|Netanyahu will seek in March a third straight term in office and a fourth in total [Reuters]
Israel is preparing for a new legislative election after its governing coalition disintegrated this month, following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s firing of two key ministers from his government. According to the most recent opinion polls, in the upcoming March 2015 election the 120 seats of the Knesset – the Israeli parliament – may be roughly divided in such a way that either a centre-right government under Netanyahu or a centre-left government that would unseat Netanyahu, could be formed.
Following the election, the largest parties on the left, right and centre, and the smaller parties in the Knesset enter into negotiations to determine which party actually draws the support and the numbers to go ahead and form a coalition government. While the right has been in power in the last decade, 2015 could mark a significant change. Israel’s right-wing parties currently suffer from acute internal conflicts, while the left is showing a tendency toward greater unity. If this trend persists until March 2015, there is a possibility that a centre-left government could form and end Netanyahu’s long stay in power.
On March 17, 2015, Israelis will go to the polls to vote in a new parliamentary election, after only about two years since the previous election in 2013. Parliamentary elections in Israel are supposed to take place every four years, but conflicts and infighting within governing coalitions often lead to the dissolution of governments and the calling of early elections. In the case of this coming election, intense disagreements between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party, finance minister Yair Lapid from the Yesh Atid party, and justice minister Tzipi Livni from Hatnua, led Netanyahu to fire the two, accusing them of trying to undermine his government. In response, their parties left the governing coalition, forcing Netanyahu to call for new election.
A common assumption by analysts of Israeli politics is that Israeli public opinion has consistently veered toward the hawkish right in the last decade,(1) and that therefore a right-wing government, likely with Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu at its head, is inevitable. However, if we examine the last two elections – of 2009 and 2013 – it becomes clear that this is not the case. In fact, in 2009, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party won 28 seats in the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament), while Netanyahu’s Likud secured only 27 seats. However, Netanyahu was able to create a coalition with smaller rightist and ultra-Orthodox religious parties and so secured the establishment of a right wing government. In the 2013 election the Likud, which ran in a joint list with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, won 31 seats and was the largest party in the Knesset. However, a new centre party, Yesh Atid, became the second largest party in the Knesset and could have formed a centre-left governing coalition with the Labor party, the smaller leftist and Arab parties, and the ultra-Orthodox parties.(2) Yet in 2013 again Netanyahu’s astute negotiations allowed him to draw Yesh Atid to his coalition and again form a centre-right government.
According to the most recent polls, the 2015 election may produce results similar to those of 2013, where the 120 seats of the Knesset are roughly divided in such a way that either a centre-right or a centre-left government could be formed.(3) The key to which large party actually takes power will remain in the negotiation between, one the one hand, the parties with the biggest share of seats and, on the other hand, the smaller parties in the Knesset. What is different in 2015, however, is that now more than ever the right wing parties are extremely divided and suffer from acute internal conflicts, while the left is showing a tendency toward greater unity. If this trend persists until March 2015, there is a possibility that a centre-left government could form and end Netanyahu’s long stay in power. In what follows, this article introduces the key parties on the right, centre and left, and the challenges and opportunities they face in the upcoming election.
The Divided Right
The most recent poll from December 17, 2014, predicts that Netanyahu’s Likud party is likely to win only about 21 seats in the coming election.(4) The greatest challenge for the party is its internal division, which has caused it to lose popularity. Netanyahu has stood at the head of the Likud since 2006 but in the last few years his leadership has been challenged by more hawkish right wing members in his party.(5) The Likud list for the Knesset is selected through a popular vote by the party’s members and Netanyahu has had a difficult time ensuring that his supporters and politicians more aligned to his political perspective are elected. In the 2012 Likud primaries, for example, Netanyahu’s loyalists were voted out, while more hawkish Likud members that have publicly defied Netanyahu secured high places on the party’s list. Likud politicians such as Dani Danon, Zeev Elkin, Moshe Feiglin and Miri Regev, have repeatedly attempted to embarrass Netanyahu by contradicting his statements about his commitment to a two-state solution, to the maintenance of the status quo in al-Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mt. in Jerusalem, and have worked to sour his relationship with the US administration and in particular with Barack Obama and John Kerry. In 2015, Netanyahu will find himself at the head of a party over which he has little control, that is much more right wing than he would like it to be, and in which many politicians see themselves as his potential replacements in the very near future.
Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s minister of foreign affairs and his party Yisrael Beitenu have been until recently Likud’s main partner and a staunch right wing player in Israeli politics. But disagreements between Liberman and Netanyahu have led recently to the dissolution of his party’s partnership with the Likud. Liberman stated this month that Netanyahu’s inaction and lack of initiative on the peace-front are leading Israel to international isolation.(6) In his critique of Netanyahu, Liberman argued that an agreement with the Palestinians must be reached and that Netanyahu’s failure to act gravely harms Israel’s diplomatic and economic interests. Liberman has indicated that he may be willing to join a centre-left coalition. Recent polls show that Liberman’s party is likely to win only about 8 seats.(7) Nevertheless, the fact that he is trying to take a more centrist approach means that these seats will not automatically be assimilated into a centre-right government. Liberman may prefer to support a left-leaning prime minister in order to unseat Netanyahu.
