The Impact of the Elections on the Israeli Political system

This election campaign is one of the most fascinating and most important that I have ever witnessed. Two aspects of this political campaign stand out—at least to me. The first is that this round of ballotting is not only about the public deciding which parties should be in the next government, even more importantly, this time, the people are being asked to decide what should be the very nature of the country’s representative democracy. Put in a slightly different way, a long process that has been underway for five decades has left almost all the country’s Jewish, secular parties confused about how they should go about politicking; and this election is testing which of the many forms of representative democracy that Israelis have adopted over the years is preferred by each sector of the population.


A second huge issue has also not been mentioned by any of the pundits. It is that one of the fundamental conflicts that has beset Zionist politics for an even longer time—almost since the 1930s— is now coming to a climax.


This month I want to map the political topography of Israel as it has evolved up to this point; and my next analysis will focus on the unresolved conflict that may be the determining factor in the outcome of the forthcoming election.


I will use two events from the mid-1960s as my starting point. Until the mid-1960s, the country’s democratic socialists had been divided into three parties—Mapai, Ahdut HaAvodah and Mapam. Each had a very clear idea of what it wanted to achieve.


Despite their bitter disputes over ideology, the socialists had been able to exert hegemonic control over the country’s political system because, although each fought each election as a separate party, following the election they always united to form a single bloc that then controlled the coalition-making process. By contrast, every opposition party continued to act independently even after the elections were over.


However, in the early 1960s, a new process that would change the political playing field beyond previous recognition began to gather momentum. First, the Progressive Party and the General Zionist Party joined together to form the Liberal Party. Both were similar in outlook and so the merger went fairly easily.


The big change came when these centrists decided to do something revolutionary. They decided to play down their emphasis free-market, European-style liberalism and capitalism, and join up with the Herut party, a populist party that adhered religiously to the Revisionist ideology of Zeev Jabotinsky. This merger of parties based on two very different political ideologies created Israel’s first umbrella party, which was called Gahal. The driving force behind the merger was the realization by both partners that only a party that was large enough could compete with and destroy the hegemony over Israeli politics that the socialists had exerted since the 1930s.


Gahal would eventually absorb two other small parties to form the Likud; and the Likud did finally defeat Labour in 1977.


However, it is important to keep in mind that the Likud victory was not solely the product of it being an umbrella party. At about the same time that Gahal was formed, the socialists, in a fit of hubris, adopted a set of policies that undermined their supposed ideological commitment to universal human equality. Those policies, which were largely based on a belief in Ashkenazi cultural supremacy, ended up totally alienating the large and growing Sephardic and Mizrahi populations in the country. Then, the Labour government’s mistakes prior to and during the Yom Kippur undermined much of the public’s belief that the socialist parties were competent to continue leading the country. And finally, much of the public had become tired and angry at the socialists’ use of coercion to remain in power. For example, unless one had a Labour-run Histadrut membership booklet, it was difficult if not impossible to get a job in the civil service.


Nonetheless, two of the socialist parties, Mapai and Ahdut HaAvodah, believing that they could retain power if only they too adopted the new-fangled idea of an umbrella party, decided to merge as well and create what they thought was an umbrella party of their own.


From that point on, and for more than two decades thereafter, the two big parties became the political home for a range of factions running from the centre and left of centre to socialist in the case of Labour, and centre and right of center to extreme neo-nationalist in the case of the Likud.


However, the umbrella party model had its own inherent weaknesses that would eventually lead to the model’s collapse.


To begin with, everywhere else in the world, umbrella parties have only worked in winner-take-all, first-past- the-post systems such as those that exist in the US and Britain. In countries such as Israel that use the system of proportional representation, there are usually many parties, each of which is based on a predetermined set of beliefs.


When the socialist parties, the Liberals and Herut were more narrowly focused, they too could always rely on a guiding ideology to provide them with a basis for decision-making. For that reason, for decades before the founding of the state and during the two decades after the state’s inception, ideology—whatever form it took— was the determining factor when parties formulated their platform planks.


Their comprehensive ideologies enabled the parties to carefully plane, fit and sand their planks to the point where these proposals were not only mutually-supporting, they were sufficient in number so that the final political platform could and did provide proposed solutions for all or almost all the most pressing social, economic, and defence issues that the country was facing.


