Bibi in Poll Position

Bibi in Poll Position
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Israel’s electoral drama centres on the also-rans

Amotz Asa-El

Israel has, in its 65 years, seen some major electoral upsets, most memorably Benjamin Netanyahu’s defeat of Shimon Peres in 1996, and Menachem Begin’s rise to power in 1977.

No one is expecting a comparable upset in the general election scheduled for Jan. 22. As things currently appear, the main struggles are within the centre-left, while the premiership itself is almost universally predicted to be retained handily by Netanyahu. Unless something drastic happens and current polls prove obsolete, Netanyahu will be re-elected with something close to twice as many votes as Labor and its leader, Shelly Yachimovich.

Netanyahu’s merger of his ruling Likud Party with newly resigned Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel Our Home”) may or may not generate as many votes as the sum of its parts. Regardless, however, the new political creature, Likud Beitenu, will likely emerge from this election as the political system’s centre of gravity, with up to a third of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

The Netanyahu-Lieberman ticket is poised to attract much of the conservative electorate, ranging from traditional wage earners and small-business owners to the sizeable, Russian-speaking sector. This assessment remained unchanged among pundits and pollsters even after Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein’s decision Dec. 13 to indict Lieberman for breach of trust and fraud.

The indictment, for alleged unlawful obtaining of information about a police investigation concerning Lieberman, and for allegedly promoting a diplomat who passed the information, is the anti-climax of a 12-year investigation whose main suspicion, large-scale money laundering through straw companies, could not be substantiated and has therefore now been officially dropped.

Lieberman has consequently resigned as foreign minister in the hope that he will get a quick trial, or a plea bargain, that will leave him eligible for a senior position in the next cabinet. He remains the no. 2 candidate on Netanyahu’s list of Knesset candidates.

As the shrunken allegations are relatively minor, involving nothing like embezzlement, bribery or money laundering, and since Lieberman has resigned his cabinet post and also made no use of his lawmaker’s immunity, the common impression is that this is not the kind of scandal that would move a sizeable amount of voters from right to left.

In addition to facing no partisan rival, four religious parties that are Netanyahu’s potential coalition partners are expected to help him accumulate 65 seats in the legislature. In addition, at least one centrist faction, liberal journalist Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party (meaning “There Is a Future”) may also join the coalition and expand its parliamentary base to more than 70 seats, or 60% of the legislature.

While January’s election seems to be characterised by unusual certainty as to the overall winner, on the centre-left there have been some surprises, and there may well be some more.

As things currently stand, it seems that Labor’s strategy of shifting its programmatic and rhetorical emphasis from issues of war and peace to social and economic issues will likely restore its historic position as one of Israel’s two major parties.

Labor’s strategy, which reflects a resignation to mainstream Israelis’ loss of faith in the Oslo process, has come under attack from former party chairman and Defence Minister Amir Peretz, who lost the party’s leadership in a primary election to Yachimovich. Peretz’s demand that Labor announce in advance its refusal to sit in Netanyahu’s coalition infuriated Yachimovich, who said there was no need to shackle the party in this way before the election’s results are even known. She then also refused to meet with Peretz to discuss his misgivings.

Peretz then stunned the country by appearing in a joint press conference with former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to announce he was leaving Labor and joining Livni’s new party, Ha-Tnuah, or “The Movement”.

Livni is running on a ticket that emphasises an active search for dialogue with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, and in this regard is compatible with Peretz. However, on domestic issues the two have not explained how they will reconcile Livni’s past as Netanyahu’s privatisation czar with Peretz’s origins as the ultra-socialist head of the unions’ umbrella federation, the Histadrut.

Moreover, Livni’s defeat in a primary election for the leadership of her previous party, Kadima, and her recruitment to her ticket of another former Labor leader, Amram Mitzna, has made pundits deride her ticket as a coalition of defeated politicians.
Livni’s decision to run independently appears to have severely splintered the centre-left.

Until Livni’s belated announcement that she was fielding a party of her own, Yair Lapid was expected to win roughly a tenth of the electorate, and possibly emerge as a significant moderate force in Netanyahu’s coalition. Now Livni may snatch up to half of Lapid’s following. If this occurs, Lapid’s painstakingly assembled team of educators, academics and business people who now constitute his candidate list will be marginal in the coalition. Meanwhile Livni will be on the margins of the opposition where she is expected to end up trapped in line with her ally Peretz’s public vow to refuse any coalition with Netanyahu.

