‘Undecided’ voters key to the Knesset

‘Undecided' voters key to the Knesset

Ahron Shapiro

Australian Jewish News – 17 January 2013

Predicting the outcome of Israeli elections is always tricky, but especially this year, as we witness a late surge by charismatic businessman Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, which is drawing some support away from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud Beitenu list.

Meanwhile, the strength of Centre-left and Left-wing parties has been obscured by the large number of undecided voters – almost one in three, according to a recent poll.

A majority of these undecided voters are anticipated to opt for one of the centre-left or left parties – either Shelly Yachimovich’s Labor, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid or Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, with a few migrating to Left-wing Meretz. Meanwhile, most polls expect Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima party will be knocked out.

Polls show the plethora of Centre-left parties with similar platforms are confusing voters. These parties have discussed merging, but at the time of writing, this has failed to eventuate.

Despite a drop in support, Likud Beitenu will probably emerge as the largest faction, and will most likely secure a mandate to form the next government. However, all eyes must now be on Bennett’s Jewish Home, which has the potential to influence Netanyahu’s next cabinet.

Although Jewish Home’s platform is pro-settler and against Palestinian statehood, Bennett’s momentum stems from his pledge to bolster the middle class, lower housing and living costs and raise the quality of life of more Israelis. This resonates even among voters who do not necessarily agree with his views on the peace process. Yet this might limit Bennett’s crossover appeal to those who find those views anathema.

Rounding out the likely factions to cross the threshold are the Arab parties, which will not join any coalition, and the Haredi parties, which are open to joining any coalition, within reason.

It is doubtful that Yachimovich or Livni, who have both pledged to remain in Opposition, will break their vows. In contrast, Lapid has voiced support for joining a future government in order to moderate it.

Therefore, the character of the next government – whether it will lean more centre or right – likely rests on the performance of Yesh Atid in relation to Jewish Home.

A government of Likud Beitenu and a potent Jewish Home could potentially complicate Israel’s relations with the US, UK, EU, Australia and other Western allies. For a major coalition partner to emerge that rejects the possibility of Palestinian statehood would likely be seen as a setback by the vast majority of Israelis and friends of Israel who support a two-state peace outcome. (However, it is worth recalling that only 20 years ago, no major Israeli parties directly espoused two states.)

At the same time, it’s important not to exaggerate the ability of Jewish Home to force Netanyahu’s hand vis-à-vis the peace process. Coalitions are about compromise, and as the senior partner, Likud Beitenu will likely be in a position to create guidelines that will build a firewall between Jewish Home and the peace process – keeping the door open for the resumption of talks with the Palestinians without preconditions.