The mergers of convenience that led to the creation of the two umbrella parties, however, led to the slow erosion of the two big parties’ attachment to ideology.


The process of fully extracting ideology from political policy-making was a slow one. And it only came to its inevitable conclusion during the next to last Likud primary election, when the last Revisionist ideologues such as Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Mickey Eitan were denied spots on the Likud party slate.


The lessening in importance of a political, ideological underpinning by the two major parties almost immediately affected all the other Zionist parties.


The National Religious Party, the predecessor of today’s HaBayit Hayehudi, abandoned its comprehensive ideology very soon after the two big secular parties did, and became increasing focused on a few narrow dogmas such as the belief that settlement of the lands occupied in 1967 would lead to the redemption of the Jewish people.


Another alternative that was offered was rule by a charismatic leader. Dash, Shinui and Kadima were cases in point. However, once the founders of these parties died, became incapacitated or began to squabble amongst themselves, the parties that they had founded collapsed.


Still other parties such as the Pensioners’ Party or the Green Leaf Party willy-nilly became vehicles for those who would otherwise have cast blank ballots if the law allowed blank ballots to be counted. These parties found, though, that just being available for such a purpose was not enough for their voters to have a significant impact on policymaking.


Initially, the loss of an ideological skeleton affected Labour more than the Likud. Instead of arguing about principles as it had done in the past, it became beset by intense and bitter infighting, such as the ongoing competition for power between Yitzchak Rabin and Shimon Peres. This preoccupation effectively halted platform-making for more than a decade. Worse still, in the wake of Rabin’s assassination, Peres’s subsequent defeat at the polls because of a wave of terrorist incidents and Ehud Barak’s failed peace-making effort at the end of the millenium, the party chose the path of least resistance—or rather the path that required the least intellectual activity. From that point on, and until very recently, Labour merely sat about hoping for and waiting for the Likud to fail so badly that the public would vote for Labour as the default alternative.


Eventually, though, the Likud too no longer felt the urgency to keep its umbrella intact. Maintaining an umbrella party takes work—a lot of work—because of all the internal negotiating and compromising needed to keep all the factions happy.


In addition, both major parties had found that they could keep almost all their party factions united if they focused on one policy and one policy only—the party’s stand on defence and security issues.


That belief became dogma to Netanyahu after he was defeated by Barak at the end of the last century because his extremist neo-nationalist allies had deserted him for having agreed to fulfill the Wye and Hebron agreements with the Palestinians.


At that point, Bibi came to the conclusion that the most important thing an Israeli political leader needed to do in order to gain and maintain power was to keep his primary and largest base of support intact. If that meant ignoring the other factions in the party, so be it. Bibi believed that his core of support was the neo-nationalist, settler-supporting wing of his party. Critically, he also believed that he could avoid focusing on non-security social issues because, even when he ignored major social issues, he could always count on the support of the Mizrahi voters who had been alienated by Labour in the 1960s. Therefore, after he returned to lead the Likud, Netanyahu’s basic political strategy was to focus almost entirely on courting large blocs of voters…whether they were the West Bank settlers, the residents of developing towns or recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union.


It is impossible to underestimate the impact that this perception had on the Likud’s public posture. For several decades after Labour’s initial defeat in 1977, the major parties had felt obliged to at least put on an appearance that they were concerned with more than just security issues, and that they were vehicles for the fulfillment of the legitimate aspirations of most of the public. That was because throughout the 1980s and well into the 1990s, the contest between the Likud and Labour was invariably decided by only 2 percent of the voters—the so-called “swing voters.”


The prize for attracting the swing voters at that time was enormous. The party that could gain a majority their votes could be almost certain of garnering at least 40 seats, or roughly a third of the seats in the Knesset. Not only did a victory of this size ensure that the president would then call on the winning party’s leader to try and form a coalition government, it also ensured that the winning party would be large enough to impose at least a measure of discipline in its coalition partners.


