What to Expect from the 2019 Israeli Elections – Dr Ehud Eiran, University of Haifa, 14th March, 2019
What to Expect from the 2019 Israeli Elections
Dr Ehud Eiran
Associate Professor of International Relations, University of Haifa
March 14, 2019
As you may know, Israelis will go to the polls on April 9th. Under the Israeli system people vote for a party list rather than a leader, but the winner is not necessarily the largest party, but the party that’s able to create a coalition of at least 61 members of Knesset. The two main contenders to set up such a coalition are the Likud Party led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister since 2009, and a new party that was set up literally in the last few weeks called Blue and White led by three former generals, three former chiefs-of-staff, and a fourth media personality who had been in electoral politics for quite a while. Current polls predict a small majority for the right, although as I will discuss in a few minutes, this is far from being a final.
The main topic on the elections is really the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu. He has been in power, as I mentioned, since 2009, and had an earlier period as a prime minister between 1996 and 1999. The issue is not even necessarily political in the sense of items on an agenda or a public debate over policy, but rather Netanyahu’s leadership. Most significant question surrounding him is a possible indictment by the state against Netanyahu’s three corruption charges. Earlier in the month the attorney general had announced his intention to prosecute Netanyahu, although Netanyahu was still given a chance for a hearing that will occur after the elections to try to deflect the indictment. If he’s indicted, a constitutional question – can he stay in power? And in fact it seems that Netanyahu had asked for the elections – these are somewhat earlier elections – in order to be in a better position as he faces the indictment. Netanyahu’s calculation, it seems, is that if he wins the elections it will be harder prosecuting, because he could always argue that the popular vote (inaudible) power despite these allegations.
From one hand we have Netanyahu fighting for his political (inaudible). On the other hand this party that is set up from the generals and include also some right-wingers, including Netanyahu’s former defense minister, the member of his party, who had left (inaudible), and one of his chiefs-of-staff, and some other people from the right wing, from Netanyahu’s party are running against him, further highlighting that the competition is really around his leadership rather than deeply ideological.
Having said that, Israel is a society that is still torn over a significant question, first and foremost should Israel retain control over the West Bank. It’s a subtle, behind-the-scene question that lurks in the election. Netanyahu is clearly in support of keeping the West Bank, whereas the party that opposes him, at least (inaudible) rather than these other former Likud Party members (inaudible) is probably supporting some sort of a withdrawal from the West Bank.
The second (inaudible) discussed in this competition is the role of the state in public life, and specifically populism versus statism, if you will. The generals’ party presents a more mainstream belief in the state institutions, whereas Netanyahu has been on an attack in the last few months, all state institutions, like the courts, the state prosecution, the police arguing, they’re all hunting him politically. And in that sense he represents a populist streak somewhat similar to what we see in Europe versus a party that’s more identified with the state and led with people who are very proud to say that for most of their adult life they had worked for the state, mostly the security sector.
And finally, beneath, I think, these two groups is also a question of identity. This generals’ party represents Israel’s traditional elite, whereas Netanyahu, although he’s in power for so many years, represents what were traditionally more peripheral forces in Israeli body politic, like religious, people of Middle Eastern descent. So it all is also a clash about identity. Netanyahu’s party represents a more ethnocentric, inward-looking party, whereas the generals belong at least to a social strata that’s more liberal, if you will, more committed to liberal democratic project.
As I mentioned, there’s a slight advantage to the right, although I can see at least three arenas that can be changed. First of all, another further development on Bibi’s investigation issues, for example leaks, recordings or more state witnesses. Immediately after the attorney general announced his intention to indict Netanyahu he took a little bit of a dive in the polls.
A second possibility or development that can change is a clash, armed clash with the Palestinians. In part because of the elections Israel is taking harsher steps towards the Palestinians, mostly in Gaza. This can lead to another round of violence and Netanyahu traditionally was very careful in military moves towards the Palestinians, in part because he realizes it has a potential political damage. But the realities on the ground and Israel’s harsher line may lead to a dynamic in which we’ll see more violence. How exactly it will play the elections is not clear. Netanyahu is supposedly a hardliner, but on the other hand the party that opposes him is comprised of generals who always in the security context look more convincing.