Livni is being criticised not only for splitting the centre but also for detracting from Labor’s effort to threaten Netanyahu’s dominance. However, Labor’s renewed social policy vigour, designed to woo the working class, leaves a vacuum in the upper middle class, which is where Lapid hopes to find his main electorate. And all these parties are out to bite into the electoral remains of the previous Knesset’s largest faction, Kadima, whose political divisiveness and inconsistency has reduced its following so drastically that it might not even enter the next Knesset.

In any event, it appears that the only place on the political spectrum where this election is likely to offer any surprises is that which sprawls to Netanyahu’s left. A failure on Labor’s part to win at least 20 seats and emerge as the Knesset’s second largest faction will be seen as a failure, while the emergence of either Lapid or Livni with a tenth of the legislature will be seen as a major accomplishment.

Within the conservative bloc there are also shifting sands, and they may well prove more meaningful as they possibly hint at the passing of one era and the dawn of another.

One notable development is the burgeoning political renaissance of modern Orthodoxy. Once known as the National Religious Party, what has since been renamed as Bayit Yehudi, or “The Jewish Home”, has rejoined two small parties and conducted modern Orthodox Israel’s first-ever primary elections. That poll produced what will be the next Knesset’s youngest faction, led by Naftali Bennett, 40, a lawyer who served as an officer in the IDF’s elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal and later founded an anti-fraud software company that was ultimately sold for US$145 million.

Bennett’s prospective faction, which rejects the two-state solution, sports two women – including one who is secular – for the first time in the history of a party that has sat in almost every Israeli government since the state’s establishment. Polls indicate it will win roughly a tenth of the electorate.

Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox Shas, which woos the working class with a mixture of territorial hawkishness, economic populism, and religious charisma, faces a potential electoral setback, for two reasons:

First, the return of its former leader Arieh Deri, after 12 years of forced absence following a jail term due to a bribery conviction, is causing a rivalry with his less charismatic successor, Interior Minister Eli Yishai. And secondly, one of the party’s lawmakers, Haim Amsalem, has turned on his former party. Now running independently, the former Chief Rabbi of Geneva is preaching against what he portrays as Shas’ herding of its voters away from military service, non-religious education, and gainful employment.

The result of both developments may be that for the first time in 16 years, Shas will win less than a tenth of the electorate, and even if it preserves that share, it might still win a seat or two less than Bennett’s faction. In that case, modern-Orthodoxy will return to dominate religious politics for the first time in 30 years.

The common denominator among all these potential transitions is that they are generally unrelated to the recent fighting in Gaza and the diplomatic commotion that followed it, nor to the ongoing uncertainty concerning Iran.

As of mid-December, Livni’s was pretty much the only viable mainstream party in the race whose dominant message is about foreign affairs, and whose social agenda is fuzzy and inconsistent. The main debate is on economics, pitting Netanyahu’s conservatism against Labor’s Keynesianism.

Netanyahu’s expected 5% budget cut, designed to offset a 4% of GDP budget deficit, starkly contrasts with Yachimovich’s promises to expand social spending by NIS 138 billion (A$34 billion). Labor’s plan includes adding thousands of new hospital beds and policemen, raising salaries for teachers and nurses, turning the public sector’s thousands of contract cleaners and guards into fully salaried and benefitted employees, and extending free education from age 3 to age 2, and maternity leaves from 12 to 16 weeks. Labor says this added spending will be financed by higher taxes for the rich and more vigorous tax collection from the rest.

In addition to this fiscal debate, there is a struggle over military service for ultra-Orthodox men, whereby the centrists and the modern-Orthodox demand new legislation that will have ultra-Orthodox men enlist at a young age in large numbers, while Netanyahu seeks a less demanding and more gradualist law in order to preserve his strategic alliance with ultra-Orthodoxy.

And so, with the Middle East having been embroiled for two years in intra-Arab strife, Israelis will be going to the polls thinking more about schools, hospitals, taxes, deficits and maternity leave, and less about war and peace.