everything will stay the same,” said Gideon Rahat, a professor of political science at Hebrew University. “It will be the same government but it will hopefully be a much better opposition. In democracy you need a strong opposition.”
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Rahat may not get his wish. The polls have on one hand Netanyahu as the likely winner and on the other a fractured lineup of parties with falling consensus. In the most recent Dialog poll broadcast on Israel’s Channel 10, Likud-Beiteinu rose for the first time in a month, carving out a predicted 35 seats. The main party in his opposition, Labor, was predicted to secure 17 seats; the other parties in the centre-left fared poorly, with Yesh Atid at 11 and the Tzipi Livni Party, founded by the former foreign minister, falling to seven seats.
The low 2 percent threshold in Israel’s proportional-representation parliamentary system has led to a multi-party democracy in which no single political party garners enough support to govern independently in the 120-seat Knesset. Thus, parties form coalitions, and the bloc that gains the largest amount of seats in the election will be asked by Israel’s president to form the new government.
Center-right coalitions have dominated Israeli politics since 1977, but left-leaning voters held their collective breath last week as Labor, Yesh Atid and the Tzipi Livni Party held talks in hope of forming a bloc capable of challenging Likud-Beiteinu.
The numbers were on their side: an earlier poll predicted a united left bloc would win 37 seats, while Likud-Beiteinu was polling at 33, but the conciliation attempt ended in public accusations of selfishness.
The problem with the left, said Dr. Ofer Kenig of the Israel Democracy Institute, goes further than disunity. It offers no viable alternative to Netanyahu.
“Of all other things, this election is about a lack of leadership. We have on the right a clear leader in Prime Minister Netanyahu, but in the center-left bloc we see a very distinct lack of leadership. Even if a lot of citizens don’t like Netanyahu’s policies on the economy or security, a lot vote for him and the Likud because they don’t see any other option,” Kenig said.
One group of voters with the potential to reshape Israel’s left are Palestinians within Israel, known as Arab-Israelis. They represent 20 percent of the population, and they are traditionally left-leaning. When they show up to vote, that is, and this year they probably won’t – though they could have a strong impact if they did under a united banner.
A recent poll conducted by an Arab institution indicated that more than 50 percent of Arab-Israelis believed their situation had worsened under Netanyahu, yet only 51 percent planned to vote in the coming election.
The reason for this,Haifa University political scientist Dr. Asa'd Ghanem said, is threefold: increased marginalization of Arab Israelis within Israeli society and the wider Palestinian society, a lack of trust in institutions, and economic inequality. “There’s an extreme level of non-trust. A high percentage of Arabs in Israel have lost their trust in Israeli institutions -- mainly the government and the Knesset,” he said.
Conversely, the poll also indicated that almost 58 percent of Arab-Israelis supported the potential joining of the three major Arab political parties represented in the Knesset, in order to increase their influence.
“They want more power, rather than just being opposition in the Knesset,” Ghanem said. “If Arab parties join together and have one list or two lists, it would work to serve the interests of their communities.”
The benefits could be far-reaching, Ghanem said. If the parties joined together, the chances of forming a left-wing government increased.
“If Netanyahu’s chances are less optimistic than they are today, then Palestinians in Israel might consider going out on election day to vote.” And those votes could be a deciding factor in tipping the scales to the left, Ghanem said.
A Boost From The Economy
But if Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu coalition does win, it won’t be purely by default over a divided opposition: it does have the economy on its side.
Israel’s technologically advanced market economy has weathered the global recession better than most, and grew by a healthy 4.8 percent in 2010 and 2011. During Netanyahu’s last term, Israel also made a major advancement toward energy independence with the discovery of the Leviathan gas field in the Mediterranean Sea, off the country’s coast, in June 2010.
The flip side of the economic boom has been income inequality and rising house and commodity prices, which led to widespread protests in 2011 and 2012. The self-immolation of a protester and popular dissatisfaction with the government’s social programs led the Labor party to capitalize on the protest effect, said Professor Rahat, according to whom it was likely to pick up votes with a strategy that was centrist on foreign affairs and security, and intently focused on a stronger welfare state.
But in Israel, that may not be enough to win elections. “Several parties tried to take the campaign to the social economic issues, but I think they didn’t succeed,” said the Israel Democracy Institute’s Kenig. Israelis have voted on security, rather than the economy, since the 1967 Six Day War, he said. And security is just what’s lacking in Israel’s unfriendly neighborhood.
The Woes Of The Arab Spring
Since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011, things have not improved for Israel’s relations with Arab nations.
Its southern border with Egypt is now barricaded with concrete and barbed wire to stem the tide of illegal immigration and counter the risk of terrorism. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government is upholding its peace agreement with Israel, but there has been little faith and even less goodwill between the two countries since President Hosni Mubarak was deposed.
Syria’s bloody civil war threatens to overflow its borders into Israel. With it comes the danger that stockpiles of President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons will fall into the hands of terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah, bent on Israel’s destruction.
Israel’s relationship with Jordan has long been a cold peace, and rumblings of an Arab Spring there have done nothing to warm it. Fears that the Palestinian-dominated Muslim Brotherhood opposition within Jordan will seize power following widespread protests against the monarchy are a further cause for concern.
Yet Kenig said Israeli voters could hardly blame Netanyahu for the Arab Spring. “I don’t think that’s in our control. What can Netanyahu do about the situation? The only think is to keep low and pray for stability.”
Within Israel, there’s been more criticism of Netanyahu’s hawkish stance on Iran than of his dealings with Israel’s neighbors, with a significant segment of the Israeli population averse to a pre-emptive strike on the Islamic Republic in order to curb its nuclear ambitions. A Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs poll commissioned in March 2012 found that 37 percent of Israelis disagreed with the claim that only military action could halt Iran’s nuclear program.
The Iran issue came closer to home when Iranian-made rockets pummeled Israel’s southern cities during the eight-day Gaza conflict in November. Yet Netanyahu was unlikely to pay the price for those strikes at the polling booth, according to Kenig. “Israelis blame Ehud’s government, and Sharon’s government that pulled out of Gaza,” he said, referring to former Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon.
Elsewhere in the region, Israel lost a friend in Turkey when Netanyahu’s government refused to apologize over the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010. Nine Turkish citizens were killed when Israeli commandos boarded the vessel owned by an Islamic Turkish NGO, which was classified by Israel as a terrorist organization. It was part of a flotilla attempting to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The cool relationship between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu is no secret. Netanyahu backed Romney in the 2012 presidential election in the United States, and Obama was embarrassingly caught sympathizing with then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who branded Netanyahu "a liar" in a private conversation that was accidentally broadcast to journalists during a G20 summit in November 2011.
Netanyahu’s administration also took a hit when the European bloc voted overwhelmingly in support of de facto recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations General Assembly in December 2012. Even Germany, on whom Israel counted to vote against, chose abstention.
Further afield, South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, announced in December that the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement would now form part of its official policy.
Those developments, added to the regional instability, would seem to tip the balance in favor of ousting the man under whose rule the security situation has apparently so deteriorated. The Israel Democracy Institute’s Dr. Kenig conceded that “outsiders” who didn’t understand the “Israeli mindset” would question the sanity of voting for four more years of the same. But Israel isn’t like other countries in this regard.
“Sure, the security situation has become worse. But citizens think, ‘Who is responsible? Which government?’ In the bigger picture, Israelis think that the left block is responsible for the very complex security situation facing [them] today.”