Israeli Elections 2019 – Dr. Elie Friedman, S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue, March 5 2019
Israeli Elections 2019
Dr Elie Friedman
S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue
5th March 2019
I’ve been asked to give a little bit of an analysis about the upcoming April 9th General Election in Israel. This is quite a unique kind of election. It’s, I would say, somewhat of a culmination of several trends that have been going on in Israel for the last ten or fifteen years. The most obvious trend, in my mind, is a breakdown of the large ideological right-wing versus left-wing blocks into many small splinter parties that are often personality-based. Meaning, they’re not parties that have long histories or even primary elections, but they’re based on a certain personality – somebody who is well-known in the public sphere deciding to start a party, which in some ways is kind of a personality cult also, and then choosing the various people who will be members of that party. So, for example, the new party and the most kind of interesting party in this election, the story of this election, is the new party which is called in English Resilience for Israel, which is led by the former IDF chief-of-staff Benny Gantz. And this is kind of a centrist party. We have another one which is also centrist – many of them were kind of centrist and non-ideological – led by a television personality named Yair Lapid. I’ll say a little bit more about these kinds of parties a little bit later.
Some of these parties are interesting in the sense that they don’t really have much of a difference from one another. They tend to have a very similar platform and there are just very nuanced differences. And, in a way, their way to attract voters is based on what kind of a person is at the helm of the party rather than what kind of an ideological approach they’re trying to sell to the public. And this can result in a rather shallow discourse. It kind of turns the Israeli elections to some extent into like a reality TV show, where people are voting based on the most popular candidates. And often the most hoarded items in the media are kind of gossipy type of items, like who is going to form a coalition with whom, and who is going to kick who out of the party, and these kinds of issues which are basically based on dramas between different personalities.
Another important feature of this election is this is actually the first time that the party whose precursor was the founding party of the State of Israel, and really the party that built the State of Israel, which is today known as the Labor Party, is not really a contender. They’ve gone down quite significantly in the polls and it seems like they’ll be a very minor player in the next Knesset, the next parliament. And part of the reason that the Labor Party has gone down so significantly is that many who used to define themselves as left-wing have instead moved towards centrist parties, these kinds of personality-type parties that don’t necessarily sell a very ideologically strong line, but try to be kinds of all things to all people.
I mentioned earlier this party Resilience for Israel which is led by the former IDF chief-of-staff Benny Gantz. And this is an interesting example because he has intentionally taken people in his party who have somewhat contradictory positions. And you think, well, this is odd – an inconsistent party line. And how do I have people who believe in, for example, not returning any territory to the Palestinians versus others who do believe in a territorial compromise as all part of the same party. Well, in today’s political climate it’s less important to be ideologically consistent and more important, it seems, to offer many different possibilities to many different types of voters. And in a way, this is an example of the victory of the media strategists over the politicians, where the ability to be dynamic and to pitch different things to different audiences is more important than the notion of having a clear ideological line. So we really see this time a breakdown of the left versus the right blocks in the Israeli election towards more of a kind of a salad of different personalities who are all kind of competing over the same wavering votes.
One of the most important aspects of this election, which is kind of the, what we call the elephant in the room, is that in the next month or two, apparently before the election, the Attorney General of Israel Avichai Mandelblit, is going to publish his decision on whether the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu will be indicted on bribery charges on three different cases. I’m not going to go into the details of the cases, but one of them is accepting lavish gifts in return for favors, and the two others relate to trying to acquire favorable media coverage in trading it for some kind of a positive business deals that these media organizations may need and the prime minister can advance through his various powers. So this creates kind of an interesting phenomenon, where before the election, in the next month or two, there may be an indictment against the prime minister. Now, according to Israeli law, a sitting prime minister does not have to resign if he is indicted. He can actually go to court in the morning and be prime minister in the afternoon. This is not against Israeli law. However, if he does face an indictment, it may create a situation where he cannot form a coalition, because the various other parties will not agree to sit with a prime minister who has an indictment against him. And within his own Likud Party there may be a situation where the various other candidates may what’s called smell blood, and try to form a kind of an internal coalition within the party to depose of the prime minister.
So in some ways this election is kind of an interesting mix of an actual competition between various candidates. The main candidate who’s presenting an actual threat to Netanyahu is this former chief-of-staff Benny Gantz. So there is an actual competition to the possibility of Likud being victorious, but on the other hand this election is kind of a wait and see until we know what happens with these bribery charges against Netanyahu, and then the other politicians, be it within the Likud Party or in other parties, will basically try to inherit what Netanyahu leaves behind. So it’s a very odd election in that sense.
