AJC Briefing: Looking Toward Israeli Elections 2013

Ed Rettig, Director, AJC Israel Office

On January 22, Israel will elect a new parliament. Here is a moment to savor: In a region that struggles to put together the building blocks of representative government, Israel continues its uninterrupted history of parliamentary democracy by choosing its 19th Knesset. The first convened on the 14th of February 1949, during the War of Independence. Very few nation-states created after WWII can claim such a record of national democracy, a fact that anyone seeking to understand Israel must take into consideration.

USA and Israel: Democracies with Different Electoral Systems
The governmental system and hence the election procedures are very different in Israel and the U.S. All Israelis above the age of 18 vote to elect 120 members to a unicameral Knesset.  Each party submits a list of candidates, and voters select a party, not individual candidates. Parties attain seats in proportion to their share of the vote, and those seats are filled in the order they appear on the party list. There is a minimum threshold a party must reach to attain Knesset representation, 2 percent of the vote, or just over two seats. In practice, since the system encourages multiple small parties, none has ever gained a majority in the Knesset.

Therefore Israel has been governed by coalitions, a situation that gives the smaller coalition partners disproportionate political strength. They can leverage their votes far beyond their numbers, particularly when the large blocs of left and right are roughly balanced. Another consequence is that the need to satisfy minor parties results in large, unwieldy governments. The coalition established in 2009 yielded 30 ministers and 9 deputy ministers in a country of about 8 million citizens. Switzerland, with a similar population, has 7 ministers. The Israeli system creates problems for the work of the Knesset, since about a third of its members fill some sort of ministerial function.

Yet despite these problems, it is hard to argue with the overall success of the Israeli system. Yes, coalition politics tend to be messy, full of coarse give and take, but like bad-tasting medicines they can bring results. Over the long term, the necessity to reconcile multiple parties in coalitions has helped cement Israel’s fractious society, with its famously passionate culture of debate and harsh political disagreement. Rising social forces, often the product of radically shifting demographics shaped by waves of immigration and different birth rates, have challenged the system over the years. Nevertheless, ultra-Orthodox Jews, Jews from Arab countries, and former Soviet Jews have been integrated into parliamentary democracy with considerable success. The system most notably lags in the integration of Israeli Arabs into governing coalitions.

In America, there are regularly scheduled elections. While Israeli law also prescribes Knesset elections every four years, they generally occur before, when the prime minister calls for a new election or when governments fall. Israeli governments last on average between three and three–and-a-half years. The current government’s four-year term, had Mr. Netanyahu not called for early elections in January, would have served until October 2013.

An Unlikely Merger
In preparation for the elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Liberman shocked Israelis by announcing that their parties, Likud and Yisrael Beitenu, would select their party lists separately, but combine on a joint list. The move was surprising for a number of reasons.

Perhaps most surprising was that there were no media leaks. In the porous Israeli political system, this was unusual and a major accomplishment for both party leaders. But the move is not problem-free, as the two parties are not fully aligned ideologically. Liberman's reputation as a hardliner and his brusque personal style hide one of the more subtle minds in Israeli politics. While many observers place him firmly on the right, he and his party are hard to classify. While he is certainly not a Peace Now leftist, neither is he a classic Land-of-Israel right-wing Likudnik. Not only does Yisrael Beitenu support the two-state solution, but it even stands far outside the Israeli consensus in suggesting land exchanges with Palestine that would include Israeli Arab towns with their populations of Israeli citizens becoming part of a Palestinian state in return for Israeli settlements on the West Bank. A major deficit from which Yisrael Beitenu suffers is a lack of insight into American Jewry. While the issue is unlikely to impact the upcoming elections, the 2010 Rotem Bill, proposed by a member of Liberman’s party but never enacted, was widely viewed as negating the validity of most Diaspora conversions.

Then there is the challenge of the Haredi community. Many of Yisrael Beitenu's supporters come from the former Soviet Union. They are overwhelmingly secular, and many have problems proving their Jewish identity to the satisfaction of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and thus have trouble finding a way to get married. For obvious reasons, they have little patience for the sensitivities of the Haredi parties. Thus the shared Likud-Yisrael Beitenu list (called Likud Beitenu) seemingly imbeds the anti-Haredi agenda of Israel Beitenu into the heart of Likud. This may be something Netanyahu comes to regret, since beginning with Menachem Begin’s coalition in 1977, a nationalist/Haredi alliance stood at the heart of Likud-led coalitions. While Mr. Liberman did serve in the current coalition with Haredim, it was a bumpy ride. It is not clear what effect his new leadership role in the joint party structure will have on the chances for a Likud-Haredi coalition in the next Knesset.

