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.
The centrist lists of Livni and Lapid would win 11 and 10 seats respectively, according to the poll.
Overall, the right wing and religious bloc would hold 68 seats in the Knesset, compared to 52 seats for the center, left, and Arab blocs.
Since in the Israeli system it is customary for the largest single list to be asked to form the government, the yawning gap between Likud-Beiteinu and its nearest rival is the key factor. The larger size of the overall right-wing bloc is also significant, since it will make it easier for Netanyahu to form a workable coalition.
But while the big picture is good from Netanyahu’s point of view, there are a number of more negative elements.
First, the general trend of support for his party is negative. The two parties which comprise Likud-Beiteinu (namely, the Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party) currently hold 42 seats between them. So their merger appears to be costing them support. More rightist voters are migrating to the Jewish Home party of Naftali Bennett, which is rising in the polls.
Second, this decline appears to be continuing, with Likud-Beiteinu down from scoring a potential 39 seats in earlier polls, to around 35 at the present time. This does not seriously threaten prospects of victory. But it is surely a matter of concern for the prime minister.
Third, the prime minister’s partner, former Foreign Minister and Yisrael-Beiteinu party leader Avigdor Lieberman, is currently embroiled in legal troubles. Lieberman resigned his position as foreign minister after the attorney-general’s office announced its intention of filing charges against him on counts of fraud and breach of trust.
Lieberman looks inclined to reject a plea bargain, since this could keep him out of politics if a clause of “moral turpitude” is inserted into the deal. If he insists on going to trial, this could mean he is embroiled in legal proceedings in the midst of the election campaign.
But while these matters are serious, the overall picture is positive from the prime minister’s point of view. Barring some unforeseen disaster, Netanyahu looks set for an easy reelection.
Clearly, Israel’s center-left lacks a leader of comparable stature to the prime minister. This camp remains distrusted by a broad section of the Israeli public because of the failed Oslo peace process experiment and the bloody period of Palestinian terrorism that followed it. This distrust explains Yachimovich’s strategy of trying to change the subject.
With the region in the midst of turmoil, it is not surprising that a critical mass of Israelis appear set to endorse the cautious, conservative, security-conscious orientation of Netanyahu. Unless and until the center-left can produce a leader able to give the impression that he or she can be trusted with the handling of Israel’s regional security imperatives, the current near-hegemonic position of Israel’s center-right looks likely to hold.