The no-alternative Israeli elections

The story of the upcoming Israeli elections, which will take place on Jan. 22, can be written in many different ways. 

One is with an eye to the small numbers, a story of preserving the political status quo: Back in 2009, the Kadima Party got 28 mandates. In 2013, if polls are to be trusted, most of those mandates will be divided among former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni’s new party, Hatnua (“The Movement”), and the new centrist Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”), with the rest going to Kadima (“Forward” — at this point, it isn’t clear whether Kadima will be totally eliminated or will somehow survive with very few mandates) and to the reinvigorated Labor Party. Some two to four mandates from former Kadima voters might return rightward to the Likud (“Consolidation”) Party. With such marginal change, it is no wonder that the bigger picture — the one of political blocs — looks the way it does. Call it Kadima, Hatnua, Yesh Atid or any other name — the center is the center. It likely will shrink a little, but not much, and still leaves Israel’s political landscape essentially unchanged.

The story can also be written with an eye to dirty politicking and disloyal party membership — and become the story, as I have dubbed it in previous columns, of the “election cycle of no shame.” Just consider this partial — yes, partial! — list of moves preceding the elections. In a stunning surprise, Kadima joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, then quickly left it; Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel Our Home”) — the No. 2 and 3 parties — merged; Habayit Hayehudi (“The Jewish Home”) and the National Union also merged on the right; Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid’s party), Hatnua and Am Shalem (“Whole Nation”), all new parties, were formed; seven Kadima members joined Livni, others (Tzachi Hanegbi and Avi Dichter) joined Likud; still others (Nachman Shai) joined Labor; Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich moved from Kadima to Likud to the Calcala (“Economics”) Party all within months; Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was thrown off the Israel Beiteinu list by party leader Avigdor Lieberman in a last-minute unexplained shocker; Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz left Labor to join Livni; Ehud Barak, the Labor leader, left the party to form the Independence Party, then decided to quit politics. In fact, all three previous leaders of Labor are no longer members of the party; Haim Amsalem quit Shas (an acronym for “Of the Torah”) to form a new party; former Gen. Elazar Stern flirted with Am Shalem, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi before landing in Livni’s lap; convicted felon Aryeh Deri threatened to form a new party, then rejoined Shas to become its No. 2 (but is actually de facto No. 1, so he says) — and the list goes on and on.

It can also be written with an eye to the Office of the Prime Minister — and become the story of no alternatives. Netanyahu has never been truly challenged in this election cycle. And to the extent he has been, it was either by candidates whom the public doesn’t consider fit for the top job, such as Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich — a woman who has never held an executive job, never managed an office (not even a small one), never participated in a government meeting, a woman who even most of her supporters admit isn’t yet ready to be prime minister (if she ever will be) — or improbable: Livni was once a serious candidate for prime minister, but her current claim to the job seems quite pathetic considering the number of mandates she’s likely to get — around 10. Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz, a man with the proper record — he has served as Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff, defense minister and a member of the cabinet — also was once considered a possible candidate for the office of prime minister, but to do this he’d need to be a Knesset member, and currently it is doubtful he can get Kadima the needed number of votes to pass this low threshold.

In truth, the best way to write the story of the 2013 election is with an eye to the public — a public that will go to the polls even when everyone knows that it is all much ado about nothing. Netanyahu will be prime minister again. He’ll have to establish a coalition and isn’t likely to abandon his “natural” allies on the right, nor the religious parties. Netanyahu needs his bloc, and would like to add Lapid’s or Livni’s parties or both to the coalition (Labor already announced its unwillingness to join a Netanyahu coalition, and Yacimovitz would need a very good excuse to be able to flip-flop on such a matter). The problem for Netanyahu, then, is obvious: Lapid and Livni both have party members who are very critical of the prime minister’s presumed foot-dragging on the peace process — but his allies on the right, especially the Zionist-religious Habayit Hayehudi are all about preventing Netanyahu from going in the direction of a peace process of the sort that we’ve seen in the past (the party supports annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank). So the likely conclusion would be one of two choices: Netanyahu will either be forced to head a right-religious coalition, which will make him very uneasy and is likely to result in a lot of international pressure and an early date for yet another round of elections. Or, alternatively,  Netanyahu will somehow find a way to broaden his coalition, but it will not be a stable political marriage of opposite worldviews, and, yes, it is likely to result in a lot of international pressure and an early date for yet another round of elections.

So, it is unlikely that the upcoming elections can result in a stable coalition, and what we’ve seen in recent months is the repositioning of leaders and parties that all are gearing toward the next round. And this is yet another story line through which to look at Israeli electioneering in the current slate. It is a story of resurrection for the two more rooted, more established and more ideological parties — the Labor Party on the left and the Zionist-religious Habayit Hayehudi, which is really the reincarnation of the old Mafdal (the National Religious Party, only much more radical on several key issues, as its supporters have moved to the right in recent decades). Currently, it seems almost certain that Labor will again become the second-largest party — just like the old days of the great rivalry between Likud and Labor (HaAvoda). And it is also likely — if not yet certain — that Habayit Hayehudi will become the third-largest party, surpassing the Sephardic-Charedi Shas Party and benefiting from the elimination of the Russian-secular Israel Beiteinu that merged with Likud.

The merger of Likud and Israel Beiteinu — really a decision to tie the knot by two leaders, Prime Minister Netanyahu and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — is gradually emerging as the watershed event of the 2013 election. Was it a success or a flop? As we were following the graphs of the rival political blocs (provided exclusively to the Jewish Journal by renowned Israel pollster professor Camil Fuchs), we’ve seen evidence of both failure and success — all depending upon one’s definition of the ultimate goal.