By Stephen Rutman
Israeli elections are set for March 17, 2015. Amidst all the speculation and debate, it can be tough to tell what is truly at stake. Here are some possible outcomes and consequences to keep an eye on as we draw closer to the elections.
1. The Hardline Right: The most widely expected outcome since the announcement of the early elections has been a more hardline right-wing government composed primarily of current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party. This possibility has people talking—some eagerly and some irately—because many anticipate this would end once and for all the pursuit of a two-state-solution with the Palestinians. Indeed, this is the position advocated by Naftali Bennett and the religious, Zionist, pro-settlement camp he represents. In reality, a government of this makeup is more likely to maintain the status quo than annex the West Bank on their first day in office.
2. The Over-Hyped Left: The alternative possibility has garnered a similar volume of discussion. The recent alliance formed between the Labor party, led by Isaac Herzog, and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua (The Movement) has generated a sense of unity among Israel’s center-left that has been lacking for the past several elections. Although this merged party is currently neck-and-neck with Likud in the polls, getting the electoral math to work in favor of a left-leaning coalition is much tougher than it is for a right-leaning one. Even if Labor manages to win, the change may not be as dramatic as many are imagining it might be. The Israeli leadership is hardly the only obstacle hindering peace negotiations.
3. From Fractured to Polarized: Throughout the first generation of Israeli politics, the parliamentary system was dominated by two sides: the left-wing party guided by David Ben-Gurion and the right-wing opposition led by Menachem Begin. These two factions fought head-to-head, with various smaller parties allowing them to form their coalitions. More recently, the political scene in Israel has grown increasingly splintered, with a greater number of small parties each representing its own interests. As the two general scenarios above demonstrate, it seems as though the pendulum may be swinging back towards the binary political model. In fact, Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that if reelected, he will propose a bill that would grant the party that receives the most votes the right to form the government alone—effectively formalizing the two-party model.
4. The Offshoots: Netanyahu’s plan for electoral reform is an unsurprising reaction to the infighting amongst his fellow right-wing politicians. Both Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu, were former colleagues of Netanyahu in Likud until each split to form their own parties. This year, one key wild card is another Likud offshoot called Kulanu, headed by Moshe Kahlon. This new party claims to stand for the economic and social policies that Likud once championed, but has allegedly abandoned. Whereas the main platforms of most right-wing parties today focus on security and foreign policy, Kahlon along with leaders of other small parties insist that Israeli voters are more concerned with lowering the high cost-of-living than they are with stale security questions. It is still unclear how such campaigns will fare in a time when global focus has momentarily returned to terrorism and Islamic extremism.
5. New Timeline: This round of campaigning has already exhibited the pliability of the Israeli political system. Traditionally, parties have campaigned individually and then after the elections they negotiate to form a coalition. This year, parties are increasingly attempting to bypass several steps in this process by negotiating and merging prior to the elections. Early coalition-building helps parties secure a greater share of the votes and forces the Israeli public to vote on pre-established coalitions, rather than a single party they trust to enter the government. Yet even in a system controlled by two main parties, smaller parties often have disproportionate power to leverage.
6. Return of the Religious: Another faction worth watching is the ultra-Orthodox or Hareidi parties. These small religious parties have historically aligned themselves with whichever political party is in power in order to protect their positions on select issues of particular importance to them, such as education or exemption from military conscription. These Hareidi parties were deliberately and conspicuously not included in the four-party deal that comprised the last legislative majority. Given the shifts on the Israeli political landscape, these parties may wield considerable power in the upcoming elections and may be able to reenter the majority.
7. Showing Up: The complexities of the Israeli legislative system notwithstanding, the voter turnout could prove significant in these elections. From the nation’s founding in 1948 through the 1990s well over 75 percent of eligible voters turned out for elections. More recently, however, the numbers have declined each election, to less than 64 percent in the most recent elections in 2013. Although this may be partially attributed to demographic shifts, an even lower voter turnout would be a disheartening statement about the fragility of Israel’s democracy.
8. Foreign Interest: As March 17 approaches, the coverage of the Israeli elections by American and European press will be worth noting. Even if it sometimes would prefer not to, Israel continually manages to appear in headlines across Europe and the United States. Between rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the sour relationship between President Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, the responses to Israeli campaigns and the election results may prove quite telling.
9. Preparing for 2016: On a related note, these Israeli elections come just 20 months before presidential elections in the United States. Although virtually no one in the U.S. votes solely on a candidate’s stance toward Israel, the way candidates talk about the Israeli government and the individuals that lead it can have broader consequences both for Israel as well as the United States.