I should also add that the Israel Defense Force is the single most appreciated institution among the Israeli public, at least the majority of a Jewish Israeli public, and so this is a territory that Netanyahu already has a little bit of disadvantage.
Two other predictions beyond the elections. One, if Netanyahu wins, it is largely assumed that once he’s indicted it would be hard for him to stay in power, and so we may see another elections within relatively short time, once he is indicted. It already seems that either way these are going to be Netanyahu’s last elections. Likud, the party he leads, is traditionally loyal to its leader and eternal opposition is muted. Nevertheless, some of his internal opponents, most notably former Minister of Interior Gideon Sa’ar decided to take a more aggressive line. That’s indicating that they’re smelling, or sensing that this is the end of Netanyahu era and they should position themselves for the post-Netanyahu era. The other side of it is if Blue and White, this generals’ party does not win the elections, it’s hard to see how it will survive politically. We know that historically these lines of parties that were created from a number of stars do not survive for long if they’re not in power. Even if they win the elections, because it was a makeshift party very quickly without traditional institutions, it may face internal tension.
Let me conclude maybe with making three broad comments about what the elections tell us about Israel’s body politic, how it affects its approach to the Eastern Mediterranean and so on. On the last point, I don’t think the elections are expected to change Israel’s approach to this, what we call, the Hellenic alliance – our alliance with Cyprus and Greece. On this issue I think both parties, or both mainstream parties probably share the same approach. There’s some voices in Blue and White that are cautioning against fully exhausting Israel’s gas depots, but generally the materialistic power-based approach represented by the generals – one of them, by the way, a former head of a gas company – is expected to (inaudible) the alliance (inaudible).
A second interesting point relates to internal Israeli politics. Netanyahu’s party and other parties on the right took a more aggressive line towards the Arab-Israeli population. As you may know, we have 21% of citizens who are Palestinians or Arabs. One line Netanyahu took in order to attack his opponents is to delegitimize the possibility of Arab parties to join a coalition against him, arguing there against the state, etc. This is a line he already took in 2015 which served him quite well. Long term, this does not bode well for Israel, this internal tension against the quarter, fifth of the population.
The third broad point that we see in these elections tell us is a weakening of traditional parties. When I say traditional, I mean parties that have been around for decades. One of them, the Labor Party, was in fact the country’s founding party and was in power for over four decades. Labor Party, the National Religious Party, and even to some extent Likud, are not as strong as they used to be, and we have seen the rise of parties that are organized around a single charismatic leader, or in the case of Blue and White two or three charismatic leaders. I think this on a deeper level indicates some loss of trust among the public of the traditional party system, streak of populism, and also an element of instability, because these parties are organized around the charismatic leader, sometimes appear for one or two rounds of elections, and then disappear. In fact two parties, one headed by the finance minister, Kulanu, and the other one headed by the defense minister, Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) – both possibly will not be elected again. So these were formerly significant coalition parties who secured important portfolios. They may not even make it to the next elections. So long-time this indicates some level of instability.
And finally (inaudible) but nevertheless interesting, we have for the first time a party that truly adopted Israel’s self-image as a high-tech country, a start-up nation and so on. This is a party that adapted itself to this new era of communications and offers to elect people who (inaudible) according to what their voters will tell them on each individual vote through an app on a cell phone. The party is led by former senior civil servant who is (inaudible) advisor, so this is not a fringe operation. They are not expected to get in, but they do indicate, perhaps, what happens when modern technology meets notions of democracy and potentially even destabilizing the whole idea of government by (inaudible) by utilizing technology to affect politics in a more direct way.
So this is pretty much where we stand. We are three weeks before the elections, with all this instability there’s many changes. And I suspect that if we talk again, even in a week or two, things may look rather different. So thank you again for this opportunity and goodbye.