Word on the Street: Israeli Election Edition

January 10th, 2013

By Yael Patir

J Street Director of Israel Programs

With fewer than two weeks before the Israeli election, it looks as though Benjamin Netanyahu will almost certainly continue as prime minister – but little else is clear. It seems as if right-wing forces opposed to a two-state solution will gain strength, but so will supporters of a peace deal with a Palestinian state. Above all, we don’t know if the next government will be the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history or if Netanyahu will try to construct an alliance of the center-right.

This week, the 34 parties competing for seats in the 120-member Knesset began airing television advertisements that will be broadcast every evening until polling day.

In Israel, parties are allocated broadcast time according to the strength of their parliamentary delegations. They are all broadcast, one after another, in a set time slot in the evening.

When I was growing up, Israel had only one TV channel. I remember gathering with the whole family in the living room, watching and criticizing. Today, only 20 percent of Israelis see any given political ad. But when 30 percent of voters remain undecided, the ads are sure to have influence, though likely not enough to shake the balance between the left and the right.

Since the beginning of the campaign, polls have forecast that the center-right bloc of Likud-Beiteinu, HaBayit HaYehudi, Shas and Yahadut HaTorah will win roughly 67 or 68 Knesset seats. The center-left bloc of Labor, Yesh Atid, HaTnuah, Meretz and the Arab parties has consistently trailed behind and is expected to win no more than 53 seats collectively. This means that Benjamin Netanyahu will continue to serve as prime minister,but the shape of the ruling coalition he will put together remains unclear.

One fairly likely scenario is a right-wing government comprised of Likud-Beiteinu together with several national-religious and ultra-Orthodox parties. Such a government could be rather unstable, relying heavily on parties that do not share Netanyahu’s agenda. It would be unpopular abroad and might face vigorous opposition at home.

To avoid this, Netanyahu could seek to draw at least one and possibly more of the centrist parties into the government. The mostly likely candidates are Tzipi Livni’s HaTnuah party or Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.

Although Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich announced that she would not join a Netanyahu government, there is a chance that she could change her mind, especially if such a coalition were to include Livni or Lapid.

Each of these scenarios would have different implications for socioeconomic policy, as well as for peace and security. And much will depend on the precise composition of the Knesset, where small parties often have outsized influence. Because it takes 61 of the 120 members of the Knesset to form a government, it is possible this will not happen until March.

Whatever the outcome, two general trends are clear. First is the rise of the religious right represented by members of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and HaBayit HaYehudi, some of whom advocate a unilateral Israeli annexation of all, or parts, of the West Bank. Indeed, the political clout of the settlement movement is certain to increase in the next Knesset.

On the other hand, among the newly-elected members of the Knesset on the center-left we will find more vocal supporters of the two-state solution. Likely to be among them are Yaacov Peri, number five on Yesh Atid’s slate; Amram Mitzna, number two on HaTnuah’s slate and a member of J Street’s Israeli advisory board; and Stav Shafir, number eight on Labor’s slate, who spoke at J Street’s last conference. This increase in strong support for the two-state solution among Knesset members is due to two factors. First, Labor, whose members are committed to peace, has grown significantly. Second, members of the new parties HaTnuah and Yesh Atid are assuming seats formerly held by members of the now- defunct Kadima party, some of whom were not absolute supporters of the two-state solution.

In any case, this promises to be a very lively Knesset.

The strength of the left and right wing blocs will depend on turnout. The right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties have been effective at mobilizing their supporters to vote. In 2009, 65 percent of the electorate turned out. But in the settlement of Alfei Menashe, for example, the voting rate in 2009 was about 74 percent. In the more ideological settlements, such as Ofra, the rate was 84 percent, and in ultra-Orthodox Beit El and Modi'in Illit it climbed to 86 and 87 percent, respectively. On the flip side, however, it would be very difficult for turnout to exceed these rates in those neighborhoods, meaning there is less room for growth in support for ultra-Orthodox parties.

The left has been far less successful to date in turning out voters. In fact, there are an estimated 700,000 eligible Jews who do not vote, but would most likely support the parties in the center-left, not to mention that only half of Israeli Arab citizens voted in the last election. Increasing turnout this time around could significantly change the make-up of the Knesset. This year, several groups are pursuing get-out-the-vote initiatives. For example, President Shimon Peres has a campaign on Facebook, and another group is aiming for an 80 percent turnout under the slogan, “If you don’t vote, don’t complain later.”

However Israelis vote, Israel’s alliance with the United States will always remain a cornerstone of its foreign policy. That means J Street’s strategy to convince President Obama that now is the moment for a bold new peace initiative to finally end the conflict remains as crucial and as relevant as ever.

For more information, check out our Israeli Election Guide.