Amit Segal previews the election campaign

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To listen to an edited recording of this briefing click here.

This is the summary of a briefing for journalists given by Amit Segal, Israel’s Channel 2 chief political correspondent, on Wednesday 10 October. The briefing following the announcement on 9 October by Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that a national election will be held in January 2013, in advance of the October 2013 deadline.

Key points

  • Netanyahu’s coalition was the most stable in 25 years but Netanyahu has decided to go to seek a new mandate before introducing budget cuts.
  • Netanyahu will most likely call elections at the earliest possible date in January, and as elections in Israel have to be on a Tuesday, the date could fall on January 15, 22 or 29.
  • Security issues will be very important but what is perhaps unique about this election is the ascension of the socioeconomic agenda.
  • Currently only a leader from the right or centre-right could form a majority bloc, of more than 61 seats. However, if Israel’s former-prime minister Ehud Olmert joins the race he could theoretically form a coalition including smaller parties from the right.

Why is Israel going to elections now?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition was the most stable in 25 years. The government was able to survive four years and is the only government in Israel’s history not to lose a single vote in the Knesset. However, after meeting with his coalition partners and opposition parties, Netanyahu has determined he will be unable to pass budget cuts, and therefore decided to go seek a new mandate.

As it stands no other party leader in Israel can compete with Netanyahu’s Likud. Two potential candidates, Shelly Yechimovich (Labour) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), despite their wide appeal, do not have the same standing with the electorate as Netanyahu. Likud, in all polling since 2009, has been the largest party with around 31 seats. Nevertheless, three months is a long time in Israeli politics, and Netanyahu’s fortunes could change.

The timing of Israel’s election in January has very little to with either US elections or Iran, although both issues will affect the Israeli electorate. At the UN General Assembly on 27 September Netanyahu made the first speech of the election campaign. By setting his red lines for Iran’s nuclear programme back to the spring of 2013, he ensured Iran would be a central issue in the election campaign.

The outcome of the presidential race in Washington will be a factor in the Israeli election. If Barack Obama wins, Netanyahu’s rivals can claim they can work with him in a way Netanyahu has been unable to – this is especially the case for Olmert. On the other hand, if Romney wins Netanyahu’s election victory is all but certain.

What is the process for choosing party lists, particularly Likud and Labour?

On Monday 15 October, the winter session of the Knesset will open only to immediately dissolve itself and begin the campaign period. Netanyahu wants elections at the earliest possible date in January. As elections in Israel have to be on a Tuesday, the options are January 15, 22 or 29. Netanyahu wants to hold elections as soon as possible because he is currently polling well. In the 2006 election, over a four month campaign, the front-running Kadima party dropped 20 seats in the polls.

Netanyahu will want to hold Likud primaries to choose the party list at the earliest possible date, mostly likely in November, to ensure all internal battles are long out of the way before tackling his prime ministerial rivals. The Labour party will mostly likely hold their primaries after Likud, in late November or early December. The remaining party’s leaderships will likely select their candidates rather than hold open primaries.

What are the central issues, and lead personalities?

The security issues facing Israel – the Arab Spring, Nuclear Iran and continued Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza – will be very important. Perhaps unique in this election however is the importance of the socioeconomic agenda and issues like social justice and the cost of living.

Labour under Shelly Yechimovich will likely campaign on this issue. But the socioeconomic agenda is not entirely bad for Netanyahu. Parties on the left will vie for votes from the same pool of left leaning voters, but significant parts of the electorate support Netanyahu’s conservative economic policies. At the same time, on the issue of security, Netanyahu can take votes from both the left and right, as he is still perceived as the strongest leader to represent Israel’s interests in the international arena.

The ‘Olmert factor’

Currently it appears that only a leader from the right could form a majority coalition of more than 60 seats in the Knesset. However, if Israel’s former-prime minister Ehud Olmert joins the race there is a theoretical possibility he could lead from the left and form a stable coalition. As a former-prime minster he has good relations with both Shas (Sephardi religious party) and Yisrael Beiteinu (hawkish right-wing party) that were in his coalition.

The most likely scenario for Olmert to enter the campaign is through Kadima’s current chairman, Shaul Mofaz, stepping aside and Olmert being selected by Kadima’s MKs as their new leader. The process is more likely than it would appear, as Kadima currently stands to lose the large majority of its 28 seats. Kadima’s decline was exacerbated by its decision to join then a few months later withdraw from Netanyahu’s coalition earlier this year.

However, even if Olmert runs, he has serious perception issues with the Israeli public linked to his recent trial (in which he was convicted for breach of trust though acquitted of more serious charges), and an unresolved accusation of bribery relating to a Jerusalem property development. In addition, even without the legal issues he was not a popular leader.  He was elected on a wave of support for Ariel Sharon (who he replaced as Kadima party leader after Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke), and he took Israel into two wars, the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9.