Just before Israelis embark on almost a month of Jewish High Holidays, traditionally a time of repentance and asking for forgiveness – something not often associated with the country’s politicians – they will go to the polls to choose the 22nd Knesset. It is the second time this year that Israel has held elections, after voting last April failed to produce a government. Once again, all indications are that the results will not be decisive.
Israeli politics is notorious for its fragmentation but back in April, for the first time in the country’s 71-year history, the person asked to form a coalition government – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – failed to do so.
Netanyahu courts the far right in run-up to September 17 elections
The elections in Israel are as much a numbers game between what can loosely be regarded as the right and left blocs as they are about the performance of the individual parties. In recent decades three major developments have dominated society: first, the electorate has become more hawkish when it comes to international affairs; second, the country has moved away from semi-socialist structures to a more free-market economy; and third, with the fastest growing constituencies being the Jewish ultra-Orthodox and the Palestinian-Israelis, religion has played a growing role in national politics.
For the last decade Netanyahu has successfully captured this zeitgeist to form consecutive governments since 2009. Including his failed first term back in the 1990s, he is Israel’s longest serving prime minister. As an advocate for aggressive, free-market reforms, Netanyahu has dismantled his country’s semi-socialist foundations, a process which started before he came to power, and with much more zeal. While the economy can boast a GDP per capita of over $40,000 today, the level of poverty is the highest among OECD countries, and the distribution of wealth, as measured by the Gini coefficient, is one of the worst.
Considering the ever-growing gap between rich and poor, it is rather astonishing that economic issues, and especially inequalities in society, are barely debated by the parties and have little influence on election results. The campaign for the forthcoming election – which no one expected to have – has, like the one before it, been devoid of meaningful discussion on the main issues of concern to ordinary citizens, focusing instead on fearmongering, mutual vilification and courting the more extreme elements of the electorate. It feeds into the underlying working assumption that the centre ground is unmovable in its voting patterns, and breaking the stalemate requires appealing to extremists.
PM’s narrow advantage weakened by looming indictment and manoeuvres by political rival
As in past elections, it has been Netanyahu who has set the agenda and the tone, but his campaign smacks of desperation in both style and content. While his Likud Party did better than expected in April, winning 35 seats, Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) gained exactly the same number. Despite being an ideologically incoherent mishmash of ideas and candidates, the newly formed centrist and liberal political alliance has united behind a desire to rid the country of Netanyahu’s premiership, leaving the task of establishing a more coherent set of policies until after this mission is accomplished.
For Netanyahu these elections are a must win, not only to save his political career but to save himself from facing court cases and possible conviction on a litany of corruption charges that the state’s attorney general has already decided to indict him for, pending a hearing at the beginning of October. It is very likely that, regardless of the election results, Netanyahu will find himself under mounting pressure to resign if he is indicted, though he will not have to do so by law until, and if, he is convicted.
The combination of being too long in power and accumulating numerous political enemies may play a significant role in his downfall.
The volatility of the situation with the Palestinians and Hezbollah has undercut Netanyahu’s “Mr Security” persona, while the widely publicised corruption allegations facing the prime minister and his wife, and his track record of caving into the demands of religious parties on unpopular bills, has made him more vulnerable to a political challenge.
But it was the actions of his former political ally Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing party Yisrael Beiteinu, which played a decisive role in Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition earlier this year and will shape the upcoming elections. Lieberman belongs to the same school of political opportunism as Netanyahu himself, and has spotted that the time is ripe to weaken the prime minister and reinvent himself as champion of the secular-liberal cause. If the opinion polls are accurate, Lieberman’s party could double its seats in the Knesset, making him the kingmaker, pushing for a Likud-Kahol Lavan coalition in which his party plays a central role way beyond its electoral power and without the religious parties.
More significantly, the realisation of this scenario could end Netanyahu’s political life, because Kahol Lavan insists it won’t sit in a government that includes Netanyahu as long as he is under indictment.
New government will face big challenges both abroad and at home
In Israeli elections the margins are minuscule, and in this election probably more so than ever before. The formation and nature of the next government will also be influenced by turnout, which makes a party’s organisation as important as its manifesto.
Whatever the outcome, and assuming there is not a third election this year, the challenges facing the next government will be major and include dealing with relations with the Palestinians; Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah; and the deep rifts at home. To do all of this, Israel needs to start looking to the post-Netanyahu era.
Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and the faculty lead on outreach projects at Regent’s University, London, and a senior consulting research fellow with Chatham House’s MENA programme. His interests include politics of the Middle East, Israeli politics, the Middle East peace process, international relations theory and US foreign policy towards the region. Yossi is a consultant at Castlereagh Associates.