Battle Lines Emerge in Israel's Election Campaign

With the date of the elections set for March 17th, the campaigning season has begun in Israel.

There was little public enthusiasm for the new polls.  It is only 20 months since the last time Israelis turned out to vote.  The 2015 contest will be the fifth general election in Israel since 2003.  This means the average life expectancy of an Israeli government is less than two and a half years.  It isn’t a recipe for political stability, or for the pursuing by governments of clear and consistent policy objectives.

The too-frequent polls are the product of the Israeli electoral system, which produces the need for complex and inevitably fragile governing coalitions.

Still, the present campaign is shaping up to be an interesting one.  For the first time since the collapse of the "peace process" into war in 2000, Israel’s center and left parties scent the chance of victory.

The optimism of the left derives from a shrewd move by Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog.  Previously regarded as the latest in a long line of no-hopers at the Labor helm, Herzog has united his Labor Party list with that of Tzipi Livni’s "Hatnua" party. Livni drove  a hard bargain.  If the united list forms the next government, the prime ministership will be shared -- two years for Herzog, two for Livni.

Current opinion polls have this list neck and neck with Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling center-right Likud.  A poll taken by the respected Geocartographia Institute on Sunday had the Likud on 27 seats, with Labor-Hatnua on 25.  The right-of-Likud Jewish Home list was third with 11 seats.

Previous polls had put Likud and Labor-Hatnua each on 21 seats, with Jewish Home close behind.

The lines of debate are also emerging as the campaign gets into gear.

All the signs are that this election will be fought largely over national and diplomatic issues, rather than bread-and-butter social questions.

Despite the urgency and importance of many social questions in Israel, this is natural and appropriate.

Because the ground around Israel is burning.  A sectarian war between Sunni and Shia Arabs is raging in the large land area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Iraq-Iran border.  To Israel’s south, an Islamic State-affiliated movement (Ansar Beit al-Maqdis)  is engaged in an insurgency against  the government of Egypt.  The Islamist Hamas movement remains firmly in control of Gaza, from where rockets continue to be launched against Israel.  The Islamic State has begun to make its ominous appearance in Gaza too.

Meanwhile, the government of Israel’s main ally appears to be oblivious to the danger posed by the onward nuclear march of Iran.

On the diplomatic front, the Ramallah Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas abandoned negotiations in April, and is now embarked on a path of seeking to build a campaign of international pressure on Israel, in order to force it into a retreat on the West Bank and in Jerusalem, in return for nothing.  The resolution presented by Jordan to the UN Security Council on behalf of the PA exemplifies this stance.

The PA’s campaign has been encouraged from the growing hostility to Israel in some western European countries, particularly emerging from the growing political strength of Muslim communities in those countries and in turn from the sympathy for political Islam among those communities.  It is possible that societal exhaustion and strong native traditions of anti-Semitism are also playing a role in this emergent stance.