Analysis

BICOM Briefing: Israel gears up for general elections

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Key points

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced elections to be held in January 2013, in advance of the November 2013 deadline.
  • The immediate cause of early elections was the trouble Netanyahu expected to face agreeing budget cuts with his coalition colleagues.
  • Polls show that Netanyahu is well placed to remain in office, albeit with a new look Knesset after the elections.
  • Netanyahu is likely to emphasise security, including the Iranian threat, as a central issue, but there will also be a major focus on domestic issues including socioeconomic challenges and military service for ultra-orthodox Jews, as well as a debate about how to break the deadlock in the Palestinian issue.

What will be the key issues in the election?

  • The Iranian threat: deep concern over Iran’s nuclear programme is shared by most parties and crosses political divides. This issue has become highly associated with Netanyahu’s strategic agenda, and whilst he is still the most trusted leader on issues related to defence and security, his leadership on the Iranian threat has come under fire from former senior defence officials.
  • Socioeconomic reform: The fact that the Israeli economy is slowing will will create real economic dilemmas for Israel’s leaders. The social protests of the summer of 2011 may have subsided, but their political impact may only now begin to appear as numerous parties highlight their economic and social agendas. Labour in particular is likely to challenge Netanyahu on budget cuts he says will be necessary to maintain Israel’s economic stability.
  • Equal share of the burden: Tensions between secular and religious Jews in Israel have been a significant issue in the past 12 months. In the coming elections, opposition to the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men and Arab citizens of Israel from military service will be a rallying cry for secular parties.
  • The Israeli-Palestinian peace process: The issue that has split Israeli politics for decades has been pushed down the political agenda due to the impasse in negotiations with the Palestinians. Nonetheless, this is still a major issue, with Defence Minister Ehud Barak already staking out his territory by proposing Israeli unilateral steps to withdraw from parts of the West Bank if there is no process in negotiations.

Who will be the parties and leaders running in the next election?

The 120 seat Knesset is elected on a directly proportional party list system. Each party submits a list of candidates for the Knesset and the entire country votes as a single constituency, with each voter choosing a party list. No single party is likely to win much more than 30 seats, so after the election the President will ask the party leader most likely to be able to form a majority coalition to attempt to form a government.

  • Likud: Led by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s main centre-right party is looking to maintain its role as the dominant party in the government, and will be expecting to emerge as the largest party by a good margin. Likud currently enjoys consistent rates of support and polls indicate that Netanyahu is seen as the most appropriate politician to be Prime Minister, and is the most trusted on security and defence issues.
  • Kadima: Currently the largest faction, the centrist Kadima party has recently elected Shaul Mofaz as its leader, replacing Tzipi Livni who consequently resigned from the Knesset. Mofaz took over a party which has been struggling in the polls since the summer of 2011. The shift in focus to socioeconomic issues left Kadima, which was focused largely on promoting the peace process, somewhat irrelevant.  Although Mofaz is a respected former IDF chief of staff, defence minister and a determined politician, he has not established himself as an alternative to Netanyahu as Prime Minister. His short lived coalition with Netanyahu earlier this year further damaged his and Kadima’s standing.
  • Yisrael Beiteinu: This right-wing party, led by hawkish foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, was the third-largest in the current Knesset and played a prominent role in the government. Recently, the party has adopted a more vocal position on the exemption of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox from military service.
  • Labour: After years of falling support, Labour will be looking to capitalise on the renewed interest in socioeconomic issues following the socioeconomic protests of 2011. Under the new leadership of Shelly Yachimovich, a former journalist with a strong record on social issues, Labour has sought to reclaim its social-democratic brand and has succeeded in re-energising its activist base, on which it will rely upon in the upcoming election.
  • Shas: Although the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party has been led by Eli Yishai for over a decade, Shas has been unable to recreate the popular fervour it possessed under its previous political leader Aryeh Deri in the 1990s. Shas will try to energise its supporters against public anger at ultra-Orthodox exemption from military service, and in defence of welfare benefits that favour its constituents.
  • Meretz: Following widespread disillusionment with the peace process after the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada, the left wing, secular Meretz became an almost inconsequential political faction. Under the new leadership of Zehava Galon, the party could enhance its power to a small degree with the support of upper-middle class liberal and Kibbutz voters.
  • Atzmaut: After splitting from Labour, five MKs under the leadership of Defence Minister Ehud Barak formed this new centrist faction, which is now essentially a vehicle to return Ehud Barak to the Knesset so he can remain as Defence Minister. However, in some polls, the party does not succeed in crossing the electoral threshold (2% of the votes).
  • Yesh Atid (‘There is a Future’): The entry of former journalist Yair Lapid into politics may be one of the biggest changes in the next Knesset. Lapid has positioned himself as a centrist outsider and will run on a consensual messages of social responsibility and equality of the social burden. Recent polls predict the new party may receive up to 10-12 seats, but it is unclear whether the party will be able to sustain its momentum once the campaign heats up.
  • Smaller parties
    • United Torah Judaism: An ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi party.
    • National Union: A right-wing national religious party with strong support from voters in West Bank settlements.
    • Mafdal: Another right-wing national religious party with strong support from voters in West Bank settlements.
    • Ra’am-Ta’al: A national-Islamic Arab party promoting an end to Israel presence in the West Bank and recognition of Arab-Israelis as national minority. Ahmad Tibi is the faction’s most prominent MK.
    • Hadash: A Jewish-Arab socialist party supporting Israeli-Arab peace and promoting a left-wing socioeconomic agenda.
    • Balad: An Arab nationalist party led by MK Jamal Zahalka.

Further reading:

  • We will be posting all the latest polling in the polling section of the website.
  • Our elections spotlight section with analysis, news updates and podcasts is now live.
  • Read our recent analyses on Likud, Labour and Kadima.
  • Read our recent in depth analysis of the 2011 social protest movement published by the social-democratic journal, ‘Renewal’, ‘The Other Israel – The Politics of the Social Protests.’
  • For regular updates from Israel, follow BICOM on twitter @britainisrael, and our Israel based staff @richard_pater, @toby_greene_
  • Sign up for our daily briefing via our homepage, www.bicom.org.uk