Israel elections 'unlikely to change much'

Israel elections 'unlikely to change much'
Analysis: Israel's general election is likely to be close. But whatever the outcome, nothing is likely to change.
5 min read
17 March, 2015
Benyamin Netanyahu is likely to remain prime minister of Israel [AFP]
Israeli voters will not have changed history at the polls on 17 March.

They won't even change Israel's political direction for the next four years - assuming the next government manages to serve out its term in full.

Nor will the votes cast by 5.8 million Israelis for the next Knesset be decisive in determining who becomes prime minister. Indeed, the general election will once again produce a complex balance of power among Israeli parties, and between the Zionist right and left, with a narrow margin for the Joint List mainly representing the Palestinian communities.

The most striking thing about the elections this year is the absence of a defining issue or theme for the vote.

The incumbent, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has turned the elections into a referendum on his own tenure, a vote of confidence of sorts, demanding voters support Likud if they want to keep a national unity government that may maintain Israel's security and prevent concessions either to the Palestinians or Iran on the nuclear issue.

Given the personal focus on Netanyahu and his wife, the Zionist Union list, led by Yitzhak Herzog, has been unable to make socio-economic issues, the dominant theme - despite repeated attempts.

Herzog has failed to present himself ahead of the other parties, including Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu and Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid, as the best solution to Israel's many problems.

Opinion polls give Zionist Union the highest number of projected seats (25, compared to 21 for Likud), but they put Netanyahu in the lead when it comes to "the person most qualified to lead Israel's government" (around 50 percent for Netanyahu, 35 percent for Herzog). This inconsistency reflects a contradiction in Israeli society and its tribal/sectarian voting patterns. Many respondents who think Netanyahu is the best choice for prime minister won't necessarily vote for Likud.

Fragmented electorate

The electorate, of course, represents the fragmentation of Israeli Jews into a complex pattern of overlapping religious, ethnic and socio-economic groups.

For example, their religious affiliation is the main criterion for a majority of ultra-orthodox Mizrahi Jewish voters of Middle Eastern origin.

Their votes traditionally go to Shas, with competition now from the far-right breakaway group Yachad, led by Eli Yashai. Non-religious Mizrahis, however, are most likely, according to the polls, to vote for the centre-right Kulanu.
     The electorate represents the fragmentation of Israeli Jews into a complex pattern of overlapping religious, ethnic and socio-economic groups.

A majority of Ashkenazi Jews, meanwhile, especially those under about 45, are likely to to vote for Lapid's party, read the polls. The party portrays itself as "protecting the secular middle class". It is opposed to concessions to either the ultra-orthodox or the Palestinians.

The Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox communities will most likely vote for United Torah Judaism. The religious Zionists will back the Jewish Home Party of Naftali Bennett. Formerly the National Religious Party, this group has become identified with the settler movement.

The Israeli left seems to have little part to play in all this. It is weak and divided and unlikely to do well at the polls. Apart from the centre-left Zionist Union, the result of an alliance between Labour and the centrist Hatnuah of Tzipi Livni, most of the left-leaning Zionists will vote for Meretz, an alliance of small left-wing Zionist groups founded by the late Shulamit Aloni in 1992.

The remaining segment of the Israeli electorate is that made up by the Palestinian communities.

Under pressure from a law passed last march that raised the electoral threshold to 3.25 percent of the vote, the main Arab parties have come together to form the Joint List, comprising the National Democratic Assembly (Balad), the southern branch of the Islamic Movement, Ra'ad/Ta'al and the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash), which includes the non-Zionist Israeli Communist Party.

A tight race

If opinion polls are correct, it will be a tight race. The two most likely outcomes predicted are a far-right government led by Netanyahu or a national unity government whose leadership would be alternated between Netanyahu and Herzog.
     Concerning Gaza, both sides are in agreement over military action against Hamas under numerous pretexts.



With regards to the peace process, Netanyahu has stressed over the past few days that he will not offer any "new concessions".

For his part, Herzog insists on having a united Jerusalem under Israeli control and retention of the main settlements in the West Bank. The most that can be expected from the next Israeli government, especially if it is one of national unity, is some limited movement to break the impasse, yet without the intention to reach a lasting settlement with the Palestinians.

Concerning Gaza, both sides are in agreement over military action against Hamas under numerous pretexts. According to intelligence officials, a new war is possible in Gaza after the election in the summer. In this regard, Herzog has adopted a tougher discourse than Netanyahu, accusing the prime minister of failing to subdue Hamas.

The two men have similar positions on Syria and Lebanon as well, although Herzog's brother had been delegated by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak - with Netanyahu's consent - to work on negotiations with Syria between 2009 and 2011. The Syrian uprising put an end to those efforts, which also sought to prepare for peace talks between Israel and Lebanon.

Concerning internal socio-economic issues, it is difficult to speculate on the direction of the future government before the features of the internal balance of power become clear. In a coalition, much will depend on who controls a given ministry.

It is worth noting that the elections were brought forward and the government dissolved when relations soured between Netanyahu and his partners in the previous government, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.