Elections 101

Centrifuges, Palestinians, army service and cottage cheese — an election primer

As Netanyahu prepares to call early elections, a look at the key factors that will determine the result

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu casting his vote in Jerusalem for the 2009 Knesset elections (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu casting his vote in Jerusalem for the 2009 Knesset elections (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The 18th Knesset is heading for an untimely end. While the political leadership is still debating exactly when elections for a new parliament and government will take place, many of the key issues that will dominate the campaign season are already evident:

New leaders, new parties

According to recent polls, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is cruising to reelection. His Likud party is expected to win 30 or 31 Knesset mandates, up from 27 three years ago and way ahead of second-place Labor, which the polls predict may gain about four or five seats to 17-18. Much has changed in the political landscape since 2009 — parties splintering, leaders ousted, new parties created — but despite Labor’s resurgence under new chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich and the creation of a new populist party by former TV personality Yair Lapid, Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc can reasonably expect to stay in power. Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and Shas alone could get about 55 seats; add to that the seats of the United Torah Judaism and Jewish Home parties, and Netanyahu has a comfortable majority.

Yair Lapid (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yair Lapid (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But Lapid — whose new Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party is expected to win up to a dozen seats — is not the only wild card. Ousted Shas member Haim Amsellem hopes to enter the Knesset with his newly founded Am Shalem (A Complete Nation) party, and ex-minister (and ex-con) Aryeh Deri is still considering whether to field his own faction. That could cost Shas important mandates, which might force Netanyahu to look for another coalition partner — perhaps the far-right National Union. And that, in turn, could push him even further to the right and toward a collision course with the US.

There is also always the possibility that a small niche party will surprise the political establishment, as Rafi Eitan’s Pensioners Party did in 2006 when it garnered seven seats. In 2009, the Green Movement-Meimad, headed by Rabbi Michael Melchior, almost made it to the Knesset. The rival Green Party, which ran separately, had split the environmentalist vote, but if the two camps, which recently merged, run a joint list and manage to recruit a compelling leader, there’s a small chance it could prove the surprise of the summer.

The fate of Defense Minister Ehud Barak is unclear, as all polls predict certain death (that is, zero Knesset mandates) for his Atzmaut (Independence) party. And if Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman gets indicted for corruption charges in the next few weeks, as is expected, that could shake up the entire political system and help Netanyahu to an even more comfortable majority. Tzipi Livni, the former head of the opposition, is out the door for all intents and purposes.

Having said all of which, the Israeli political landscape is notoriously volatile, and the polls have often been proven wrong. Netanyahu has indicated he wants early elections, and the surveys all show he’ll win, but all kinds of unexpected factors can play havoc with results between now and polling day. He’ll know if his timing was right only when the exit polls are broadcast at the end of election day. And even those sophisticated surveys have been known to go a little bit awry.


Netanyahu and Barak, the leading public figures favoring a preemptive strike on the regime in Tehran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, are increasingly isolated in their belligerent position. The West believes the sanctions imposed on the Iranians will eventually force them to abandon their nuclear ambitions, and even in Israel more and more senior officials seem to oppose an Israeli strike.

Netanyahu is steadfast in his conviction that the Islamic Republic’s fundamentalist leaders would nuke Israel even if it meant their own destruction. Barak, too, keeps on warning about Iran. Yet most others who have something to say in Israel disagree.

President Shimon Peres and head of the opposition Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) warn against a rush to attack and IDF chief Benny Gantz recently said the Iranian leadership “is composed of very rational people” who haven’t yet decided to build nuclear weapons. The former heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet are openly opposed to a strike, which analysts agree could not fully destroy the Iranian program but could set the entire Middle East ablaze.

Different directions. Barak, Gantz, Peres and Netanyahu (from left) during a graduation ceremony of Israeli pilots at the Hatzerim air force base near Beersheba last June. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/Flash90)
Different directions. Barak, Gantz, Peres and Netanyahu (from left) during a graduation ceremony for pilots at the Hatzerim air force base near Beersheba last June. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/Flash90)

Barak is likely to be a casualty of the elections. He bolted his own Labor party to stay in the coalition, but his new faction has gained no real resonance. Theoretically, Netanyahu could keep him on as defense minister even if he’s not in the Knesset, but he would be hard-pressed to explain such a move to loyal senior Likud MKs who’ve been keen on the defense portfolio for years. Yet if Netanyahu wants to attack Iran, he would want to do so with Barak by his side.

The moment of truth on Iran is neither weeks nor years away, Netanyahu maintains, leading to speculation that this summer — when the skies are clear — could be his preferred time for an attack. The US administration repeats that Israel must make its own decisions on issues that it considers existential, but is also adamantly against any military intervention in Iran before the US elections in November. Would Netanyahu dare initiate an attack, which might spark a regional war, during an election campaign at home, and defying the wishes of Israel’s key ally?