As things turned out, the two major parties ended up being so successful at courting a broad range of voters that, for the next decade and more, they also ended up being tied after almost every balloting session. One product of this battle was the formation of so-called “national unity governments”—a misnomer if there ever was one. Invariably the two big parties treated the formation of such governments as the opening bell for the next election campaign… and so cabinet infighting was ferocious.


Another factor that certainly affected Netanyahu’s perceptions was the political wild card that Menachem Begin had introduced into the political system almost as soon as he had been able to claim victory for the first time. His intent at the time was to ensure that his initial success could and would be replicated in the future. He understood that the Likud needed to find some way to overcome the dangers that were inherent in relying on the large body of unaffiliated, wholly undependable and seemingly capricious swing voters who had made their first appearance in 1977. At that time they had cast their ballots for the Likud and for the new, centrist, non-ideological Dash party. Begin was all too aware that it was Dash’s decision to join a Likud-led coalition that had enabled the Likud to actually take power. He therefore chose to revolutionize Israeli Zionist politics by first courting the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox parties and then legitimizing their participation in government policy-making as full-fledged members of Likud-led coalition governments.


Begin believed that because of their historical antipathy to Labour, the Haredi parties, like most of the Mizrahim, could almost always be counted on, as a bloc, to support Likud coalitions.


Essentially, therefore, Begin chose to tie the Likud’s future electoral prospects to negative voting by three groups who were inherently anti-Labour—the Mizrahim, the Haredim, and the increasingly settler-oriented National Religious Party. Henceforth, it was they on whom he would rely to give the Likud the numbers it needed to form a coalition government plurality. But that also meant that maintaining the Likud as an umbrella party could and eventually would take second place in his party’s electoral strategizing because allying with the Haredim in particular also meant alienating the party’s liberal wing, which was deeply opposed to some of the Haredim’s demands.


The impact of Begin’s decision was soon visible. As a result of Begin’s manoeuvres, the alternative to the umbrella party model that he had created was, where possible, being used as the party’s default option for gaining and maintaining power.


What then happened was that, once the ultra-Orthodox parties had been legitimized, the country was essentially divided into 4 basic political blocs—two Zionist blocs (the so-called “Nationalist” camp and the so-called “Peace” camp), and two tribal blocs (the Haredim and the Arabs). Significantly, though, by their very nature, each bloc was subdivided into of a bunch of separate parties whose positions and dogmas, when taken together, looked remarkably similar to the party platforms that had been produced by the umbrella parties.


Because of all these factors, it was not surprising that the Likud also began to care less and less about courting the feckless swing voters.


At this point, with Labour preoccupied with internal battles for power, and with the Likud in the process of abandoning its umbrella model, secular swing voters who had cast their ballots for Dash found that not only had they lost their previous electoral clout, their real interests and concerns were being increasingly ignored by the major parties.


Because they felt less influential, some of the swingers became more apathetic and either stopped voting or began to vote for parties with no hope of crossing the electoral threshold such as the pro-cannabis Green Leaf party. This then, effectively reduced the pool of Jewish voters who wanted to determine who got elected, which in turn strengthened the Likud’s allies who were particularly adept at getting out the vote.


When that happened, a canard that the country was becoming decidedly more right wing began to creep into Israeli political parlance.


A reaction to the vacuum in the centre that had been created was inevitable. By the end of the 1990s, the centrists in the two big parties who were being excluded from their party policy-making forums began to coalesce with the swing voters that had supported no particular party in order to form a new bloc of their own. And so the 1999 elections saw the emergence of two non-ideological centrist parties—the aptly named Centre Party and Shinui, each of whom garnered 6 seats.


Once this happened, the major parties began to attract fewer and fewer votes; and the smaller, sectoral groups both within the Likud and in Likud-led coalitions, began to acquire more and more power because, increasingly, it was they who could hold the balance of power in Likud forums and in Likud-led coalition governments.


The Likud should have been forewarned about what the consequences of such extreme factionalism could be. For years, the competition for power within Labour had led to paralysis in that party. So bitter had this factionalism become that after the turn of the millennium, Labour ended up changing leaders roughly every two years.


In the end, the Likud didn’t change leaders as often. But by 2006, power plays within the party’s central committee had brought the party almost to the point of collapse.


