Israeli Election Primer: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Truth

As the nation gears up for another election on January 22, it can be hard to stay on top of things. Here’s what you need to know.

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Q. Why is Israel voting now?

A. Because this is the best timing for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

By Israeli law, an election must be held by the third Tuesday of the Jewish month of Heshvan, after four years have elapsed since the previous election. The current Knesset could serve until October 22, but Israel will be going to the polls on January 22, nine months early.

An early election is usually held when the government loses its Knesset majority and no other party can form a coalition, or if it can’t pass the annual budget. But Netanyahu’s coalition is relatively stable and he could have passed the 2013 budget after the regular horse-trading with his coalition partners. Despite that, he announced an early election, citing the government’s inability to achieve a “balanced and responsible budget.”

In other words, Netanyahu realized that with the country facing an economic slowdown, the budget would have to be an unpopular austerity package. Since the prime minister and his coalition are currently strong in the polls and the opposition is in disarray, it made sense letting the electorate weigh in as soon as possible, rather than jeopardizing his electoral advantage.

Q. How will the election work?

A. Very simply.

Israelis will be voting for parties that have presented lists of candidates for the Knesset. Fourteen parties are represented in the current 18th Knesset (12 were elected but there were two splits) and 34 parties will be contending in the January 22 election.

Some of the parties have held primaries to select their candidates, while others have used selection committees. In other cases, the candidates have been chosen by the party leader or rabbis. Voters won’t get to choose Knesset members; they’ll cast one vote for one party.

Every Israeli citizen over 18 is eligible to vote but only Israelis on government postings abroad and merchant seamen can vote outside the country. Though voting isn’t compulsory, the turnout has been generally high: approaching 80 percent until a decade ago and about 65 percent since.

Israel has a proportional-representation system. The 120 Knesset seats are divided among the parties that have crossed the electoral threshold (2 percent of the vote) according to their proportion of the vote. The seats are allocated to candidates based on the order they appear on their party’s electoral list.

After the election and consultations with the president, one party forms a government with the support of at least 61 MKs.

Q. What are the issues?

A. That depends on which party you ask.

No dominating issue is on the agenda and each main party will try to take the debate to areas where it feels more confident. The following will be the defining issues:

Iran: Netanyahu, with some justification, believes that it was his incessant warnings about the Iranian nuclear threat that put the issue on the global agenda and led to crippling sanctions. His UN General Assembly speech in September, with the bomb cartoon, was actually his first campaign speech. Likud-Beiteinu’s platform will be very clear: Netanyahu is the man who warned the world and he’s the only one capable of making sure the world remains focused on Iran.

Two other party leaders will emphasize Iran in their campaigns. Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz will remind us that not only was he once the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff, he was born in Tehran and, unlike Netanyahu, he can deal with the Iranians quietly and efficiently.

The economy: This is Netanyahu’s comfort zone and a debate he wants to have (though not about the budget cuts due immediately after the election). No Israeli politician comes close to his mastery of economic jargon, which enables him to take credit for the country’s financial growth in an era of global downturn. Parties to the left will try to deflect the discussion from the healthy economic indicators to the nitty-gritty of the widening social gaps.

The social gaps: This is the debate that Netanyahu doesn’t want to have and that the Labor Party, in particular, is trying to impose on him. Why isn’t more of Israel’s prosperity trickling down to the middle class? Why is it harder than ever to buy an apartment in central Israel? And why are the country’s social services crumbling? The mass social protests of 2011 prove there’s a large constituency for this message and an opening for Labor chief Shelly Yacimovich. Some protest leaders have joined Labor and will feature prominently in its campaign.

Who runs Israel?: A number of parties, mainly from the center-left, will run on the fashionable slogan that the country is ruled by small cliques of politicians, lobbyists, tycoons, rabbis and generals rather than by us hardworking middle-class Israelis, and that the whole system needs to be overhauled. It’s a brand of “politics of envy” that, while working well around the world, has seldom succeeded in Israel. But that won’t stop the parties from trying.

The Arab uprisings: Netanyahu will constantly tell voters that in a volatile environment, Israel can’t afford to embark on experiments, make concessions and rely on untrustworthy Arabs. (This point will be made more succinctly by the parties to Likud’s right.) His rivals to the left will struggle to convince voters that this is the time for Israel to reengage with the region; they’ll probably prefer not to mention the neighbors’ instability very much.

America: Israel’s relationship with the United States could become a major issue in the campaign. Following Barack Obama’s reelection, Netanyahu’s rivals will accuse him of jeopardizing Israel’s strategic alliance with the United States. They will also seek to highlight the staunch support he receives from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. There are no mega-donors in Israel, as political donations here are capped by law, but Adelson has found a way around this by founding and financing a free newspaper, Israel Hayom, which for the last five years has supported Netanyahu to the hilt.

The peace process: Not long ago the main issue in every Israeli election was the future of the West Bank and the peace process with the Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors. But now the peace process is in a deep freeze. In the current campaign, with the Iranian issue, regional instability and Labor’s focus on social issues, the peace process will remain largely in the background. The parties on the left will try to remind voters of the ticking time bomb in the West Bank and Gaza while the far-right parties will rally the faithful by saying they’re the only ones who resolutely defend every settlement and outpost.

Q. Who will win the election?

A. Almost certainly Netanyahu.

Apart from the short period (1996-2001) when Israel experimented with directly electing the prime minister, there has never been an outright victor because no party has won a majority of Knesset seats. The election winner, therefore, is the party that convinces other parties to join a coalition that commands the support of at least 61 MKs. This isn’t necessarily the largest party.

The winning coalition may be clear on election night but it could take weeks or even months to secure enough MKs. The polls currently have the right wing and religious parties with 66 to 68 MKs, which would allow Netanyahu to form a similar coalition to his present one or bring in centrist parties. Either way, he remains prime minister.

