With less than a month to go before the January 22 Israeli elections, both the center-right and center-left camps are experiencing difficulties. The likely outcome, nevertheless, remains fairly clear. All polls suggest a clear lead for the Likud-Beiteinu party, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
This is one of the strangest campaigns in recent memory. For the first time since the 1970s, an Israeli election is being fought in which all sides acknowledge the near-certainty of victory for a particular party.
What are the factors that led to this unusual situation in which a single bloc now has no serious rivals?
On an immediate level, this situation can be traced to the egotism of the leaders of Israel’s centrist and center-left parties. While the center-right is presenting a single unified front in the elections, there are no less than three viable and rival lists competing for those who want to support the center-left camp. The three lists are the Labor Party, led by Shelly Yachimovich; Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid; and HaTnua, led by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. (Kadima, the largest party after the last elections, is also standing but is expected to win no seats this time around.)
These three lists have failed to unite mainly because of their three leaders’ inability to agree as to which would head the unified list. In the case of Lapid and Livni (who are both “centrist” rather than leftist politicians), the differences genuinely seem to have been devoid of any policy issue whatsoever but merely ego.
In the more interesting case of Yachimovich’s Labor Party, there are other factors at work. Yachimovich has chosen to run a campaign which seems to accept in advance that Likud-Beiteinu will finish the elections for the Knesset in first place and therefore form the next government.
Labor’s strategy is to avoid a frontal challenge to the right on the key questions that decide Israeli elections: national security and policy toward the long Arab siege on Israel.
Instead, Yachimovich prefers to avoid all discussion of such issues and to focus on a populist campaign which seeks to depict Netanyahu as the champion of wealthy Israelis, and her own party as defending the interests of middle class people and of the country’s poorer strata.
No one believes that such a strategy can deliver the government of Israel to Labor. Labor has accepted that it cannot currently compete with the right on the central issues of concern. It is therefore seeking to pick up the support of those niche voters primarily concerned about income inequality. This, in itself, is an acknowledgement of failure.
According to the latest available poll, by the respected Dahaf agency for Israel Channel 2 news, Likud-Beiteinu currently stands to win 35 seats in the 120-member Knesset. The next largest party would be Labor, with 19 seats. The hard-right Jewish Home party would win 12 mandates, followed by the Sephardi Ultra-Orthodox Shas, with 11.