The Palestinians

On April 17, a Palestinian delegation came to Jerusalem to hand Netanyahu a letter from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. After receiving the letter, a bitter litany outlining Abbas’s conditions for a resumption of peace talks, Netanyahu announced that he would respond within two weeks. Two weeks have passed and the Palestinians are still waiting.

Israel’s response to the letter will determine the Palestinian Authority’s next steps, which could include applying to the United Nations General Assembly for membership, senior Fatah official Jamal Muheisin said earlier this week.

While it sometimes seems that Israelis have grown apathetic to the Palestinian question, there are many for whom the peace process is the most important factor when they head to the polling stations, especially since more and more officials on both sides of the fence are talking about the possibility of a one-state solution. If Netanyahu fails to convince the public that he’s genuinely interested in making peace, he could lose precious votes to Kadima, Labor, or Lapid’s new party, Yesh Atid.

Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, a staunch believer in Zionist Revisionism who argued that Arabs had no right to a state in the heart of the Land of Israel, passed away Monday at 102. Most pundits reject the notion that Netanyahu, following his father’s death, will now free himself from Benzion’s heavy ideological burden and seek to take swifter steps toward reconciliation with Israel’s difficult neighbors.

The outposts

The prime minister says he is in favor of the two-state solution, yet at the same time he is looking for ways to legalize unauthorized outposts in the West Bank. He pledges to honor the decisions of the Supreme Court but when the judges issue demolition orders he seeks ways to circumvent them and save the outposts. The cases of Migron and Ulpana are still undecided — and if Netanyahu’s objections are overturned might spark ugly scenes of forceful evictions — while three settlement neighborhoods, Bruchin, Sansana and Rehelim, were retroactively legalized earlier this month.

The deadline for the evacuation of Migron is August 1. By that date, the settlers need to have been relocated to the nearby Givat Hayekev. The Ulpana neighborhood, in Beit El, was supposed to have been demolished by this Tuesday, but the state found a way to put off that decision by another few weeks.

The Americans and the Europeans, as well as the Palestinians of course, are up in arms about this issue, which makes it the perfect weapon for Netanyahu’s opponents who want to portray him as a settler-serving land-grabbing colonialist. The fight for right-wing votes will go through Migron, Beit El and several other contested settlements.  Netanyahu may try to present himself as somewhat settler-friendly at home, as he vies for nationalist votes, while on the international stage he will need to work hard to maintain credibility for his ostensible commitment to a Palestinian state.

The Tal Law

Since the Supreme Court overturned the Tal Law, which enabled ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to defer military service, the government has declared it would replace it with a more just law that would have everybody share the burden. But Netanyahu has not tabled any concrete proposals, out of fear that his Haredi coalition partners would bolt. This week, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Liberman threatened to let the government crash if it doesn’t support a law his faction will try to push through the Knesset come May 9.

The recently overturned Tal Law differentiated between the ultra-Orthodox and other Israelis regarding IDF enlistment. (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)
The recently overturned Tal Law differentiated between the ultra-Orthodox and other Israelis regarding IDF enlistment. (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

While Netanyahu could never advocate for a mandatory draft for the ultra-Orthodox in the middle of a Knesset session for fear his coalition might collapse, he might dare to do so ahead of new elections. Since such a move has wide public support, he could conceivably allow himself to vex the Haredim and advance bold new legislation that would actually help distribute the national burden more equally.

The social justice movement

During the summer of 2011, nearly half a million Israeli took to the streets to protest the high cost of living. The government tried to respond to the angry calls of “Bibi, go home” by establishing the Trajtenberg committee, which initiated reforms intended to make life financially easier for the middle class. While most of those who started the so-called tent protests consider the government’s efforts a case of too little, too late, it is not clear that the social justice movement can stage a comeback this summer.

Lapid and Yachimovich consider themselves the champions of the middle class but Shaul Mofaz, the former defense minister, also realized early that it might pay politically to jump on the social justice bandwagon. In his victory speech after winning the Kadima chairmanship, he made a concerted effort to portray himself as concerned about the middle class’s plight, even calling for a “new social order.” The polls to date suggest that few potential voters were won over.

When Israel elects a new leadership later this year, it will make a difference if the headline issues are the peace process and spinning centrifuges in Iran, or the equal sharing of the military burden and the price of cottage cheese. Netanyahu may well be heading for victory in either case, but the question of his victory margin — and hence his subsequent room for maneuver — is wide open.

And, of course, remember again, in Israeli politics, nothing is over until the votes are counted.

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