I’m writing this in a Jerusalem café two and a half days before the polls open here for what all expect to be a truly fateful election. As an American who once expected to live here permanently, I have dual citizenship and, since Israel does not allow absentee voting except for diplomats, I came here to vote – and see old friends, of course. I’m glad I did, whatever the outcome.
My friends generally share my views, so they are mostly voting for the left-Zionist Meretz, the center-left ‘Zionist Union’ (led by Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni), and a few for the ‘Joint List’, the uneasy amalgamation of ‘Arab parties’ and ‘Communists’ that was forced into existence by the new 3.25% vote threshold for getting into the Knesset. I put the party names in quotes since all these names and expressions are common usages but don’t necessarily represent what the words seem to mean.
My most pleasant surprise is the sense of very cautious optimism which has greeted me. While no one can predict with any confidence a true change in Israel’s current trajectory, the chance of Bibi Netanyahu losing the election seems greater than most of us dared imagine a few weeks ago. Instead of the prime minister being the poster child and main attraction of his party, he now seems to have turned into its albatross. Not only for the ‘leftists,’ who are his natural enemies, but there seems an immense weariness and irritation with Bibi as a person, his family, and his style, as well as his policies, domestic and foreign.
While his own message can be boiled down to a single concept – “If you don’t elect me, the left will take over and destroy the country” – he is being attacked on every front. He refuses to talk about the pocketbook issues that afflict most Israelis on a daily basis, including high prices for everything and the severe housing shortage, and even those who largely agree with his stances on Iran and the Palestinians find him either too weak (“He should have destroyed Hamas last summer”) or reckless in endangering Israel’s crucial relationship with the U.S.
‘Bibi-Boehner-gate,’ his speech to Congress ostensibly designed to pressure Obama on Iran while raising his macho profile in Israel, has seemingly either failed or backfired. Not just because it may have delayed or prevented a partially bipartisan opposition to Obama on Iran and split the Jewish community, which were predictable outcomes, but it appears that Israelis really don’t like to see their prime minister playing Russian roulette with their security lifeline. His poll numbers showed a quick two-seat rise, which have since evaporated and then gone further south. No more polls can be published under Israel’s strict electoral laws, but neither in the US nor Israel are there many, other than Republicans who don’t get to vote here, applauding his statesmanship.
But some other developments are not personal to Bibi and may reflect gradual changes in Israeli society, perhaps even contradicting the conventional narrative of Israel’s steady move to the right. Israel is now lacking a moderately conservative, largely secular, big-tent party in the image of Menachem Begin. It is eerily similar to the analogous development in the US, where far-rightists have taken over the party of George H.W. Bush, which once even contained Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller. Likud Knesset members, in recent years, have come from the party’s rightward fringes. Activists affiliated with far-right fringe parties were recruited to vote in Likud primaries, who did not even plan to vote Likud in the general election.
Now that Bibi has run to the right in this election, actively soliciting voters from the Jewish Home and other far-right groups, there is evidence that the Likud’s natural constituency is fed up. Moshe Kahlon, a popular former Likud minister and a moderate, has formed a new party that harks back to the “real Likud” and the days of Menachem Begin. He is taking votes from the Mizrachi (Eastern Jewish) constituency that has been a mainstay of the Likud since Begin’s days. Similarly, the Mizrachi ultra-orthodox party Shas, bereft of its late leader, former Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, is now playing the Mizrachi card as well, rather than emphasizing its ultra-Orthodox credentials. Its current leader, Aryeh Deri, is believed to be a closet dove who conceivably could participate in a center-left coalition, though he has publicly discouraged such speculation.
The new and higher threshold is even threatening Avigdor Lieberman’s rightwing and secular Yisrael Beiteinu party; ironically, since it sponsored the legislation setting the new threshold, hoping to possibly eliminate Arab Knesset representation.
Largely thanks to the new threshold, the Arab vote represents a new wild card. Arab electoral participation has been low for years, since many feel their representatives (generally about 11 seats, though they are close to 20% of the population) have little effective influence. Now, the new Joint List, product of a shotgun marriage, is generating excitement among Israeli Arabs. Polls are showing them getting 13 seats, but polls are notoriously unreliable in the Arab communities, so it could be as much as 15 — or perhaps many fewer. Given the widely disparate views contained in the new party (it has been compared to Meretz and Jewish Home forming a joint list for Jews), the party might split immediately after the election, and the more moderate faction might make a deal with a center-left coalition. Arab parties have never been part of a governing coalition, so such a development would be an unprecedented taboo-breaker.
I want to emphasize that it is highly unlikely that Israel is on the brink of a new and progressive change of direction. Fears, stoked for years against both real and exaggerated dangers, are still rampant. Meretz, the most straightforward representative of the peace and social-democratic moderate left, is only polling at 5-6 seats, though real fears that it might not reach the 3.25% threshold have somewhat eased. Some commentators think a Likud-Zionist Union ‘unity government’ is most likely, led by whichever party gets the most votes, but that would be a recipe for continued stalemate. I think it’s a less likely alternative.
Bibi Netanyahu has been prime minister for three term and nine years, more than any predecessor except David Ben-Gurion. He has led Israel to unprecedented isolation and internal discord. It is impossible to predict the people, much less the policies, that might replace him. But all agree that he is the main issue in this election. If he is toppled, then perhaps new forces can start asserting themselves.