This alteration in the way the major parties operated led to a profound change in the nature of Israeli democracy.


Israel prides itself on being a democratic country in a sea of dictatorships. In theory, at least, Israel’s system of proportional representation in the Knesset is one of the fairest ways there is of implementing democratic rule. As I have already mentioned, unlike the “first past the post” and “winner takes all” system, used in places such as Britain and the US, the Israeli system ensures that minorities can receive due representation in the country’s legislature.


However, Israelis have always had major difficulties in making this system of democracy work effectively and fairly. That difficulties should arise should come as no surprise to anyone. The country is deeply divided along religious, ethnic, economic, ideological and social lines. Moreover, more than half the country’s citizens either come from or are the first generation progeny of people who immigrated from undemocratic countries.


In most democratic countries, these divisions are made less severe if the citizenry adopts a belief in one premise—that elections are held to serve a very specific purpose…that they are designed to allow the national sovereign (in other words, the public) to determine which individual or which party is best prepared to carry out the policies that the majority of the public deem important for protecting and enhancing the country’s residents’ well-being.


Israel, however, is not like most democratic countries. Israeli voters have never been able to actually choose either the person they wanted to represent them or the policies they wished to see implemented.


For some Israeli voters, these issues were never important. About eleven percent of the Israeli public, those who vote for ultra-Orthodox parties, don’t care about democracy. Most believe in and want a theocracy to rule over them. To these people, the purpose of elections is to provide the rabbis who control the parties they vote for with the financial and political wherewithal to replace democracy with rule by authoritarian religious leaders who claim God as their sovereign.


But there are also other, more subtle forms of authoritarianism that have been endemic to the Israeli political system. For example, in the old days, that is, up to the first Likud victory in 1977, all the parties in Israel had committees of party officials whose task was to decide who would appear on the party’s slate of candidates, and in what order. Ostensibly this system was designed to ensure that all the groups of voters who had been targettted by the party would be represented on the slate. In practice, though, these committees ended up choosing candidates who would, first and foremost, serve the party bosses and their needs.


In the wake of its first electoral victory, the Likud was the first party to introduce a form of primaries as the most democratic way to choose candidates. It gave its whole central committee the right to choose the list of candidates. Labour was soon forced to follow suit. However, it took the process one step further and granted the entire membership the right to choose the slate.


But these new ways of choosing candidates created another problem. Field workers, who could round up blocs of voters who were loyal to them, could become vote contractors. They could and did then sell the votes at their disposal to the highest bidder in the party. By 2003, the primaries system, especially in the Likud had become totally corrupt, with huge sums or promises of government-funded perks being exchanged in return for blocks of votes.


It was the public’s disgust at this corruption, as well as the fact that the centrists were being ignored by the large parties that enabled Ariel Sharon to form Israel’s first, truly successful, centrist party…Kadima.


So shocked was the Likud by Kadima’s success that it finally reformed its system of primaries. As part of that reform, the party leaders decided to follow Labour’s path and eliminate the Central Committee middlemen by making the primaries direct elections by the party’s rank and file.


However, that reform created another major new problem. The new system of choosing Knesset candidates eventually enabled one tightly-disciplined group, the neo-nationalists, to carry out a slash and burn strategy that finally destroyed what had been left of the Likud’s umbrella party model.


What happened is as follows: In the wake of the 2009 elections, the settlers and a group of extremist cohorts launched a successful effort to seize control of the Likud. They began by initiating a major drive among their supporters to join the Likud. They were counting on the fact that, in general, only just over half of the Likud’s members show up to vote in the party’s primaries. Thus, they didn’t need to garner a majority of the Likud’s total membership to gain their ends. Their efforts came to fruition during the party’s 2013 primary elections. The party members who did vote ended up electing a slate of hard-line neo-nationalists and religious messianists. Among other things, as I have already mentioned, the last hardy band of Revisionist ideologists including Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Mickey Eitan, and the moderate wing of the party were virtually obliterated.


Not only that, though, in order to create what is sometimes called in military parlance “a force multiplier,” these same settler supporters then went on to vote for the HaBayit HaYehudi party in the general elections themselves—thus giving the settlers, in effect, a double vote. The success of this manoeuvre then enabled the settlers and the neo-nationalists’ spinmeisters to claim that the country as a whole had shifted even further to the right.


