In the run-up to the March 17 election for Israel’s 20th Knesset, it’s impossible to predict the composition of the next governing coalition, nor is it clear which party will lead it.
According to the latest polls, no coalition scenario – centre-right, centre-left, or national unity – can be described as inevitable, but neither can any of them be ruled out.
Given the large number of undecided voters – about one in four Israelis, according to most estimates – it’s also unlikely that the electoral picture will become significantly less murky before the country goes to the polls.
While there is clearly much uncertainty about the upcoming election, there are some core policy continuities we can confidently ascribe to the next government – policies that are shared between the centre-left Zionist Camp and centre-right Likud – the two political factions that appear to be the only ones with realistic chances of, separately or jointly, forming the nucleus of the next government.
That government, regardless of who leads it, will continue to support efforts to make genuine, secure, lasting peace with the Palestinians based on a two-state outcome. At the same time, there remain few signs that a Palestinian leader would be willing or able to make peace with the next Israeli Prime Minister, regardless of who it may be or what concessions they are prepared to make.
Similarly, the next Israeli prime minister, be it Binyamin Netanyahu, Labor leader Isaac Herzog or his running-mate Tzipi Livni (with whom he has promised to rotate the top job if their coalition permits), would be equally committed to take any steps necessary to protect all citizens of Israel, wherever the threats originate.
In the case of Gaza, where last year Israel fought Hamas and other Islamist factions under a barrage of rockets and a spate of tunnel infiltrations, all potential Israeli leaders would be expected to exercise similar judgement over any decision to use force to respond to future attacks.
Of course, there remain ample points of disagreement among the two major parties and all other parties, among them: the settlements issue (particularly regarding isolated settlements); the tone of Israeli and Palestinian communications; relations with Israel’s Arab minority; economic and social welfare policies; the way relations with the US are managed; efforts to reform the religious-secular divide in Israel and the overall leadership style of the next prime minister.
On the last point, one must also take into account the release on February 17 of a damning report by the State Comptroller criticising the way expenses in the Prime Minister’s residence had been handled – to the extent where a criminal investigation may be warranted. The effects of this on Netanyahu’s popularity remain unclear – though it will certainly come as little surprise to most Israelis that allegations about the lavish lifestyle of the Netanyahu family emerged during an election campaign.
With regard to the existential threat posed by Iran’s illegal nuclear weapons program, the next Israeli leader, whoever he or she may be, will of course continue to support a diplomatic solution backed by crippling sanctions and the credible threat of force should Iran fail to agree to dismantle most of the infrastructure that leaves it poised on the threshold of nuclear weapons capability and to accept the tightest possible inspection regime.
In this regard, it is important to understand that the controversy over Netanyahu’s acceptance of a Republican invitation to address Congress over the Iranian nuclear threat just two weeks before the election is almost entirely a controversy over tactics. The content of the speech will represent the Israeli consensus. What critics and political opponents are claiming is that the timing, lack of White House coordination, and implicit criticism of the Obama Administration’s handling of negotiations with Iran, are counter-productive.
The speech controversy also reflects the fact that while America, as Israel’s closest friend and ally, has always been a factor in Israeli politics, it rarely has been larger or more visible than we have seen in the current campaign.
Therefore, also controversial has been the US State Department’s financial support of an NGO, OneVoice, that supposedly exists to encourage non-partisan support for a two-state outcome on both Israeli and Palestinian sides but in practice has put funding and manpower behind the Israeli political umbrella movement to remove Likud from power – even though the current government supports a two-state outcome.
Moreover, while American campaign advisers have figured in previous Israeli elections, the sheer number of them in this round – serving a variety of parties – as well as their depth of involvement, is truly unprecedented.
In any case, Israeli voters must now weigh both the issues that unite and divide the parties and political personalities in exercising their vote.
Whatever they decide, as war-torn Syria and Iraq haemorrhage blood, chaos reigns in Yemen and Libya, Iran continues its expansionist campaign under the threat of an imminent nuclear umbrella and the so-called Islamic State piles on atrocity after atrocity, this election should be a reminder that Israel stands alone in the region as a beacon of democracy, civil rights, rule of law and equality for all of its citizens.
But the regional chaos and violence should also serve as a reminder of another key political truth about Israel. Its unique geopolitical situation has always meant that every election is a critical one to the country’s security and very existence in a way that would rarely apply in Australia or most other Western democracies. This election is certainly no exception.