Another important issue – and this is related to what I mentioned earlier about these small personality parties – is that the issue that has been probably the most prominent issue in Israeli politics for the last over fifty years is not really a central issue. And I’m talking about the issue of the future of the occupied territories and whether or not we are interested in annexing these territories, or continuing settlements in these territories, or returning them in hopes of gaining a peace agreement with the Palestinians and with the broader Arab world. The centrist parties tend to make hints that they would be willing for a territorial compromise. The Likud Party has stated that it’s interested in reaching a settlement with the Palestinians. It’s theoretically interested in a two-state solution. However, it has basically done anything it can to prevent this from happening and Netanyahu has also stated on various occasions that he would not uproot Jewish settlers in the West Bank, or as is called in the right-wing Israel Judea and Samaria. So this issue has kind of gone down, it’s not a central issue. Some of the centrist parties don’t like to give it much emphasis because they’re afraid of being accused of being left-wing, right? They want to be able to appeal to these floating voters, these soft-right voters as well. So this is another reason why probably the most strategic issue for Israeli foreign policy is not a major election issue.
Though, within the Israeli voting public there’s also the settler public, meaning the citizens of Israel who have chosen to reside in the West Bank, or as they call it Judea and Samaria. Depending on how you count, whether you count the East Jerusalem suburbs or not, if we do count them it’s about 700,000 people, if we don’t count them it’s about 400,000 people. They tend to vote for either the Likud Party, which is the Netanyahu party, the governing party, or the further right parties. So we have a new party, which is actually ironically called the New Right led by Naftali Bennett, and they’ll probably get about seven seats in the Knesset – that’s according to the surveys – which is about 5% of the popular vote.
And we also have some smaller further right parties. Bennett left his former party which was called the Jewish Home party. And there’s another party called the National Union party. There are various nuances on the far-right. And there’s even a very far-right party called Strength for Israel, which is also running. They probably won’t make it into the Knesset, they probably won’t pass the threshold. But these parties are generally the ones to the right of the Likud, have a very staunch ideological approach regarding the West Bank, “no” to a Palestinian state, “no” to giving the Palestinians more land even for autonomy, “yes” to increasing the amounts of settlers living in this land. And their approach is in my mind leading to something that’s quite irreversible and would result in a bi-national state based on differential rights. Which means that there are only Jewish rights in the West Bank, whereas the Arabs are a docile, conquered people. And this is the approach that these parties are aiming for. They probably wouldn’t admit it, but that’s their endgame.
Now, these parties are important. I mean, they are part of the current government and if Netanyahu would win, he will probably form a coalition with them as well as some other smaller religious parties. And they have a very strong influence beyond their numbers, because they’re very ideologically committed and they tend to wield quite a bit of influence. The settlers tend to wield quite a bit of influence within the Likud Party itself. And if Netanyahu were to form a similar coalition to what he has now, which means Likud, some ultra-orthodox parties and these pro-settler parties, any chance of a peaceful solution based on Trump’s deal of the century, which they’ve been working on for about two years now and are supposedly going to reveal after the elections, any chance of this deal success would be probably dashed. Whereas, if there was a centrist or a centre-right coalition without the pro-settler parties, there’s more of a chance of at least some intermediary steps towards a solution with the Palestinians, even if a final status agreement may not be possible.
It seems that most of the parties have a pretty similar stance with respect to the Iranian threat and radical Islam in general. Even if they have different nuances of how to deal with it and how to build coalitions, they seem to have a pretty similar militant approach towards the Iranian issue.
All parties are in favor of advancing Eastern Mediterranean relations – relations with Greece, relations with Cyprus, with other European countries as well, advancing economic relations. All seem to have a pretty anti-Turkey approach. There doesn’t seem to be much of a difference in that. There are obviously different shades, but these are kind of consensus issues.
So, just to summarize, I think that a lot of these kind of non-ideological voters are not really sure how they’re going to vote. They don’t really see a clear picture of what the various candidates stand for. We see various splinters between the different ideological blocs. There could be a situation where various small parties decide to form joint lists and run jointly, so we’ll actually have less parties than we do now before the cut-off date when you have to submit your party lists. In any event, right now Likud is favored to win the election, however this new party, Resilience for Israel led by Benny Gantz, is rising in the polls and seems to be giving a fight. The other parties, the smaller and midsize parties, are important players because they can impact how the coalition will look – whether it will be a strict right-wing coalition, whether it will be a more centrist coalition. There is a small possibility that it could be a center-left coalition as well if Benny Gantz would win the election. So there are really several possibilities that do relate to some extent to how the small parties turn out as well.
So I’m going to end this for now, I hope this was informative and I wish us a good election day and a democratic election day. Thank you.