The facts, of course, were very different. The Likud had shifted to a more extreme position because its moderate and its ideological wings had been hanged, quartered, and disemboweled. But this had come at a cost. The party actually lost seats in the next election…largely to a new, up- and-coming centrist party, Yesh Atid. By the time the Likud took power, it could muster only 18 seats in the Knesset. Yesh Atid was actually the largest party in the Knesset with 19 seats.


At this point, another endemic feature of Israeli politics was magnified beyond all previous recognition. Under normal circumstances, it is rare for voters to be able to influence government policy. That is because, no matter what the various parties promise in their platforms, the agenda for any government is not set during elections, but only during the coalition negotiations that come after the voters have visited the polling booths. From the Likud’s point of view, that was not too horrendous a reality so long as the parties making up a Likud-led coalition belonged to the same bloc and were used to wheeling and dealing with each other.


But the last election added a new complication to this situation. Israel’s only truly Marxist party—that is, one based strictly on class—had just been formed. Yesh Atid, which claimed to be the true representative of the middle class had surprised everyone by its electoral success. No coalition could be formed without it. The thing was, though, that it did not belong to the classic Likud-led bloc that Begin had created.


The result was coalition chaos. And that then prevented the country’s titular leaders from carrying out their most fundamental task—to balance the mandate they believed that they had been given to implement voters’ wishes with the imperative to lead the public into new areas of policymaking.


When the current round of elections was called, the county’s basic political topography looked roughly as follows:


The extreme left had collapsed because it had become increasingly isolated from the Israeli mainstream. Its popular support had fallen from 10.5 percent in 2005 to 3.6 percent in 2009, when Netanyahu was reelected prime minister. More importantly for our purposes, at the other end of the political spectrum, the extreme right’s popular support had shot up…by two thirds…from 13.6 percent to 20.1 percent—largely at the expense of the moderate right.


However, largely as a result of both the public’s growing concern with social and economic issues, and the failures of the American-mediated peace process, the old political divisions and the old political boundaries had also been altered.


Labour had been the first to react to this change in public attitudes. First, the party’s leader, Yitzchak Herzog, created a joint electoral list with the centrist HaTnuah party, effectively reviving and reestablishing Labour image as a centre to left of centre umbrella party. Almost immediately, Labour’s support skyrocketed and its public opinion poll numbers quickly surpassed those of the Likud.


Then during the Labour party primaries, an even more fundamental change in the party’s posture took place. Its members, for the most part, decided to finally reject the very idea of factionalism, bloc voting and minority representation as the basis for competing with the Likud.


Instead of projecting themselves as the representatives of one of the established, religious, security, ethnic or narrowly dogmatic political sectors, almost all those who had been elected to realistic places on the party slate had focused on issues that crossed all these old divisions. To everyone’s shock and amazement, not one representative of a known established voting bloc—not one general, one former Soviet, or one Ethiopian—was elected to the party list. Instead, the party members elected candidates such as, Stav Shafir who had made a reputation as a fighter for greater transparency in government, and Itzik Shmueli had made his reputation as a fighter for the rights of the handicapped.


The Likud has been left bewildered by this turn of events. Almost immediately after Labour’s initial jump in public support, and even before the Labour primaries, Netanyahu seems to have suddenly realized that the support by political blocs that he had counted on might not be enough to ensure his reelection as prime minister. For weeks, he has been waffling about how to cope with a new situation where not only Labour, but several other parties are going through major readjustments that cannot but affect the Likud’s electoral chances.


Initially, he blamed everybody else for the failures of his recent government—but that only brought public and press derision. Then, for a short moment, it looked as though he would try to reclaim the loyalty of the moderate Likudniks. But that effort fell by the wayside when the Likud membership once again elected a largely hardline neo-nationalist slate of candidates in the party primaries.


At that point, he found himself almost bereft of political manoeuvring room.


