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Israeli primaries are over, welcome to the main show

In less than two months Israeli citizens will once again elect representatives for their next parliament

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

In less than two months Israeli citizens will once again have the privilege of electing representatives for their next parliament - the Knesset. It will be the fifth attempt in 12 years to produce a decisive result, which if achieved would enable a stable and functioning government that could see out a full term.

Public opinion, however, suggests another fragmented multi-party legislature, which in return will inevitably end in another paralyzed government. In preparation for the elections the Israeli political system has entered into a process of forming new parties and political alliances, while others are dissolved.

Selecting the candidates

The parties have also been busy for several weeks with electing their candidates and recruiting new ones with star quality, in order to make their parties more attractive to the electorate. Some of the parties are doing this in a more democratic and transparent way than others.

The more established parties are electing their candidates through internal elections by their members. In other parties committees - usually dominated by their leaders - select their candidates and decide on their position on the list.

Even in parties where primaries are held, the leaders have a few spots reserved for them to include candidates of their choice to increase the party’s appeal.

The government’s unpopularity and the weakness of the opposition required the parties to take a somewhat more creative approach

Tilting to the left

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the government, the general view was that when the dust settles on these elections, the Likud party will still be in best position to form the next government - headed by the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Now that the parties’ lists for the March 17 elections are about to be submitted, the picture seems to gradually tilt towards the more left leaning party bloc led by the leader of the opposition Yitzhak “Buji” Herzog. Whether this trend will remain sustainable remains to be seen, but it is most certainly not a coincidence. It can be attributed to a combination of a failed government, party political maneuvers and the outcome of the primaries.

Opposition’s creative approach

To put things in perspective, no party is forecasted to gain more than 25 seats out of the 120 available. This would leave whoever is assigned to form a government the unenviable task of gaining the support of enough parties to reach the magic figure of 61 Members of Knesset (MKs).

The government’s unpopularity and the weakness of the opposition required the parties to take a somewhat more creative approach. It seems that at this point the Labour party responded in a more engaging manner. The first move was to join forces with Tzipi Livni’s party Hatnua (The Movment) and form an alliance with a bit outdated name, The Zionist Camp, as a more a progressive force.

Though Livni and her colleagues were part of Netanyahu’s coalition, in her role as the chief Israeli peace negotiator, she was quite a critical voice against the prime minister’s detrimental policies towards the peace process. In the puzzling realties of Israeli politics, Livni, who has deep roots in the Right in Israel, led a party in the last elections which included prominent former Labour members.

Rotating roles

Furthermore, she became one of the leading proponents of striking a peace deal with Palestinian leader President Mahmoud Abbas. Consequently it was not entirely surprising that Herzog and Livni despite their different political-ideological roots made a pact to run together for the 20th Israeli Knesset.

In an unexpected act, they agreed to rotate the role of the prime minister between them if their new political bloc forms the next Israeli government. A number of commentators hailed Herzog’s readiness to rotate the premiership with Livni, despite her weak showing in the polls, as an act of political altruism. Others see it as evidence of his lack of political experience, combined with a very agreeable personality.
In his eagerness to bring Livni on-board, he blinked first in their negotiations. Yet, it would be unfair to entirely question his genuine motives, as by making this concession he may spare the country a fourth Netanyahu government.

The primaries in the two biggest parties, the Labour and the Likud, produced distinct results that offer for the first time in a long time a real choice. The Likud party, as one might expect from a party that has been in power for way too long, kept faith mainly with the current serving MKs.

Committed to peace

It is a tired list, very right wing hawkish in outlook, and with hardly any representation for women or minorities. The Zionist Camp, on the other hand, presents a more progressive, relatively young alternative and offers a high ratio of women positioned in realistic places to enter into the next Knesset. Unfortunately, it too is still very short on minority representation.

The new candidates are a mixture of supporters of a more sincere peace process with the Palestinians, combined with a social-democratic outlook.

The instant response of the public view was an increase in support of the Zionist Camp at the expense of the Likud. To be sure, two months in election campaigns are an eternity, and until election day there are no guarantees that this trend can gather momentum or even be maintained.

Nevertheless, developments in other parties also provide the Herzog-Livni axis an opportunity to build on this promising trend of growing support for their political bloc.

Smaller parties struggle

Smaller parties, who intend to participate in the forthcoming elections, are either in the process of formation or struggling with internal divisions. The exception to this is the ultra-nationalist religious party Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home), which seems to consolidate and even increase its support among the Israeli voters.

This growing support is at the expense of the Likud and especially Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu (Israel our Home), which is marred with major police corruption investigations. The party leader’s regrettable instinctive response was to intensify his divisive and vitriolic calls to force some of the Arab-Israeli towns and villages into a future Palestinian state as part of the peace agreement.

The Arab vote

This, as always, was an attempt to question the loyalty of Israel’s Arab citizens to the country. There is a real danger that this type of xenophobic language will intensify, as smoke screen to cover their failure in running the country, if the right wing bloc fears losing the coming elections.

Interestingly enough, despite these attacks, Arab Israelis are not increasing their support of parties that are predominantly Arab. The support in these parties, Hadash and Raam-Taal seem to be unchanged, and they are expected to maintain their number of seats in the next Knesset.

This week in many ways set the tone for the entire elections campaign, and these trends will no doubt dominate the political debate until election day.

The left leaning progressive parties are concentrating on a dual message of ending the occupation and reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians, in conjunction with economic policies which reflect commitment to social justice.

The response from the parties on the right is to pour scorn on any peace negotiations and employ scare tactics and spread fear against any compromises with the Palestinians, they promote aggressive foreign policy in the region.

Most of these parties support free market policies, but in their concentration on regional issues, lack coherent economic and social policies. Consequently, the Israeli voters are again presented with a choice and in it remains for them to determine the future of their country.

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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.

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