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Israeli Elections 2013: The lay of the land with 30 days to go

December 24, 2012
By David M. Weinberg

PARTIES AND POLLS: Barring unforeseen circumstances, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu bloc will capture the most seats in the January 22, 2013 Knesset elections and be given the chance to form the new Israeli government.

But as things stand now in the polls, Netanyahu will lead a party with not much more than a quarter of the Knesset seats, and be forced to craft a complicated coalition with strong, confident and independent-minded partners on both the political left and right. Each of these factions will have sufficient seats to hold Netanyahu hostage and create crisis for his government at any stage.

Consequently, some observers think that Netanyahu will prefer a broad coalition with many, many partners – so that he won’t be dependent on the support of any one faction. But imagine having to manage a coalition that includes disparate ultra-orthodox, national-religious, labor-socialist, and liberal-left factions!

In other words, winning the election may the easy part for Netanyahu. The tough part will be forming and managing his new coalition government (and dealing with the challenges that the world will throw at him).

Netanyahu would prefer a coalition in which his base is stronger and in which no partner has the power, alone, to collapse the coalition. That is what much of the remaining 30-day campaign will be about: How does Netanyahu create some daylight between Likud and its two closest allies/rivals; without that, they may continue to siphon off Likud’s voters.

The factions that seem to be sniping the most at Likud’s heels are the national religious Jewish Home party (led by Naftali Bennett), and the Sephardic Ultra-Orthodox Shas party (led by Eli Yishai and Aryeh Deri). Each are polling 10-13 seats in Knesset, reducing Likud-Beiteinu’s total to 35-39 seats (down from the 42 seats that Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu hold in the current Knesset).

The rest of the Israeli political map hasn’t budged much over the past month. The Labor Party (led by Shelly Yachimovich) is polling 17-20 seats; the Tzipi Livni Party 7-11 seats; Yesh Atid (the Future party, led by Yair Lapid) 8-10 seats; the three Arab factions 9-11 seats; United Torah Judaism 5-6 seats; and Meretz (led by Zahava Galon) 3-5 seats. Three other splinter factions hover, perhaps, at the minimum threshold of two seats in Knesset.

In the all-important “block” mathematics, Likud’s natural block of right-wing partners clearly holds sway, with a minimum 63-57 advantage over a left-of-center coalition, and as much as a 69:51 advantage. Thus Netanyahu is pretty much guaranteed the prime minister’s chair.

Some pundits say that this election is already over, and that the parties to Netanyahu’s left and right (especially the factions led by Yachimovich and Bennett) are battling it out over a different election: The election they expect two or three years from now after Netanyahu steps down (or his government falls). This is another way of saying that Netanyahu will have a truly difficult time keeping the factions of his upcoming coalition in line.

THE ELECTORATE: Public opinion surveys reveal an Israeli electorate that is more cautious and conservative than ever before, clearly fearful of the tectonic changes taking place in the Arab Middle East, almost all of which threaten to destabilize Israel’s borders. Israelis are keenly aware of the ongoing slaughter in Syria and the danger of Syrian chemical weapons coming loose, the upheavals in Egypt, the instability in Jordan, Hezbollah’s threats, and the looming confrontation with Iran.

In this time of great uncertainty and danger, Israelis seek a steady and experienced hand at the helm of state, and the polls show that Israelis overwhelmingly think that Netanyahu is only person for the job at the current time. He outpolls his rivals Livni and Yachimovich by 30 or 40 percentage points when Israelis are asked who is best suited for the prime ministers’ job.

Yachimovich’s Labor Party has sought to counter this solid Netanyahu advantage by attempting to make social and economic matters a central campaign issue (an area in which she thinks Likud is vulnerable). But she has only very partially succeeded in doing so.

Livni’s “Livni Party” is seeking to make rapid pursuit of peace with the Palestinians the central campaign issue (and she claims to have credibility and expertise in achieving such a peace). But she has abjectly failed to do so. This is probably because few Israelis truly believe that peace is possible with either Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority or Ismail Haniyeh’s Hamas fiefdom in Gaza. In the eyes of most Israelis, both are maximalist actors that seek to isolate, delegitimize and attack Israel, not negotiate a real peace with it. While the international press largely ignored this, Israelis heard Abbas’ belligerent UN speech (about Israeli war crimes and ethnic cleansing) loud and clear, and Khaled Mashal’s vitriolic, genocidal speech in Gaza as well.

Israelis have also grown quite cynical about their political leaders, many of whom have been convicted in recent years for corruption and even worse criminal actions, including a former president of the state (Likud), prime minister (Kadima), finance minister (Kadima), justice minister (Kadima), and more. Netanyahu’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, just resigned to stand trial on breach of trust charges too.

THE CANDIDATES: As a result of the regional processes and voter mood described above, a wholesale cleaning of the house is underway. Dozens of current Knesset members will not be returning to Knesset, including such stalwarts and veterans like defense minister and former prime minister Ehud Barak, homeland security minister Avi Dicter, intelligence minister Dan Meridor, former finance minister Roni Bar-On, former Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik, and probably former defense minister and military chief of staff Shaul Mofaz.

Mofaz’s likely exit from politics is the most stunning of all. His Kadima Party was the largest faction in the outgoing Knesset with 28 seats, and prior to that it was the ruling party under prime ministers Sharon and Olmert. Yet Kadima is expected to be wiped off the political map all-together, with no seats in the next Knesset at all. The party is a victim of all the phenomena discussed above: a changed Middle East, a discredited peace agenda, rampant corruption, and bitter infighting.

Replacing the spent politicians who have been a fixture of Israeli politics for two decades or more is a cadre of young, inexperienced, bright-eyed and ideologically-driven political newcomers. This includes social activists Stav Shafir and Itzik Shmueli on the left, businessmen Yair Shamir and Naftali Bennett on the right, and a barn-full of journalists making the jump from one side of the microphone to the other, including Yair Lapid, Shelly Yachimovich, Merav Michaeli, Ofer Shelah, Miki Rosenthal and more. What this augers for the quality of Israeli political debate and leadership remains to be seen.

In our next blog posts:
Campaign slogans, commercials and advertising
A closer look at the new Likud-Beiteinu slate
Challenges ahead for Netanyahu’s next coalition government

Previous posts by David M. Weinberg in this election blog:
A Detailed look at the Parties and Polls
, October 2012
New Personalities in Israeli Politics
, November 2012

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