Within his own, so-called, “nationalist camp,” the National Religious party’s successor, HaBayit HaYehudi, was also undergoing a revolutionary change of its own and was making a monumental effort to attract those secular, extremist neo-nationalists, such as Danny Dayan, who had previously voted Likud. Today, many in HaBayit HaYehudi, under party leader Naftali Bennett’s tutelage, perceive themselves to be and are projecting themselves to many in the neo-nationalist camp as a younger, more activist, real Likud successor.


At the other end of the Likud’s political spectrum, Yvette Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party, which had once also targeted the neo-nationalists, has been shifting ground and has decided to compete with Yesh Atid for those alienated, secular, pragmatic Likudniks whom Bibi has been ignoring.


To make things even worse, Netanyahu was now being faced by an entirely new phenomenon that his previous political strategizing had never taken into account—the advent of niche parties of a sort the country has never seen before.


In the past, as I have mentioned, Bibi’s political world had been inhabited by ideological parties, dogmatic parties, ethnic parties such as Shas, Ashkenazi Haredi parties, single-issue parties such as the Pensioners’party and umbrella parties.


Now, though, both former Likudnik Moshe Kahlon and former Shasnik Eli Yishai have set up parties of their own that don’t fit any established model. Kahlon is targeting those Likudniks who have neo-nationalist tendencies, but also want social issues to be addressed.


And Eli Yishai has set his sights on attracting those who are both neo-nationalist, Shas-voting Haredim and Likud-voting, traditionalist, Mizrahi neo-nationalists.


All three party leaders—Lapid, Kahlon and Yishai—are succeeding in attracting support because, unlike the Likud, which is committed to its system of primaries, these party leaders can precisely target voters because they are able to appoint the members of their electoral slate.


Netanyahu has thus found himself being end-played at both ends at once. During the primary campaign, he put almost all his efforts into ejecting Moshe Feiglin, from the party slate. He had blamed Feiglin for the neo-nationalist takeover of the Likud prior to the last election. However, he then found that the resulting slate that he called “excellent” was hardly that. Because of all the changes that were taking place in the political playing field, he was being saddled with as unattractive a list of candidates as he could have conjured up in his worst nightmares.


Because the hardliners had won most of the top places on the slate, there were few real and attractive moderates for people to vote for. But, even more embarrassingly, there were only two women elected to realistic places on the party’s electoral list; and not one single candidate with a record of social welfare activism had been included in the slate. To save himself, he is now going to use his prerogative to appoint two people to the slate himself, but it is going to be hard for him to find a moderate Ethiopian social activist woman to fit into the bloc voting model that he has been using.


But the election campaign has now turned out to be even more complicated than that.


Here, a bit of history becomes very important in understanding how things may develop.


Over the past decade and a half, participation in Israeli elections has fallen from an average of 80-85 percent to 62-65 percent. This has led to a dramatic increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox and extremist, neo-nationalist Knesset members for the following reasons:


First, there has been a massive change in voting patterns by the country’s Arab citizens, who make up about 17 percent of the voting population. Up to the turn of the millennium, about 85 percent of Israeli Arabs voted in general elections. About half of those votes went to left-wing Zionist parties. However, in October 2000, rioting and demonstrations broke out in Israeli Arab towns. Thirteen Arabs were killed by Israeli police gunfire. Young Israeli Arabs became disillusioned that they would ever be able to influence Israeli politics, and so stopped voting in national elections. By 2013, overall Arab participation in national elections had fallen to 53 percent. Because about half the Arabs had previously voted for left-wing, Jewish-led parties, Labour and Meretz were hurt the most. This was because the pool of active voters had more Jews than their numbers in the population warranted and this then favoured those Jewish parties, such as the Haredim and the HaBayit Hayehudi, who could get out the vote.


More than 93 percent of the ultra-Orthodox parties’ supporters and about 85 percent of those who support parties that back the settlement movement’s activities actually cast ballots.


The Likud could count on a different advantage it had over the left. The electoral base of the Likud and the right is made up disproportionately of lower middle class and lower class citizens. Therefore, unlike the centrists and those on the left, a greater proportion of those who support the Likud-led bloc tend not to be absent from the country on election day because they usually do not work abroad, tend not to take sabbaticals, and don’t take long treks to India or South America after their army service.


