Monday, March 9, 2015

A Last Minute Guide to the Upcoming Israeli Elections

With just a week away from the Israeli elections, there does not seem to be any surprises in store; polls are placing the Likud and the Zionist Camp neck and neck, each bringing in about 23-25 seats. The only difference from last elections, which were held just a little over two years ago, is that the center-left coalition is performing much better than previously, due both to the new Labor Party leader, Yitzhak “Buji” Herzog, and the decision to join forces with Tzipi Livni’s HaTnuah Party, forming the Zionist Union.

On the other hand, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud is running on its own, not like in the last elections, when he ran together with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu (Israel Our Home) Party, which landed them a decisive victory of 31 seats (with Labor only receiving 15). However, this marriage was short lived, with Lieberman breaking this union, which was one of the reasons Netanyahu chose to throw in the towel and call for early elections, unable to tame his unruly government. Since then Lieberman’s popularity has dwindled and now he is looking to receive only five-six seats.

In fact it was Lieberman, who in his crusade to block Palestinian citizens of Israel (Israeli Arabs) from entering the Knesset, succeeded in raising the parliamentary threshold to over 3.25%, which proved a threat to two small Arab parties, Raam-Taal (Southern Branch of the Islamist party) and Balad (Palestinian nationalist party), and less so to Hadash, the joint Jewish-Arab Communist list. 

A Recent Poll featured in Haaretz; see link

Well, his plan backfired, with the parties coming together and establishing the “Joint List,” now expected to bring in about 12-15 seats, perhaps becoming the third largest party in the Knesset (for more see the following article of mine on the List). There is no doubt that Ayman Odeh, who is leading the ticket, is a real asset, and has an important future to play in his party Hadash, and Israeli politics in general, even if the Joint List will not be able to overcome their differences once the elections are over.  
Yair Lapid’s centrist-capitalist Yesh Atid, is expected to drop from 19 seats to 12-13. The decline in popularity is due to the fact that under the recent government he served as the Minister of Finance and was unable to fulfill one of his main promises: to bring down the surging prices of housing in Tel Aviv and its surrounding neighborhoods. Also, it seems secular Israelis for the time being have placed on the back burner the call to recruit Haredim to the army. 

Next, Ha-Bayit Ha-Yahudi (the Jewish Home) party, which is mostly supported by West Bank settlers and the Israeli far-right seems set to get 12-13 seats, leaving them more or less within the same range as last elections. Similar to the previously mentioned Lapid, this party’s leader, Naftali Bennett, personality and straight forward politics manages also to capture young voters. Of course, it should be noted that Bennett's promise to not give up a single inch of the West Bank blocks the party's participation in any future peace talks, and offers no real solution to the conflict. 

One new party that is most likely going to play an important role in making or breaking the future government is Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu (All of US) party. A former Likud member, who rose quickly in the ranks holding two ministerial offices, is best remembered for passing legislation to lower cell-phone costs in Israel. He prides himself on social justice, in which he represents a largely Mizrahi population (he himself is of Libyan origin), and declares that Likud has strayed from the path of Menahem Begin. Currently, he is polling at 8 seats. 

A once major force in Sephardic/Mizrahi politics, Shas, has split following the death of their spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.  Led by the once wonder of Israeli politics in the 1990s, Aryeh Deri, its leader returned to politics in 2013, after serving a jail sentence for corruption and more than a decade break from politics. His main party competitor, Eli Yishai deserted the party, and made a very unconventional link with the radical right-wing Baruch Marzel, a close associate of the assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane.

In line comes the United Torah Judaism party, a Haredi list composed of Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel, which is expected to get seven seats. The religious parties in the past have taken part in both right and left governments, often joining governments in return for funneling funds to their institutions. However, due to the growing demand among some secular politicians that the Haredi serve in the Israeli army, their presence in governments is no longer a foregone conclusion, much to the dismay of the Likud and the Labor parties who are in need of their support.

Last in line, is the far-left Zionist Meretz party, expected to get 5-6 seats. A party that teeter-totters between 3-6 seats (upon its first election in 1992 it received the most ever, at 12 seats). Its contribution to human rights, promoting LGBT issues, and its pro-peace agenda cannot be underestimated. However, it has never been able to turn into an alternative to the Labor, and has not been able to attract a large Arab backing, remaining mostly confined to upper class leftists of Northern Tel Aviv neighborhoods, despite many attempts to diversify. 

Instability to Continue

What comes out of this short guide is the fact that Israel is a country made up of multiple sectors, divided along ethnic, religious and ideological lines, which leaves the winner of the Israeli election scrambling for the 60 seats needed to form a government. In other words, despite raising the threshold, the next government, either led by Herzog or Netanyahu, will be yet another hodgepodge of parties coming together to form a government. Not only is it plagued by the above divisions, but also it is a clash of egos and personalities.

Within this mess, it is no wonder that often the Israeli voters wishes are often shortchanged. While Netanyahu’s recent controversial speech in the US Congress, or the (lack of a) peace process, is what hits the headlines around the world, for many Israelis it is the social issues that lead them to vote for one party or the other. Let us remember that Israel wins the prize of being the poorest country in the developed world. And, while more and more Israelis have a hard time feeding their families, its middle class, often cannot even make ends meet with apartment prices sky-high; all the while, its rich get richer. 

As for the peace process, since 2009 Netanyahu has made zero progress on reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians and time is not on Israel's side. Once the words such as "apartheid" were rare in the Israeli discourse, however, more and more people are starting to describe the continued occupation of the West Bank (and the blockade on Gaza) as exactly that.  Furthermore, the Palestinians citizens of Israel, who make up almost 20% of the population, are witness to a growing amount of racism directed at them. In short, without a viable peace process, it seems matters will just get worse.   

Indeed, the time for change is here. Unfortunately, however, it does not seem these elections will produce much of anything. Let us hope I am wrong. 

On Tuesday, March 17, I will arrive to Israel to cast my vote. Stay tuned for a post-election update...... 

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