With the Flotilla incident, the continued Iranian threats and operation Pillar of Defense, and the Palestinians gaining their long-awaited U.N recognition- Israel’s external relations have faced a difficult road since the onset of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s second term in office. Undoubtedly, the outcome of the upcoming election set for January 22nd will have long-term implications for the Jewish state.
European support for Israel continues to wane in the wake of the Palestinian UN bid, with key historic allies like France voting in favour, and formally shoe-in states such as Germany and the UK abstaining. Israel’s relations with the U.S- its largest aid supplier and closest ally- have not been as comfortable as they were in the past. Highly publicized disputes erupted between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations over settlement expansion and Iran’s relentless effort towards nuclear proliferation.
Despite the clear tension between Israel and the U.S., and weakening European approval, Bibi’s support at home has remained consistent throughout his tenure. The Israeli public perceives international condemnations as part of the familiar theme of “the whole world against us,” instead of it seeing it as a result of Likud policies. Similarly, U.S reluctance towards absolutely ensuring a ‘red-line’ with regards to Iran’s nuclear development, and the IDF’s effective actions in Gaza in quelling Hamas rockets with Iron Dome, have helped Bibi create a ‘rally ‘round the flag’ effect with the Israeli populace.
Unsurprisingly, a recent Haaretz poll predicts a clear Likud-Beitenu (merger with Yisrael Beitenu) advantage with an expected 32 seats, whereas the second most-popular centre-left Labor party is expected to garner only 17 seats at best. Polls conducted earlier in the Israeli election season show similar results, ever since the amalgamation of Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beitenu with Likud.
Notwithstanding Bibi’s evident lead in the polls, the Prime Minister still faces the risk of hemorrhaging key secular and religious Zionist constituents to right-wing challengers. Domestic concerns, including items such as Tal Law, socioeconomic issues, and the role of women in Israeli society, have garnered substantial criticism against Netanyahu from both sides of the political spectrum, inadvertently causing the rise of new programmatic parties devoted to their constituents’ demographic niches – whether settler, religious, secular or haredi.
The recent rise of the religious Zionist party Habiyat Hayehudi (The Jewish Home), led by the Naftali Bennett, serves as a testament to Israel’s fragmented political system. The smooth talking software tycoon appeals to both young Israelis by touting his service in the commandos, and secular businessmen after calling for the dismantlement of big unions.
The potential for challenges to Bibi’s dominance from the Left remains doubtful though. This is largely due to the fragmentation of the centre-left due to too many parties with similar ideologies such as Labor, Hatnuah (Tzipi Livni’s new party), Meretz and Yesh Atid all gaining marginal support from the Israeli populace, but not nearly enough to threaten Netanyahu’s lead in the polls.
Centre-left fears towards contesting Likud-Beitenu on security issues— a historical driving force for voter turnout in Israel— have been evident. Labor and Yesh Atid choose instead to focus, respectively, on socioeconomic issues, or on the influence of ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society. Arab parties, commonly seen as a wildcard in Israeli politics, has the potential to disrupt Bibi’s coalition with right-wing parties. Again, this will depend on the voter turnout of Arab Israelis, historically lower in national elections.
What will Israel’s Knesset look like after January 22nd? The answer will depends on the party Likud-Beitenu will decide to form a coalition government with.
The future of Israeli government policy on issues ranging from the peace process to the influence of religious state institutions will undoubtedly be affected by coalition partners. A coalition dominated by centre-right and religious parties will yield more hawkish and a less conciliatory approach to the Palestinians or Iran; whereas a centre-left and centrist coalition with Likud-Beitenu may alienate key supporters from the former USSR, religious Zionists and Likud’s historical Revisionist proponents, but will likely ease U.S or EU concerns about alleged Israeli “foot-dragging” on settlements beyond the large settlement blocs near the Green Line.
In essence, the results of Israel’s elections will not be as paramount as the coalition formation and deal-making expected to follow the election. Bibi’s decision on how to place the puzzle pieces in the 19th Knesset will be of ultimate importance.
– Cody Levine
(Featured photo: Downing Street. Creative Commons, Flickr)