Two Clarifying Primaries
The primaries recently held in Likud and Labor added an element of clarity to the political landscape. Key figures from the pro-settler right took high places In the Likud primaries, as representatives of the more liberal wing, particularly current ministers Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Michael Eitan, failed to gain enough support to serve in the next Knesset. After the results were announced, Netanyahu declared his intention to ask Begin to serve in a next Netanyahu government without being a Knesset member, but observers suggest that Meridor and Eitan have probably ended their political careers. The rightward shift of the Likud list has created speculation that the party may attract voters from small parties further to the right, while costing it centrist votes. Netanyahu, in fact, faces an unexpected and ironic dilemma. The policies he enunciated on the key issue of relations with the Palestinians, as expressed in the Bar Ilan speech of 2009, included support for the two-state solution. He then carried out a ten-month building freeze in the territories. These positions would now place him to the left of the new Likud parliamentary faction. Indeed, Israeli journalists pointed to the unexpected anomaly that Yisrael Beitenu and Mr. Liberman could well exercise a moderating influence on Likud, and not the other way around.

The Labor Party held its primary a few days later. One result was the apparent elevation of social and economic issues to the forefront. This explains why the top of the Knesset list is relatively light on the retired military commanders and prominent "Oslonauts" who dominated it in past years, and heavy on activists for social welfare and economic fairness. The “peace and security” wing of Labor has been considerably weakened. First, Ehud Barak as party chief participated in the Netanyahu government, then split from Labor, and agreed with Netanyahu’s economic policies. This weakened the security wing of Labor, even those elements of it that did not follow Barak out of the party. Also, there is a belief shared across most of the political spectrum that, having walked away from Camp David, Taba and the Olmert plan, the current Palestinian leadership cannot sign on to any peace agreement that will offer safety to Israel. In the wake of the Gaza conflict and the Palestinian UN General Assembly initiative, Israel’s left feels deprived of what was, for two decades, its central election plank. It will therefore focus on socio-economic justice, not the peace process.

The Center Takes Shape
The collapse of Kadima opened the center of the Israeli political spectrum. While some former Kadima voters seem to be returning to Labor, others are on the lookout for political options that are not excessive in their nationalism and espouse moderate social policies. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party seeks to revive the militantly secular, politically and economically liberal approach of his father's Shinui party. Former Foreign Minister and head of the Opposition Tzippi Livni has created a new party called “Hatnua” or “The Movement,” which has gained the support of about a half dozen Kadima MKs and recently signed two former Labor Party heads, Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz, for high spots on its Knesset list. While Peretz was widely considered a failure as Minister of Defense during the Second Lebanon War, the effectiveness of the Iron Dome missile defense system, which he originally promoted, in the recent fighting with Hamas has bolstered his reputation.

The plague of the center parties has always been their reluctance to combine forces, often due to the egos of their leaders. Based on their similar policies, it is unclear today why Lapid and Livni are running in separate party lists. Perhaps the old plague continues.

A Debate Shifting From the Peace Process to the Economy
The Opposition senses that Likud is most vulnerable on its socio-economic performance. This may seem surprising, since the Netanyahu government is internationally credited with weathering the global economic crisis better than most. Even so, its policies have polarized the population economically and have encouraged the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small class of so-called “tycoons.” Add to that the fact that last year’s summer of protest—dubbed “the cottage cheese rebellion” since it started with widespread opposition to price rises in that humble common breakfast food—is widely understood as signaling popular anger at the lack of a truly competitive market for many consumer goods. There is no denying the impact of news reports that regularly show Israeli products for sale overseas at prices lower than in Israel. Likud is vulnerable on this since its standard bearer on socio-economic issues, current Minister of Welfare and Communications Moshe Cahlon, has openly clashed with Netanyahu, and recently announced he is taking a two-year hiatus from political activity.

The Iranian threat, which tops security concerns in this election, does not figure much in the campaign since the political parties do not differ over it. While there were public disputes between retired senior security people and the Netanyahu/Barak team over Israel’s repeated indications that it would attack Iran before the U.S. elections that moment has passed. No serious security analyst today questions the importance of the Iranian threat, and even Netanyahu’s opponents concede that his vociferous public campaign against the Iranian nuclear program helped make it the urgent issue it is now on the world scene, after decades of international inactivity. Whoever leads the next coalition will have behind him a broad public consensus on this urgent priority.

Some observers had thought that the well-publicized tensions between Netanyahu and Obama could make a supposed decline in relations with the United States into an election issue. However, the president’s performance in the third Obama-Romney debate, the administration’s solid support for Israel during Operation Pillar of Defense, and its strong opposition to the General Assembly resolution granting the PA nonmember observer status did much to reassure the Israeli public that the U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong. As I write, it is unclear whether the Israeli government’s recent announcement that 3,000 apartments will be constructed in the area known as E1 will change the situation.

In a Nutshell
The Likud primaries and the merged list with Israel Beitenu moved it to the right. The Labor primaries strengthened its position as a social democratic party. The center remains divided. The national-religious, Haredi and Arab parties remain focused on the constituencies that they have historically represented. Most observers believe that the next coalition will look much the current one, but without the moderating influence of Barak, Meridor, Begin and other centrists. But the elections are two months away. In Israeli politics two months is a very long time, and almost anything can happen.


Date: 12/7/2012 12:00:00 AM
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