Israel Heads to Elections

Ending rampant speculation here in Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu today announced his intentions to hold early elections–likely in January or early February–setting the stage for a short campaign in which Netanyahu is the clear front-runner.

A Battle to Set the Agenda

Israel’s political parties now prepare for a battle to set the agenda for the campaign and choose the issue that will dominate the news. Traditionally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and related security issues have dominated political discourse; since 1967, when Israel took control of the territories, the security-and-territories issue has defined “right” and “left” in Israel.  And yet, the Palestinian issue now ranks quite low on the Israeli list of priorities. Israelis–weary of a failed peace process and deeply mistrusting of the Palestinians–now turn their focus to other issues, foreign and domestic.

Netanyahu would like to keep the elections focused on security and diplomacy, where Iran’s nuclear program and the international campaign to stop it have dominated the news. Netanyahu has made dealing with the Iranian threat a hallmark of his term; his dramatic statements on the issue, including his recent speech at the United Nations General Assembly, have set the stage for a campaign where the Likud will call on Israelis to trust Netanyahu’s experience and resolve to face Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In addition, Israelis are deeply concerned over the deterioration of national security on other fronts: a Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt, security threats emanating from the Sinai Peninsula, ongoing civil conflict in Syria and a breakdown of Israel’s alliance with Turkey, a regional power.

Even while national security concerns have grown in Israel, the country also witnessed an unprecedented wave of popular demonstrations over social and economic issues in the summer of 2011. Demonstrators (hundreds of thousands of them, with widespread support in a country of less than 8 million) protested the cost of living for the Israeli middle class and social injustice for the poor. Parties in the opposition, both left and center, will try to capitalize on these sentiments, shared by many voters on the right.

The degree to which Netanyahu can steer the election toward security matters, or to which the opposition can highlight social and economic issues, will likely determine their relative gains. The more security stands as the main issue, the stronger Netanyahu will be; the more his economic policy can be highlighted, the weaker his electoral base.

Why Now?

In the Israeli political system, the prime minister and cabinet are appointed by, and serve at the pleasure of, the Israeli parliament: the Knesset. While Knesset terms are set for four years (the current Knesset’s term officially ends in a year, in October 2013), Israeli elections are almost always held before the official date. The reasons for this are twofold. First, the ruling party often prefers to choose the date of the elections when it identifies a political opportunity and can set the agenda for the campaign. This is the case now; Netanyahu and his Likud party are running strong in the polls and the opposition is fractured and lacks a leader who is both clearly qualified to serve as prime minister and popular enough among voters to challenge Netanyahu.

Second, as the end of a term nears, junior coalition partners have a diminishing incentive to stick with the coalition. Smaller parties often opt to initiate political crises over their preferred issues–issues on which a strong stance can appeal to their potential voters–rather than be dragged into elections over their opponents’ preferred agendas. As Netanyahu put it in his announcement, explaining why elections should be held in January or February rather than October: “We face an election year, and in an election year it is difficult for parties to put the national interest over their political interest.” This concern is aggravated by the upcoming negotiations over the last budget of this Knesset’s term, due before December 31.

Netanyahu refrained from mentioning that he too prefers to postpone the budget negotiations until after the elections. Israel, which hitherto weathered the global economic crisis relatively well, faces a fiscal crisis (though moderate by international standards,) and deep cuts to popular social programs are now in order. Netanyahu and the Likud naturally would rather not go to elections on the heels of deep spending cuts.

Finally, in his recent speech at the United Nations, Netanyahu effectively pushed back the threat of an Israeli military strike against Iran to the spring or summer of 2013. Forming a new coalition at the start of the year, as he now expects to do, will allow Netanyahu to face the renewed international crisis of Iran’s nuclear program with a secure political base.

New (and Old-New) Actors

While Netanyahu is the clear front-runner in the upcoming elections, the shape of the political field will change considerably in the coming elections. On the left, Labor has undergone a transformation. A new leader, Shelly Yachimovich, succeeded current defense minister Ehud Barak–who quit the party–and immediately gave the Labor a different character. Yachimovich, in stark contrast to former Prime Minister (and general) Barak, is a former journalist who has never held a cabinet post. Her worldview is economically-leftist and she has promoted social welfare issues since before the demonstrations erupted in 2011. As such, she is well suited to capture the social justice agenda, even while her lack of experience–especially on security and diplomacy–make her appear ill-equipped to assume leadership of the country. Labor is expected to gain significant power in the elections, but not enough to form an alternative coalition to Netanyahu’s.

The most dramatic changes are expected at the center of the political map–between Labor and Likud. Kadima, the party formed by former Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, is expected to lose well over half its seats in the Knesset under the leadership of Shaul Mofaz. A new political actor, Yair Lapid, is now vying for Kadima’s electorate.

Lapid, another former journalist, TV anchor and novelist, appeals to secular, middle class Israelis. His agenda is both secular–on the deep political divide between Israel’s secular majority and the Ultra-Orthodox segment of the population–and middle-class oriented. Trying to capture the middle class element of the social demonstrations of 2011, concerned with the high cost of living in Israel, Lapid’s initial campaign slogan is “Where is the money?” in reference to the plight of middle class taxpayers. Polls suggest Yair Lapid’s new party may receive anywhere from 5% to 15% of the vote.

Perhaps the most fascinating new entrant into the electoral scene will be an old name, Arieh Deri: a former leader of Shas, the Sephardic Ultra-Orthodox party, former minister of the interior, and longtime confidant of several prime ministers. Deri was stripped of his party leadership and later sent to prison over corruption, but remains one of most charismatic and intriguing political actors in Israel. His return to politics is sure to shake up the religious-political scene in Israel and may also prove consequential for future coalition arithmetic.

A major loser from these elections, alongside Kadima’s Mofaz, is likely to be current Defense Minister Ehud Barak. After leaving Labor with a handful of parliamentarians, there was speculation that he may be promised a spot in the Likud, led by his rival-turned-ally, Netanyahu. But opposition to this possibility within Likud made it clear that Barak would have to seek his political fortunes elsewhere. Should he run alone, polls suggest Barakmay barely enter the Knesset with two members.

Nothing new under the sun?

The general sense here in Israel in recent weeks has been that early elections are politically inevitable but substantively unnecessary. Little dramatic change to the political landscape is expected, as no popular, viable alternative exists to Netanyahu as prime minister. And yet, the outcome of the elections will likely produce a very different Knesset in the center and on the left, with a resurgent Labor and a new center party around Yair Lapid. Both Labor’s Yachimovich and the centrist Lapid have intimated that they would consider joining a Netanyahu government if asked to do so, suggesting that a there is potential for a very different coalition surrounding Netanyahu in 2013.Should Netanyahu choose to bring in the center or the left–as he did in his short-lived alliance with Kadima this past summer–he could approach Israel’s significant foreign policy challenges with a large, secure, and more moderate coalition than he currently possesses.