The Middle East Channel

The likelihood of Israeli elections and more of the same

The likelihood of Israeli elections and more of the same

It is one of those peculiarities of the Israeli political system that right now, under a stable government and a strong prime minister, there is almost a consensus in the Knesset that a date for early elections will be called soon. Conventional wisdom suggests that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like to avoid the battle over the 2013 budget, especially since Israel seems to be facing the prospect of an economic slow-down. Add to that the possible electoral victory by President Barack Obama in the U.S. elections in November which could hurt the Israeli Prime Minister in the local polls, calling elections now seems like an easy way out (the other potential political game changer — an attack on Iran — will not be discussed here).

Yet unlike previous campaigns, when many held out hope that called-for elections could lead to new policies and a genuine Israeli interest in terminating the country’s 44 year-long military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, there are growing signs that the next Knesset could be just as conservative and hawkish, if not more, than the current one. The chances of a Yitzhak Rabin-style peace coalition are therefore practically non-existent.

Wanting to capitalize on his current popularity, Benjamin Netanyahu is having his Likud party hold its national primaries this week — one he is likely to win. The main opposition Kadima party will follow with its own elections at the end of March. Elsewhere on the political scene, the Labor party has already voted, legendary Sephardic-Orthodox leader Rabbi Aryeh Deri has decided to return to politics, and anchorman Yair Lapid, the most popular journalist in Israel, recently quit his job on Channel 2 news in order to form a political party.

Of all these developments, the last two have generated the most excitement. Lapid — the son of late leader of the free-market, anti-orthodox "Shinuy" party, journalist-turned politician Tommy Lapid — is considered by many the best man to represent the secular middle class. He enjoys substantial name-recognition, is articulate and popular, and channels resentment of the Ultra-Orthodox, the settlers, and the Arab minority — very common feelings in the Israeli political conversation — but without the blunt hostility that became the trademark of his father.

More than anything, Lapid is extremely attuned to the tones of the Israeli political debate. Since last summer’s wave of economically-driven protests, which at one point saw half a million Israelis take to the streets, Lapid has devoted greater attention in his writing to the woes of Israel’s middle class. Indeed, in his column in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, he announced that the first item on his new party’s agenda would be dedicated to the question of "where is the money?" — underscoring the high tax rates Israelis pay which are channeled, according to Lapid, to welfare programs supporting the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arabs, as well as to the construction of West Bank settlements. Such sentiments have reflected positively in the world of public opinion: Polls conducted in the last few weeks project more than 10 Knesset seats for Lapid and his party. And according to one survey, he could even end up leading the second largest party in the Knesset, with 16 out of the parliament’s 120 seats.

Meanwhile Rabbi Aryeh Deri, who was convicted in corruption charges at the end of the 1990s and served two years in prison, brings certain hope to the middle class as well, mainly because he is considered more moderate than the current leader of Shas (Israel’s primary ultra-orthodox party), interior minister Eli Yishai. Deri is still extremely popular in the Sephardic religious public, but Yishai controls Shas’ powerful machine. The rivalry between them, which is both personal and political, is likely to lead to a split in Shas.

Brought together, these political developments might create the impression — especially given the ongoing region-wide upheaval — that the Israeli political system is undergoing a period of transition, one which could result in a more dovish government, or at least in an increased willingness in Jerusalem to halt settlement activities and allow the creation of an independent Palestinian state. In fact, the more likely outcome is the exact opposite: The next Knesset — the 19th since the state of Israel was created — will likely be more fragmented then ever, with Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud party as the only faction holding enough seats to command a somewhat stable coalition. To do that, Netanyahu will have to rely again on his coalition partners from the right, and the only way to secure their support will be by tightening Israel’s hold over the occupied West Bank.

Netanyahu himself has yet to show any desire to follow up on his declared intention to leave the West Bank. In the past, he has boasted about finding loopholes in the Oslo agreement that brought the 1990’s peace process to a halt; he has allowed the construction of new housing projects for Jews in East Jerusalem and the West Bank at an unprecedented rate; and did everything in his power to avoid the removal of the few outposts deemed illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court. Since returning to the Prime Minister’s seat nearly three years ago, he has met no effective opposition on these issues, a fact that is not likely to change in the future. Following any elections, the Likud would invariably be the only party with around 30 seats. Everyone else, to the left and right, would likely end up with less than 20. With no clear alternative, no party will have real bargaining power over Netanyahu, and he would simply need to pick the relevant coalition partners to cement his comfortable position, and in the event of troubles, replace them with other willing allies. In the Israeli political system, this is the best outcome a politician can hope for, and Netanyahu, especially in his second round as Prime Minister, has proven quite adept at this game.

More than anything, recent political developments reveal the effective disappearance of the "peace camp" from Israeli politics, as well as the breakdown of the secular middle class into different fractions with competing agendas. In 1992, the leftist Labor and Meretz parties alone had 56 seats, almost half of the Knesset. Today that same electorate would be divided between 5 or 6 parties, which would be lucky to come anywhere close to 50 MKs. 

Of all the major parties, none is expected to run in the next elections under a peace platform. Labor’s new leader, the ex-journalist Shelly Yachimovich, prefers to concentrate on the economy and distribution of wealth. In a recent interview she even spoke of her sympathy to the settlement movement. In Kadima, the hawkish Shaul Mofaz is considered the front-runner in the coming primaries against current party leader Tzipi Livni, while the aforementioned Lapid takes pains to ensure that he’s no leftist and doesn’t anyway seem very interested in the Palestinian question. Likud itself is moving to the right, with very few MKs left of the party’s historical pragmatic wing, and one shouldn’t forget Yisrael Beiteinu party leader and Israel’s current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who remains just as strong at the polls despite a maximalist, far-right agenda.

The new Knesset will also represent the failure of the two-state solution as a political platform. While in theory there is a virtual consensus around the need to establish a Palestinian state, there is no longer any Knesset members who remain its passionate advocates, like Yossi Beilin or Shimon Peres used to be. The intellectual conversation has shifted its attention to the one-state solution. Though this idea is still widely denounced and opposed as a theoretical solution, the new Knesset could mark the first definitive break by moving the political conversation into firmly one-state territory, if only as a by-product of having killed off all other possible alternatives.

Until then, the Israeli parliament will continue to reflect a Jewish public which has lost interest in resolving the Palestinian question and which is likely to support any political or military action deemed necessary to sustain the status quo. For Israelis, the occupation is a non-issue and will continue to be so as long as the military is able to hold back any local Palestinian resistance, the prime minister is successful in resisting continued diplomatic pressure and regional isolation, and the internal and external boycott movement remains marginal.  

Noam Sheizaf is an Israeli journalist and editor. He blogs at +972 Magazine.