Given all these factors, a snapshot of the election campaign to date provides the following picture:


According to current public opinion polls, if elections were held today, the centre-centre-left bloc of Meretz, Labour and Yesh Atid could expect to win about 39 seats. The group that might best be labelled “the Likud renegades” including Kahlon and Liberman could garner about 18 seats. The right to far-right grouping of the Likud and HaBayit Hayehudi could also win about 39 seats. And the Haredim may win 15 seats.


If one relies only on these numbers, it would appear that, despite all his trials and travails, Netanyahu still has a better chance of forming a coalition—provided that he can overcome the extreme personal animus that Liberman and Kahlon feel towards him.


But there are a whole bunch of new factors are at work at this very moment that could alter these projections by election time.


Here are but a few:


Yvette Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu has suffered a crushing blow from the revelations about a police investigation into fraud by some of the party’s leading figures. However, it is still unclear what the impact of those revelations will be. The latest leaks from the police indicate that many Likud officials, including town mayors, may also be involved. Those suspicions together with the current infighting and charges of fraud being levelled as a result of massive irregularities in the party’s primaries could hurt the Likud’s public image.


Liberman’s claims that the party is being hounded by still unnamed forces, may strike a chord with the party faithful. On the other hand, as the immigrants from the former Soviet Union—especially the young—are being “Israelified,” they many no longer feel the need for separate, landsmanschaft representation.


By the way, pollster Mina Tsemach has found another group that is being “Israelified”—Mizrahi voters who no longer feel the need to vote as an ethnic bloc. She has discovered, for example, that while only 5 percent of Mizrahi voters were willing to cast ballots for Labour in the past election, 15 percent say that they may be willing to do so this time.


Another more-obvious Mizrahi issue is whether enough immigrants from Asian and African countries and their progeny will vote for Eli Yishai’s new party for it to cross the electoral threshold of 4 Knesset seats. Current polls indicate that Shas, if it were united, would win 8 seats. But it is unclear whether Yishai’s wing of the party can win enough votes to cross the threshold for representation in the next Knesset. If it fails to do so, all its votes will be lost to the right-wing bloc and it will end up doing to the right what groups such as the Green Leaf Party have done in the past to Labour.


Yet another question is whether the Arab parties can unite to form a single slate—as Labour and the Tnuah party did. If they can, the Arab Israeli leaders are promising not to campaign in the election, but to focus all their efforts and all their money in getting out the vote. If they do adopt that strategy, and if they do succeed in bringing Arab participation in the elections up the levels that were common up to 15 years ago, the unified slate could win as many as 14 seats. They would not be doing so by taking votes away from centrist and left of centre Zionist parties. Rather, they would be doing so by expanding the overall pool of voters, thus diluting the electoral capabilities of the right and right of centre.


Add to all that is the fact that, to date, Moshe Kahlon has been riding high, in part because he has yet to produce a concrete political agenda and because his past record has yet to be tested. He rose to fame as the communications minister who cut cellphone charges dramatically. However, his record as Welfare Minister does not really stand up to scrutiny. More than one “good government” group is preparing to publish Kahlon’s Knesset voting record, which shows that he consistently voted against important welfare legislation that was presented as private members’ bills in the Knesset.


And finally, the true centrist voters are back in the limelight once again. Mena Tzemach has found that fully 21 Knesset seats worth of the Jewish voters, those who consider themselves centre-centrists—not right of centre or left of centre—say that this time, because Yesh Atid is being increasingly perceived of as left-of-centre, they have no party to vote for. The way they end up leaning once the campaign gets underway in earnest, could be a determining factor in the electoral results.


But, in the end, the biggest deciding factor, as has happened so often before, may very well be how the Palestinians behave. The majority of the Israeli public, in all the polls taken so far, has shown that it wants the election to be fought on economic and social issues. However, conspiracy theorists on the left fear that Abu Mazzen is no longer seeking a new round of peace talks, and he therefore would welcome a neo-nationalist victory so that he can put the blame for a failure to renew peace negotiations on the new Israeli government. All it would take, these conspiracy theorists believe, is a renewal of violent demonstrations on the West Bank or a few rockets lobbed from Gaza…which Netanyahu would then treat as a blessed gift from the god of political warfare.

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