Habayt Hayehudi (Jewish Home), the settlers’ party under the leadership of Naftali Bennet has become stronger in the last few months and opinion polls show that it may win about 16 or 17 seats. However, two issues cast a shadow on its natural alliance with Netanyahu and its potential electoral success. First, Bennet sees himself as Israel’s next prime minister. In the past and in particular during the summer war on Gaza, he has publicly portrayed Netanyahu as weak and not committed enough to Israel’s security and to the settlement project. This has somewhat soured his relationship with Netanyahu. Furthermore, his party was on the brink of a split in December 2014. The Jewish Home party is an alliance between right wing religious nationalists, and the extreme-right Orthodox settlers’ list Tkuma. Recently, Tkuma threatened to leave the alliance and join a new ultra-Orthodox right wing party. While the split was eventually averted, the underlying internal tensions over control of the Jewish Home party and its political agenda continue to fester and may impact its ability to draw voters in the election.
The New Centre
Often in Israeli elections, a new party emerges which places itself at the centre of the political map and promises to change the tired left-right political discourse. In 2013 it was Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid that capitalised on the social justice protest movement of 2011, which called for more equitable economic policies. Casting itself as a party advocating “new politics,” Yesh Atid had a vague political agenda but still managed to win 19 seats in the 2013 election and to become the second largest party in the Knesset by drawing voters who were tired of the old established political parties. However, Yesh Atid’s decision to join Netanyahu’s coalition in 2013 and to create an alliance with the far right Jewish Home party, and Lapid’s poor performance as finance minister, will cost Yesh Atid dearly in 2015. Polls indicate that the party will win only 10-11 seats in the coming election. Yesh Atid could join either a centre-right government under Netanyahu or a centre-left government under the Labor party. Yesh Atid would prefer to join an alternative coalition that would unseat Netanyahu. For, Netanyahu fired Lapid from his government; and Lapid’s recent critical statements against the prime minister may point to an end of their alliance.
The new promise of the centre in this election is the party Kulanu under former Likud member and communication minister Moshe Kahlon. Like Yesh Atid, this party’s political agenda remains vague and its main selling point is the “newness” it promises to bring to the Israeli political scene. Kahlon is likely to draw some centrist voters away from both Likud and Yesh Atid, and the polls predict his party will win between 10-12 seats. In recent speeches and statements, Kahlon has criticised Netanyahu for his lack of diplomatic initiative, and affirmed that a peace settlement with the Palestinians should be one of Israel’s first priorities. He also stated that he does not shy away from the possibility of territorial concessions to the Palestinians as a part of a comprehensive peace deal.(8)
A Unified Left?
The most surprising move in the short election campaign has been the formation of a joint list by the Labor party, under Yitzhak Herzog, and Tzipi Livini’s Hatnua. This unification was lauded by Labor supporters and many on the left, who believe overcoming factionalism and division is the only way to possibly unseat Netanyahu. The deal between Herzog and Livni includes a rotation agreement that stipulates that in the event they form the government, each of them will serve as prime minister for a period of two years. This move has boosted Labor’s election prospects, with polls now predicting it is likely to win about 21 seats, the same number of seats that Likud is expected to win. Livni, who as justice minister under Netanyahu branded herself as Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians and as a prominent advocate of a peace settlement, seeks to continue to pursue negotiations in the next government. Herzog too is bent on running an election campaign in which Labor will stress Netanyahu’s failure in the diplomatic front with the Palestinians, alongside his lack of tangible achievements on social and economic issues. Meretz, the traditional socialist left party, will likely maintain its 6 seats in the Knesset and would be a natural partner in any centre-left governing coalition. Labor and Hatnua can count on Meretz’s support in the formation of a coalition that could replace Netanyahu.
There are currently three Arab-Palestinian parties in the Knesset that represent divergent currents among the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up about 20 percent of the population. The socialist Hadash party is an Arab-Jewish coalition committed to social justice and a two-state solution, and currently holds 4 seats in the Knesset. Balad party, with 3 seats, is a Palestinian nationalist party, and Raam-Taal, or the United Arab List with 4 seats, is a partnership of the Islamic Movement in Israel and a secular democratic list. These parties face a mounting challenge due to a recent change in the Israeli Election Law that increased the minimum share of the vote a party must win in order to enter the Knesset from 2% to 3.25%. This means that some Arab parties, in particular Balad, are at risk of not passing the minimum percent requirement and of losing their place in the parliament. This challenge, however, may be a blessing in disguise. Polls show that if the Arab parties decide to unite for the upcoming election, more Palestinian citizens are likely to vote in the election (70% in comparison to the current 56% turnout rate among the Arab population in Israel) and that their joint list might win 11 seats,(9) making it a substantial presence and a potentially important coalition partner for a centre-left government. The Arab parties have not yet announced unification, as deep ideological and tactical disagreement exist among them. However, if they fail to unite some of them may lose their presence in the Knesset, which will lead to an even more meager representation for Palestinian citizens in Israeli politics.