Q. Will there be other winners?

A. Many.

Only one slate, Likud-Beiteinu, expects to form the next government. All the other parties are competing for lesser prizes.

On the left, Labor is hoping to reestablish itself as a viable alternative, while Meretz is trying prove there is still such a thing as an ideological Zionist left. In the center, Kadima is fighting for political survival, while Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid is trying to establish itself as the new party of the secular middle class in Kadima’s place. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah is presenting itself as the real alternative to Likud, promising to achieve where Kadima failed.

On the right, Shas and Habayit Hayehudi are slugging it out to be the second-largest party in Netanyahu’s coalition, with the latter party, led by Naftali Bennett, doing well in the polls in December. In the Arab community, Hadash, United Arab List-Ta’al and Balad are still locked in a three-way struggle to emerge as the largest party. And of course there are the parties like Am Shalem, which are clawing for every vote just to cross the electoral threshold and avoid political oblivion.

In each of these micro-contests there will be winners and losers.

Q. What could still surprise us?

A. Probably not much.

The biggest surprise would be the movement of votes from the right-religious coalition to the center to give an alternative leader a chance to form a coalition. That would need a swing of at least 5 percent, improbable in the short time left but not unheard of.

Failing that, the main surprise could be the appearance of a clear center-left leader who would lead the opposition in the new Knesset and challenge Netanyahu in the election after that.

Yacimovich might very well restore Labor to its status as the second-largest party, but she doesn’t yet seem popular or experienced enough to lead the opposition. Mofaz, facing Kadima’s electoral decimation, lost his chance due to his 70-day grand-coalition disaster with Netanyahu. Livni twice had the chance as Kadima leader to form a government but failed. She has yet to show the killer instinct and willpower a potential prime minister needs. Lapid, with his new Yesh Atid party, is untested and lacks gravitas.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was for a while the center’s great white hope, but has been prevented from contending due to his corruption trials. If he had run, he would have proved a liability rather than an asset.

Lt. Gen. (ret.) Gabi Ashkenazi is eager to capitalize on his tenure as the most popular IDF chief of staff in a generation, but is still in his three-year cooling-off period (which prevents senior defense officials from jumping into politics). And he has yet to face the fallout from a state comptroller’s report on skullduggery in the General Staff. Prevented from running in this election, he will have to choose between remaining on the sidelines and joining a party to stake his political territory.

One of the many figures above could overcome the obstacles and emerge as Netanyahu’s main challenger, but this probably won’t happen before the election. The most likely scenario is that the opposition will remain divided and leaderless for a long while.

Q. Where are the undecided voters?

A. Everywhere.

The shifting political sands have left relatively few “tribal” voters who stick with the same party election after election. The great majority are floating voters, deciding each campaign afresh. Otherwise, Israel’s tribes are diverse: ideological right-wingers, ultra-Orthodox, national-religious, Israeli Arabs, leftists and the secular middle class. This last group is the only one that can shift the balance between the main blocs.

Middle-of-the-road Israelis, who comprise a quarter or perhaps even a third of the electorate, have moved back and forth in recent years between Likud, Labor, Kadima and the now extinct Pensioners, Center Party and Shinui. These fluctuations prove just how flexible the voters are. (In 2009, Likud more than doubled its vote after plummeting in 2006 to just 12 MKs.) Half a dozen parties will be competing for the middle-of-the-roaders, and while Netanyahu has a clear edge for now, that could change if not in January then next time around.

Q. How will the parties campaign?

A. Mainly online.

Israeli television and radio networks are forbidden to sell airtime to political parties. Each party is allocated a broadcasting quota according to its size in the current Knesset. The propaganda is beamed out on a timetable mandated by the Central Elections Committee.

These broadcasts were once watched by most voters and were hugely influential, but they lost much of their significance as the country entered the multichannel era. Mass election rallies are also a thing of the past; today’s campaign events are relatively small affairs, often held in private homes or closed venues, usually for die-hard supporters only.

Most campaigning is done in the mainstream media and few news organizations actually endorse a specific party, although many have clear favorites. The campaigns are increasingly online, especially social networks. A new party, Eretz Hadasha, has impressively used the Web with a series of videos revealing secrets of senior politicians. The first one, on Netanyahu’s habit of carrying bundles of dollar bills in his socks, went viral.

Q. Will there be debates?

A. Almost certainly not.

Since 1977 there have been seven televised debates between the leaders of the largest parties, Likud and Labor. The most memorable one took place in 1996, when an energetic Netanyahu, trailing in the polls, trounced a lackluster and tired Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Three years later, Netanyahu as prime minister was eager for a debate, hoping to narrow Ehud Barak’s lead in the polls. Barak refused Netanyahu an opportunity to get back in the race, believing correctly that voters wouldn’t punish him for staying away. In 2001, it was Barak as prime minister demanding a debate with Ariel Sharon; Sharon refused for the same reason.

Leading candidates don’t want to jeopardize their lead in a debate, and there is little public pressure to do so. Yacimovich has invited Netanyahu to a debate but he has little reason to respond. Even if he were willing to debate it’s unclear who his opponent should be in this election.

Q. What will change?

A. Very little.

Unless all the polls are seriously off or a major shift in the public’s mood occurs over the short time remaining, Netanyahu is well on track to forming his third government. He will be able to form a very similar coalition to the one he has today or a more centrist one.

The main difference between the 18th and 19th Knessets will be the wider options for Netanyahu. If he sticks with the right-wing and religious parties of his current government, he will make few policy changes. He could, however, discard some of his present partners and make a deal with one or more of the three or four center-left parties and pursue more moderate or flexible domestic and foreign policies.

Israeli election primerCredit: Adi Emanuel

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