David Horovitz on trends in the Israeli electorate and the next coalition

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David Horovitz is the founder and editor the Times of Israel, former editor of the Jerusalem Post, and one of Israel’s leading commentators. He briefed journalists on a BICOM phone conference, giving his assessment of the trends in the Israeli electorate and the prospects for the next Israeli coalition, with less than a week to go before the Israeli elections. Following is a summary of his briefing. You can listen to David Horovitz’s opening remarks on BICOM’s podcast page. 

What explains the overall trends in the public as shown by this election?

Over the past generation Israel has moved to the left, in so far as the Israeli public have realised if they want to keep Israel Jewish and democratic, they need to separate from the Palestinians. However, in the last few years there has been some movement back to the right, partly because of changes in the region. Instability on Israel’s borders makes Israelis very wary of territorial compromise, especially after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip following Israel’s withdrawal.

The polls suggest that there is no significant swing from the centre-left block to the right-wing block since the last election, but the parties on the right have become more right-wing. Today Netanyahu is one of the most moderate figures on the right. In supporting, with caveats, a Palestinian state, he is out of step with much of his own party and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party further to the right. Liberal figures in the Likud such as Micky Eitan, Dan Meridor and even the relatively hawkish Benny Begin have been ousted from realistic positions on the Likud party list.

Even though Likud has elected a more right-wing slate, they have lost support to the more right-wing Jewish Home because voters for whom settlement is a central issue, don’t trust Netanyahu. Whilst the world is very hostile to Netanyahu for announcing new settlements, the support for Jewish Home reflects the fact that many pro-settlement voters think he is going to be doing more talking about settlement construction than actual building.

Whilst Netanyahu has lost some support to the right, there is no credible alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu from the centre-left, as candidate for Prime Minister who can challenge him on peace and security issues. The Labour party, the old party of government (which was the traditional champion of peace-making efforts with the Palestinians), has had nothing compelling to say about the Palestinian issue in this campaign.

Israelis have seen Islamic movements gaining power, the peace treaty with Egypt wobbling, demonstrations in Jordan, and violent chaos in Syria, just a few years after Israel was seriously considering negotiations with Syria over the Golan Heights. As a result of these developments, disagreements on issues such as the peace process are not as much to the fore as they were in previous elections. Labour is still calling for more effort on the peace process but they are not saying these things with passion and these issues are not the central to their campaign. Labour has risen to 17 seats in the polls by championing socio-economic issues where they feel more comfortable. A Times of Israel poll found that socio-economic issues were more important to a plurality of voters. This is not because the electorate are not interested in issues relating to peace and security, but rather because there is currently much less debate about them.

The candidate who is talking with passion about the peace process is Tzipi Livni. She is adamant that this is the urgent issue, that Netanyahu is condemning Israel to pariah status, and that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is a partner. However, the decision of Abbas to seek statehood unilaterally at the UN, as well as the widespread belief in Israel that Hamas will fill any vacuum left by Israel, has an impact on the Israeli public.

Netanyahu is not hugely popular but he has no credible rival in the campaign who can challenge him on these issues. This applies also to the question of Iran, which is why it has not featured prominently in the election campaign.

What might influence undecided voters in the final stages?

A poll conducted by the Times of Israel ten days ago found that a remarkable 31% of likely voters are undecided. This is partly a function of the multiplicity of a system in which more than 30 parties are running and in which about a dozen will enter the Knesset.

On the right there are those who want to keep Netanyahu strongly pro-settlement and therefore want to vote for Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home to ensure a strong pro-settlement presence in the next Netanyahu government. On the other hand some on the right think that if Bennett is too strong he will be a threat to Netanyahu, and so may be excluded from the coalition in favour of parties from the centre-left.

On the centre-left there are voters who think Netanyahu is bad for Israel and want to support a party that they know will oppose him. However, they know that if they vote, for example, for (left-wing, secular) Meretz, the party will definitely not be in government and will have no influence. On the other hand if they support Labour, Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid) or Hatnua (Livni), maybe they will join the coalition and have some influence on the direction of the government.

What kind of coalition can we expect to see built after the elections?

Netanyahu is likely to win the election but his coalition options are not as good as they might seem from the expected margin of his victory. Likud, Jewish Home and the ultra-Orthodox parties are likely to get over 60 of the 120 Knesset seats, therefore giving Netanyahu a potential coalition with his natural partners. But this is probably not the coalition that he wants, as he will not want to be the most moderate figure in a right-wing government. He will want therefore to bring in a centre-left party, or more than one, but this will greatly complicate the challenge of forming a coalition with his ‘natural’ partners. The almost certain majority for the right-wing block will ensure that Netanyahu forms the next government, but the exact arithmetic of how many seats each party has will have a significant impact on the delicate coalition negotiations.