The Ultra-Orthodox Parties
The two main ultra-Orthodox religious parties, Shas and Yahadut Hatora, are not inherently left or right leaning. Rather, their main concern is the continuation of the flow of budgets to their social, cultural, educational, and religious institutions that allow them to maintain their distinct pious lifestyle. For this purpose, they are willing to join any government coalition - whether it is a leftist or a rightist one - that will guarantee the flow of funds. The ultra-Orthodox parties, for example, sat in Yitzhak Rabin’s government in the 1990s, when it signed the Oslo Accord with the Palestinians. Recent polls show that Shas is expected to win 5-6 seats and Yhuadut Hatora 7-8 seats in the 2015 election. There is some indication that at least Shas may be more inclined to join a centre-left government coalition than sit in a new Netanyahu government. First, in 2013 Netanyahu chose to partner with the anti-religious Yesh Atid, which demanded that the ultra-Orthodox parties be excluded from the coalition. This left the ultra-Orthodox in the opposition in the last two years and caused some bitterness toward Netanyahu and some of his government’s policies promoted by Yesh Atid and the religious-nationalist Jewish Home. Second, Shas has recently split, with the more right wing elements within it under the leadership of the hawkish Eli Yishai deciding to form a new party (which polls predict is unlikely to win any seats in the Knesset). This has practically purged the party of its rightist tendencies. Its current head, Arye Deri, is considered more dovish in his political outlook toward the Palestinians. Moreover, in a recent press conference, his party was publicly endorsed by Adina Bar Shalom - daughter of Shas’ spiritual guide, the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef - who is known to have a pro-peace leftist approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and who is considered a highly progressive figure in the ultra-Orthodox community.
Possible Outcomes and Implications for the Peace Process
From the above analysis, it appears that parties that are staunchly on the right (Likud and Jewish Home) are posed to win roughly 40 seats, while parties on the left (Labor-Hatnua, Meretz, and the Arab parties) are posed to win roughly 40 seats. This leaves the various centrist (Yesh Atid, Kulanu, Kadima), undecided (Yisrael Beitenu), and ultra-Orthodox parties with the remaining 40 seats. Netanyahu is currently on bad terms with many of the unaffiliated parties, and the leaders of almost each of these have recently criticised his performance as prime minister. This state of affairs has given some hope to the Israeli left that the coming election could spell the end of Netanyahu’s long rule, and the formation of a left-leaning government that might be able to make progress on a settlement with the Palestinians. The left believes that such a settlement is in Israel’s best interest and that the current stagnation in negotiations, as well as the expansion of settlements and the government’s attempt to pass legislation that undermines Israel’s democracy, put Israel at grave risk of further political, diplomatic, and economic deterioration. The left’s hopes are not unfounded but it is premature to state that the 2015 election will bring about significant change. Netanyahu is a masterful coalition negotiator and this has allowed him to become the longest serving Israeli prime minister since David Ben Gurion. His strong desire to remain in power, as well as the ‘shiftiness’ of the parties in the so called “centre” of the political map, mean that he may be successful in forming another centre-right government. Such a coalition will doubtlessly continue his current government’s agenda of no progress on the peace front, expansion of settlements, rising economic inequalities, and Israel’s increased alienation of its allies – the US and the European Union – and the international community, more generally. A centre-right government under Netanyahu would have little incentive to resume peace talks with the Palestinians, and would force the PA to continue its unilateral move toward international recognition of a Palestinian state. On the other hand, a left-leaning government with Livni and Herzog at its head is likely to prioritise the resumption of the peace process, with a genuine willingness to reach a final agreement, rather than drag the talks endlessly with little result. Such a government would be expected to deliver on its promise of making progress on the peace-front, thus allowing the country to focus more effectively on domestic social and economic issues of concern for Israelis, which Netanyahu’s government has gravely neglected.
Copyright © 2015 Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, All rights reserved.
*Dr. Lihi Ben Shitrit is an expert on Middle East politics and an Assistant Professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia.
1) Right-left divisions in Israel indicate positions toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than economic positions. Parties that are termed left-wing are those that are favorable toward a peace agreement based on concessions of some territories to the Palestinians. Parties on the right hold a hawkish stance that objects to any territorial concessions.
3) For a compilation of recent polls see: http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/elections/1.2502322
7) Although recent allegations of corruption may lead the party to receive a much smaller number of seats in the coming election: http://www.timesofisrael.com/for-yisrael-beytenu-an-investigation-to-end-all-investigations/