As millions of Israeli voters head to the polling stations to cast their vote today in the country’s elections for the 20th Knesset, there is a sense in the air that political change is possible.
After a long, and generally tedious election campaign, the weekend’s opinion polls all showed a slide from Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party, and an increase in support for the Zionist Camp, whose main partner is the Labour party, led by Isaac Herzog.
Even if these polls accurately reflect voters’ intentions, it might still not be enough to end the six wretched years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership. I would argue, that Israel desperately and urgently needs a change if it wishes to coexist peacefully with its neighbours, and restore much needed social justice and prosperity for all of its citizens.
For this to happen, voters will have to seize the opportunity today and vote strategically, empowering the more progressive forces in the Israeli society - in other words, mandating the Herzog-Livni partnership to lead the country in a different direction.
Embattled leader exposed
This election campaign started with an almost forgone conclusion that the current prime minister would form his fourth government. However, as the campaign nears its end, Netanyahu is left rattled and on the verge of paranoia, fearing for his political future.
Social media nowadays offers an insight into the state of mind of politicians, and Netanyahu’s recent posts on Facebook expose an embattled leader, resorting to despicably accusing the Left in Israel of illegitimately collaborating with foreign elements and the media in order to force him out of office.
This approach is reminiscent of rather dark regimes and not a democracy, which revels in open and free debate.
Regrettably, the parties’ campaigns were more about spreading fear and tarnishing reputations
If Netanyahu is no longer the Israeli prime minister as a result of today’s elections, he needs to take a hard look into the mirror and question both his leadership and his hasty decision to call for fresh elections more than two years before new elections were required.
The man that only a fortnight ago made a futile attempt to act as a world statesmen in front of U.S. Congress, sunk to new lows of falsely accusing his political rivals for acting on behalf of vested and foreign interests.
Truth be said, the election campaign became increasingly personal and focused on questioning the prime minister’s competence, credibility and integrity, which made him feel increasingly under siege.
"Just not Bibi"
However, this became inevitable as Netanyahu conducted almost the entire Likud election campaign by himself. Many voters, not necessarily only those who disagree with his views, cannot bring themselves to vote for a party that Netanyahu leads.
Increasingly the ‘just not Bibi’ slogan resonates even with those who instinctively share similar political views with the Likud party. Nevertheless, this large group of voters might still vote for parties such as The Jewish Home and Yachad (Together), who will only support a Netanyahu government. Hence, writing off Netanyahu’s chances to form a government is still premature.
In the reality of Israeli elections, the so called Right versus Left blocs are in most cases more significant than the performance of a single party. The direction of the race for the support of a majority - 61 Members of Knesset (MKs) - will be revealed only when exit polls are announced immediately after the polling stations are closed tonight.
The latest available polls revealed that the Zionist Camp opened a four seat lead over the Likud. Nevertheless, based on this prediction, the party will still gain only around 24 to 26 seats out of the 120 available in the Israeli Knesset.
Spreading fear and tarnishing reputations
This number is still well under half of the needed seats to form a majority government. In Israel’s idiosyncratic politics, the combination of the two biggest parties, in a so called ‘grand coalition’, still need the support of an additional party in order to achieve a majority of Israeli parliamentarians. This is surely not a recipe for political stability.
Regrettably, the parties’ campaigns were more about spreading fear and tarnishing reputations, rather than airing policies and debating issues of grave concern to most voters. Most parties did not even bother to publish comprehensive manifestos.
To most foreign observers it might be surprising, but the majority of Israeli voters are more concerned with economic issues than for instance peace with the Palestinians. This is one of the reasons that Netanyahu’s fearmongering, that the a government led by Herzog and Livni will withdraw to the 1967 borders, or will not fight as vigorously against Iran’s nuclear programme, seems to leave little impact on the Israeli electorate.
The Likud actually lost ground in the polls after Netanyahu’s speech in the U.S. regarding the danger of an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program.
Increasingly the public in Israel are concerned with affordable housing, cost of living, the spread of poverty, increasing education standards and the spread of corruption. In growing numbers, voters seem to stop falling for Netanyahu’s politics of fear.
They doubt his competence and see him and, even more so his influential wife Sara, as corrupt and detached from their daily needs and predicaments. In recent weeks, to add to Netanyahu’s woes, hundreds of former Israeli senior commanders of the highest rank, labelled Netanyahu a security liability.
They suggested he hinders peace with the Palestinians, damages the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and in the process causes deep friction with Israel’s closest ally, the United States.
The 2015 elections will probably also be remembered due to the impact the increased electoral threshold to 3.25 percent will have on the political system.
This means that each party needs to secure at least four seats to enter the Knesset. One such example of this impact is, that for the first time in many years there is only one Arab party. The Arab United party is expected to do well and gain more than the 11 seats that the three Arab parties won in the 2013 elections.
This might make them the third largest party, giving them considerable influence over the next few years. According to the polls other parties including the left leaning Meretz and Israel Beitenu (Israel our Home), led by Avigdor Lieberman, who ironically initiated the change of the threshold in order to block the Arab parties from serving in the Knesset, are struggling to make it into the next Knesset.
Today’s elections are crucial for the future of the state of Israel and its citizens. The ballot box presents the voters with quite distinct choices. They can for instance decide the number of parties that will be elected and consequently and how fragmented the next Knesset will be.
More importantly, it is in their hands to either re-elect a fading politician, who has lost credibility domestically and internationally, has run out of ideas and is detached from the daily realities of the common people.
Or alternatively they can vote for a new leadership, which might not be exciting at first glance, but is ready to tackle the mess Netanyahu’s governments have created in recent years.
A non-Netanyahu government should first and foremost return to serious negotiations with the Palestinians, repair relationships with the U.S. and address the daily socio-economic hardships of Israeli citizens, a situation neglected to this point by a government who prioritised the well-off and well connected.
In a few hours the full picture of the election results are going to be revealed and we will all reach for our calculators to number crunch possible coalition scenarios. Until then it is for the voters to pass their verdict and decide the future of the Jewish state for the next few years.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.