North Africa, West Asia

Some observations on the forthcoming Israeli elections

The first polls taken after the election process was set in motion showed that Netanyahu was not seen as popular. So why did Netanyahu call for elections now?

Efraim Perlmutter
13 January 2015
Benjamin Netanyahu, January 5,2015.

Benjamin Netanyahu, January 5,2015.Dan Bar Dov/Demotix. All rights reserved.The Israeli elections are due to take place in two and a half months. In Israeli politics that is a very long time away. Only a fool would try, at this time, to predict what the political scene in Israel will look like on election day.

That is why most public opinion polls appearing now do not have very much relevance as to what the next Israeli government will look like. So instead, a focus on what is happening now may help draw the picture of what may happen over the next few weeks.

The first thing to note is that when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for new elections there was a good deal of both puzzlement and resentment among the citizenry. The question everyone was asking was, why now? 

The first polls taken after the election process was set in motion showed that Netanyahu was not seen as popular. It revealed that two-thirds of the respondents wanted someone other than Netanyahu as Prime Minister. In addition, there seemed to be little change in the percentage of voters that major political parties would attract. So why did Netanyahu call for elections now?

According to Netanyahu, his own leadership was under assault by political opponents and he felt unable to direct the government. That may be true, but the main challenges he faced were from within the Likud party and not from other political parties within or outside his coalition. My guess is that he called elections now in order to crush opposition from within his own Likud party. If this was indeed the case, then Netanyahu has already achieved his primary goal. Last week saw a Likud primary contest, which resulted in Netanyahu being reaffirmed as party leader by 75% of the vote. In addition to being elected the party leader, the Likud primary also determined the placement of candidates on the Likud’s electoral list.

In Israeli national elections the voter does not choose from contending candidates but rather from political parties. Each party presents a list of candidates, with the first position held by the party leader. As such, it is determined by the percentage of votes the party receives. So, with 120 members of the Knesset (parliament) to be elected, if a party receives ten percent of the vote, the first 12 names on its list will be elected to the Knesset.  

In the case of the Likud it is estimated by most knowledgeable political observers that the first 20 names on the list will be assured of being elected, with the next five being probable, followed by five or so uncertain places, then those with no chance at all.

Netanyahu’s big challenge came from those on the extreme right; his own Likud party. His only opponent for party leadership, Danny Danon, received only 19% of the vote, which placed him in the tenth position on the party list. Moshe Feiglin as well as Tzipi Hotovely, both from the extreme right of the Likud party, did not win realistic places on the list.

The end result of the Likud’s primary election was that Netanyahu’s leadership was confirmed and the Likud Party will present a much more centrist list in the next election than it did in the past. As such, this may have been Netanyahu’s main accomplishment.

As previously mentioned, two and a half months is a very long time in Israeli politics. In the first two weeks of the election campaign two major parties have already crashed and burned.

The first was Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party, in which several members, including one cabinet minister, are under a police investigation for corruption. Lieberman himself is not under investigation but in the polls the party has gone from electing 14 members of its list down to nearly none. This is because a party must receive 3.25% of the vote in order to pass the legal threshold to elect any members of its list. The irony is that Lieberman supported raising the threshold from the previous 2% to the current 3.25%.

The second party to suffer major difficulties is the Shas Party. This is an ultra-Orthodox religious party, made up of Jews from Middle Eastern rather than European descent. Its current leader Aryeh Deri and its previous leader Eli Yishai had a falling out and Yishai bolted and formed a new party. The mudslinging between the two has led many of the party’s followers to look for a new political home. To add to the complexity of the situation, Deri resigned from the party’s leadership and from the Knesset. The current thinking is that, like Egyptian President Nasser’s resignation after the 1967 war, Deri is waiting for the Shas Party’s leading Rabbis and followers to call him back to power.

So two major parties, momentarily at least, have been knocked out of the race as Netanyahu solidifies his party's leadership, taking the Likud Party another step away from the right and closer to the center. This can be seen as the main development of the first two weeks. It is unknown what will take place over the next few weeks. Although what may impact the electorate, and is not being discussed, could be some provocative action by the Palestinians and most particularly the PLO faction led by Abbas.

If the Palestinian front remains quiescent, the election will probably be fought out on economic and social issues. In that case, the Israeli Labor Party will have a chance of winning more seats and forming the next coalition government. However, I expect that the Likud will do its best to increase the salience of the Palestinian issue.This election ploy has been very successful for them in the past. An “armed resistance” campaign by the Palestinians would be enormously beneficial to the Likud as would, to a lesser extent, political action by the Palestinians in the international arena. These tend to move the Israeli electorate to the right, exactly where Netanyahu has positioned the Likud party.

Even though two-thirds of the electorate would like to see someone else run the country, it would not be very surprising if Netanyahu ends up being the next prime minister. However, as noted above, there are still nine weeks to go and that is a very long time in Israeli politics.   

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