Israel’s elections: what to expect

In the run-up to the Israeli election for the 20th Knesset, and with it a new government, the Center for Middle East Policy (CMEP) at Brookings convened a panel of distinguished experts on March 11 to discuss the issues at stake and the possible outcome of the vote.

The discussion was moderated by Martin Indyk, Brookings executive vice president, and featured panelists Brookings Distinguished Fellow Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich, CMEP Director Tamara Cofman Wittes, and CMEP Fellow Natan Sachs.

The polls

Based on polling data, Sachs outlined the three most likely scenarios for Israel’s next government, including a Netanyahu-led, right-wing coalition and a Herzog-led coalition. Much would depend on what Moshe Kahlon, the chairman of the Kulanu party who is expected to be the kingmaker in these elections, decides to recommend to the president as his party’s choice for prime minister.

According to Sachs, a third possible outcome of the vote is a national unity government, if the results resemble the polls and Kahlon declines to recommend a candidate for prime minister to the president. 

Wittes noted that the data indicate that the next parliament will be deeply fragmented, making governing difficult regardless of who forms the next coalition.  

Whither the Palestinian issue? 

Indyk remarked that the candidates seemed determined to avoid discussing Israel’s most pressing issues during the campaign—in particular, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rabinovich explained that the Israeli electorate has shifted to the right in recent years. Rabinovich stated that the electorate’s rightward trend renders this a no-win issue for Labor chairman and Zionist Union co-leader Isaac Herzog and especially for Tzipi Livni—Herzog’s partner in the Zionist Union who is closely associated with the peace negotiations.  According to Rabinovich, despite its nonappearance in the campaign, the Palestinian issue remains an underlying factor determining many voters’ attitudes.

Wittes noted that the relative silence on the Palestinian issue does not imply that the Israeli public is satisfied with the status quo. While they may not feel the day-to-day costs of the ongoing conflict, she said, the tensions in and around Jerusalem and the prospect of another war in Gaza do weigh heavily on voters. Wittes said that Israelis do not believe that a solution exists that their leadership is bold enough to grasp. For Israelis, she explained, the problem does not lie only with their own leadership; it lies with the other side—with rising instability on Israel’s borders and Israelis’ lack of faith in Mahmoud Abbas as a negotiating partner.

Moreover, Rabinovich noted that the center-left of the Israeli political spectrum has failed to produce a compelling alternative that can lead Israel towards peace and security. On the contrary, the Likud and the Jewish Home Party’s campaigns have used the issue of regional chaos to sow fear amongst the electorate. 

Sachs said the 2015 campaign has really been a battle of agendas. Netanyahu prefers to focus on security issues—for instance, by arguing that a Herzog-Livni government would endanger Israel by making territorial concessions to the Palestinians. Yet, a recent poll found that 64 percent of Israelis felt that the peace process would not advance after the elections regardless of who forms the next government. In light of this sentiment, Sachs noted, many Israelis focus on socio-economic issues, allowing the opposition to capitalize on public anger against Netanyahu for Israel’s housing crisis and the cost of living.

The U.S.-Israel relationship

Indyk recalled that in previous elections, the reelection bids of incumbent candidates who mishandled Israel’s relationship with the United States suffered as a result. Yet, he noted, Netanyahu appears to have calculated that he stands to benefit from a confrontation with the Obama administration. Sachs said that although President Obama is not popular in Israel, Israelis appreciate the importance of the U.S. relationship, and do not look kindly on a prime minister who quarrels with Washington. He added that Netanyahu was criticized in Israel for his approach to the United States and, in particular, for the fallout of his recent trip to address Congress on the Iranian threat, which angered the administration. 

Israel’s next government: what to expect

Indyk said that, because of the volatility among the Palestinians and the importance of the peace process to Secretary of State John Kerry, the Obama administration remains committed to advancing peace talks, and would be willing to work with an Israeli government committed to a two-state solution.  Should Israel’s next government oppose a two-state solution, Indyk predicted that the Obama administration may seek to press for a United Nations Security Council resolution outlining the basic principles of a two-state solution, in order to preserve future options while containing the potential for short-term violence. 

Rabinovich stated that the European Union has found that soft power works with regard to Israel and argued that if the United States does indeed choose to internationalize the effort to resolve the conflict, some European countries may ratchet up pressure on Israel. 

Wittes argued that a new Israeli initiative to revive negotiations with the Palestinians is unlikely to emerge from the election. Rather, she said, depending on who forms the next government, there may be new proposals for unilateral actions. However, given the brewing crisis in the West Bank, the dire humanitarian circumstances in Gaza, and the formalization of the Palestinians’ accession to the International Criminal Court on April 1, the new Israeli prime minister will likely face a crisis with the Palestinians early in his or her tenure.