(/sites/default/files/uploads/2014/12/Benjamin-Netanyahu.jpg)In early December, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu fired his justice and finance ministers and called for the dissolution of the parliament and new elections. Frequent internal bickering coupled with open dissention from within the ranks of his coalition partners made Netanyahu’s position untenable and forced him to act resolutely. Elections are due to be held on March 17, 2015 and if past elections are any guide, this one promises to have the requisite amount of drama and mudslinging.
Navigating the labyrinth of the Israeli electoral process is a daunting task. Unlike the United States which has a 2-party system, Israel is a parliamentary democracy which maintains a multi-party system of government. There are 120 parliamentary seats up for grabs in Israel’s parliament or Knesset, as it is called in Hebrew. The party which garners a majority of Knesset seats may lead but no single party in Israel’s history has ever won a majority of parliamentary seats. Parties are therefore required to form coalitions to obtain the requisite majority which often makes for strange bedfellows.
The economy and the security situation are two likely factors that will figure most prominently in voters’ minds when they go to the polls in March. Barring an unforeseen event like a major corruption scandal, Prime Minister Netanyahu of the center-right Likud party, who has led the country since 2009, will almost certainly be the next prime minister in a coalition composed of centrist and right-wing parties.
Since the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO in 1993, there has been a rightward shift in Israeli political thinking making the likelihood of a center-right coalition more probable. This rightward trajectory has only been strengthened by Palestinian duplicity, the emergence of the Iranian nuclear threat, terrorist groups like ISIS and general upheaval in the Arab world. Netanyahu is perceived as a seasoned and experienced leader who can successfully navigate Israel through these threats. He is also credited with strengthening the Israeli economy by privatizing state-owned industries, lowering tax burdens and streamlining bureaucratic processes which hampered private sector activity.
The two largest parties of the center-right bloc are the Likud and Yisrael Beitenu parties. The latter is headed by Avigdor Lieberman, who currently holds the position of minister of foreign affairs. He has at times clashed with Netanyahu but the two maintain ideologically similar positions. A massive police corruption investigation into Yisrael Beitenu’s dealings has hurt the party’s standing in the polls whose splintered seats will likely go to other center-right or right-wing parties.
A new center-right party headed by ex-Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, called Kulanu, is projected to win between 9 and 10 seats. The right-wing Bayit Yehudi party headed by Naftali Bennet (who currently holds three ministerial portfolios) is projected to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the current election. His party is expected to win at least 15 seats, a net gain of four, according to recent polls.
The former minister of finance who was fired by Netanyahu, Yair Lapid, who heads the “centrist” Yesh Atid party, is expected to be the big loser with a whopping loss of 10 seats, down to a paltry 9. Despite his criticism of Netanyahu and his party’s expected poor showing in the upcoming elections, it would be unsurprising to find him once again in a governing coalition headed by Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Israel no longer has a center-left party. Most of the large parties who maintained this label have dramatically shifted their positions well to the left of the Israeli mainstream which explains their consistently poor showing in recent Israeli elections. Much of Israel’s constituency views their positions on security as either naïve or dangerous. Indeed, it was the Israeli Left that rehabilitated Yassir Arafat’s international image, from terrorist pariah to international statesman. And it was the Israeli Left that exposed Israelis to a reign of terror in early 2000 through gross miscalculation and misguided foreign policies.
The largest leftist party is the Labor party which garnered a paltry 15 seats in the last election. Up until 1977, the Labor party was Israel’s dominant party but its credibility was tarnished by political scandal, leftist ideologues and elitist policies which disenfranchised a large segment of Israel’s constituency. A smaller leftist party called Meretz received just 6 seats. Their combined strength represents a mere shell of the center-left’s former years of dominance.
A third leftist party, formed just before the last election, called Hatnua, also received 6 seats. Its leader, Tzipi Livni, served as minister of justice in the current Likud-led coalition before she was fired by Netanyahu.
Ideologically, Livni is a leftist but in reality she is devoid of any principle and will sell herself to the highest bidder in an effort to maintain a position of influence. Within a relatively short period of time, she switched parties on three occasions, abandoning Likud to join the now near-defunct Kadima party and then forming her own Hatnua party after losing a bid for Kadima’s leadership. She has now joined forces with Labor conditioned upon an agreement that allows her to serve as prime minister on a rotating basis with Labor’s head, Isaac Herzog.
There are also three ultra-orthodox parties vying for seats in the upcoming elections. They are the UTJ party, the Shas party and a newly formed party which splintered from Shas called Ha’am Itanu. The ultra-orthodox parties primarily concern themselves with religious affairs and securing government funding for their respective religious institutions. They tend to lean rightward but will just as easily form a coalition with a leftist bloc for the right price. In the last election, the ultra-orthodox parties were marginalized. It is too soon to say what impact, if any, they will have in the upcoming election.
There are three Arab parties with a combined total of 11 seats that generally vote as a bloc. They are all anti-Israel and aside from engaging in parliamentary polemics, have no effect on Israeli policy.
The Obama administration would naturally like to see the emergence of a leftist coalition, one more compliant with Obama’s demands concerning Israeli concessions. This is unlikely to occur. Israelis are distrustful of Obama and for good reason. They have no illusions about the prospects of peace with the Palestinians and will vote for a leader who they feel has the requisite experience in dealing with emerging threats. Despite Obama’s open disdain for Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel’s center-right seems poised to lead again.
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