By Yossi Lempkowicz
In one month Israelis go to the polls to elect the 20th Knesset : Bibi or Buji as next Prime Minister ? Parties beyond Likud and Zionist Camp likely to be ‘kingmakers’
In nearly one month Israel returns to the polls only two years after the latest general election.
The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu collapsed last December after serious disagreements between parties in the governing coalition, particularly over the budget and the “Jewish state” proposal. Frustrated by the disagreements, Netanyahu fired two of his ministers, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid from their cabinet portfolios. Days later, the Knesset, Israel’s 120-member parliament, was dissolved and an election date was set.
Netanyahu made clear that he was returning to the voters to secure a stronger personal mandate and a more manageable coalition. He contrasted the relative stability of his previous 2009-2013 government with the second fractious coalition which he found much harder to manage. He even accused his coalition partners of an attempted ‘putsch’ to unseat him by forming an alternative coalition – an accusation they rejected– and called on voters to back his Likud party to bring stability to the government.
According to observers of the Israeli political scene, the 17 March general elections are alike a referendum with one question to Israeli voters: Do you want more Netanyahu or not ?
Polls: Likud and Zionist Camp neck and neck
Latest polls published at the end of last week show Netanyahu’s Likud party and the ‘Zionist camp’ of opposition leader Isaac Herzog neck and neck. The Zionist camp was formed following an electoral pact between Herzog’s centre-left Labor party and Hatnuah, a centre party led by former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.
A poll published by Maariv at the end of this week showed the conservative Likud receiving 24 seats and the Zionist camp 23, while another poll published by business daily Globes showed the two tied at 24 seats. A survey by the news site Walla on Friday gave Likud a 25-23 lead.
Polls also show that the HaBayit HaYeudi (Jewish Home) nationalist party of former Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and the Joint Arab List are vying to become the third-largest party in the Knesset. Yesh Atid, the centrist party of former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, which won 19 seats in 2013, would lose at least 7 seats according to polls.
“If Isaac Herzog (known as Buji) wins the upcoming elections, it will be becaue voters have become disenchanted by Benjamin Netanyahu rather than been won over the Zionist Camp leader,” a survey by the Times of Israel showed.
Despite weakening approval ratings, Benjamin Netanyahu, also known as Bibi, remains the favorite to become Prime Minister for the fourth time as surveys show him on an easier path than Herzog to forming a majority coalition in the 120-member coalition.
No party able to garner 61-seat majority
Due to the strict direct proportional electoral system of Israel’s parliamentary democracy, a great number of lists (12 in the former Knesset) are represented in the parliament, making it difficult, in fact quasi impossible, for one party to garner a majority of 61 seats in the assembly.
But this time the threshold for a party to enter the Knesset has been raised from 2 to 3.25 per cent. In practice this means a party must have at least four seats to enter the Knesset.
Israelis don’t get to vote for Prime Minister directly but they vote for parties and the party which wins the largest number of seats is generally asked by the President of the State – currently Reuven Rivlin- to try to form a coalition government. Based on current polls, an even the two top parties are very close, Netanyahu is likely to hope to base a coalition after the election on an alliance with Naftali Bennett’ Jewish Home party, which the polls predict will expand to between 15-18 seats, and former Foreign Minister’s Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party.
Such an axis would be a basis on which to then make up a majority with a range of smaller factions from other areas of the political spectrum, including the ultra-Orthodox parties, Moshe Kahlon’s newly formed Itanu centre-right social issues party, or even Labour. But Netanyahu has already rejected the idea of a unity government with the Zionist camp while Herzog said he would reach out to all the Zionist political parties if President asked him to form the next government, including to Likud.
One-four of Israelis undecided
Above that, one-fourth of all Israelis remain undecided about their vote and they are in large part centrist voters who are said to be edging in the direction of Herzog. While Netanyahu has based his campaign on his personal leadership competence and the security issues (Iran, terror…) being vital for the stability of the country, Herzog put the onus on the economy, housing problems and the cost of living.
A Palestinian knife rampage in Tel Aviv in January and the recent heightened tension with Hezbollah at the northern border have helped sideline for some time economic discussion.
“You may want cheaper cottage cheese or to buy an apartment, but if you are worried about your life, what’s the point?,” commented Yehuda Ben-Meir, a public opinion expert at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University.
Netanyahu’s rival Herzog, who held welfare, housing and tourism portfolios in former coalitions, has no experience making national-security policy or the military résumé that propelled former Labor candidates (such as Ehud Barak) to victory in the past.
According to Jonathan Rhynhold, political science professor at Bar Ilan University, Netanyahu’s last six years as Prime Minister have left him appearing to be the “safest pair of hands. Israelis don’t necessary love him but there is no Ehud Barak or Yitzhak Rabin candidate. There’s nobody on the left who can say ‘you can trust me’.”
However, Netanyahu’s wager is no sure thing and there are many sources of uncertainty. Election results in Israel frequently defy the pollsters’ predictions, with many voters undecided up until the last minute.
Fatigue among electorate over Netanyahu ?
Currently polls show that Netanyahu is still the candidate considered by far the most appropriate to be Prime Minister. But after nearly six years in office, and 20 years in the front rank of Israeli politics, there is fatigue among the electorate, and the voters may blame Netanyahu for dragging the country into a premature election.
In 2013, center-left factions were unable to unite around a single candidate to rival Netanyahu, but the possibility remains that they could do so this time.
The promise of more peace negotiations (with no guarantee of success) is not an election winning pitch in Israel. That’s why Herzog and Livni are framing this election as a fight over the future of the State of Israel, and themselves as heirs to the liberal and democratic traditions of the Zionist founders.
The Central Election Committee, which is head by an Arab Israeli, Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, last week barred two extremist Jewish and Arab candidates, Baruch Marzel and Haneen Zoabi.
Marzel was accused of being a former activist in the far-right Kach movement, which was banned as a racist organization in the 1980s, of rejecting Israel’s democratic nature and of incitement to racism.
Zoabi was accused of incitement to violence, support for terrorism and for rejecting Israel as Jewish democratic state.
The Supreme Court has till to confirm the Central Election Committee’s decision as the two candidates appealed to the highest Court.