The elections due to take place in Israel this coming Tuesday are different from any that have taken place in at least a generation and perhaps more.
In the past, the major political parties would fight it out as to who was more likely to take care of Israel’s security interests. Back in 1996 Netanyahu’s campaign slogan was “Peres will divide Jerusalem”. Yitzhak Rabin was characterized by his opponents as a Nazi. Meantime, the Left argued that the Oslo Peace Accords were the way to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians.
Those days have gone. Few Israelis now believe that an agreement will be signed with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future and much of the Left wing in Israel’s political spectrum has now moved to the centre.
Even Israel’s Labour Party describes itself as centrist. Its political platform is largely devoted to social and economic issues and its election campaign carries the slogan “It could be better here,” In its campaign Likud prides itself with having provided free education to children over the age of 3 and in a television interview on Saturday night Netanyahu promised to reduce the cost of housing.
Finally, Israel is normal and, like in any normal country, social and economic issues are dominating the elections.
The change of focus reflects both the generally held feeling that the Palestinians are unprepared to reach a peace agreement and also a growing level of dissatisfaction at the distribution of wealth in Israeli society, which has left many feeling that they will never be able to purchase their own homes or earn sufficient money to meet their needs. This sentiment came to the fore when hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv in the summer of 2011 protesting “the people demand social justice!”
But it is not only the focus that has changed. Gone also are the days of the major political parties. Whereas Likud held no less than 38 seats in the 16th Knesset back in 2003 and Labour mustered 34 seats in the 14th Knesset in 1996, Likud is unlikely to reach those figures today even after having joined forces with Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu party, and Labour will win just half the seats it held 17 years ago.
Those mandates will be shared by a host of other parties such as Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, which are anticipated to win no less than a quarter of the seats in Israel’s next Knesset.
A dysfunctional electoral system has resulted in a situation where a Yediot Aharonot poll conducted just over a week ago indicated that no less than 13 different parties will be represented in the coming Knesset.
Whereas there is little doubt that Netanyahu will be called upon by the President to form Israel’s next government, the task of doing so will be formidable. Several parties insist that military or national service be demanded of the ultra-orthodox charedim as a condition for their joining any coalition. Others will demand a fairer share of the country’s wealth at a time when a budget shortfall is already placing considerable pressure on Israel’s government to cut spending and increase taxes.
Netanyahu will have a host of potential coalition partners to choose from. However, each of them has its sine qua non list of demands. While his natural inclination would be, as in the past, to go with the ultra-orthodox charedi parties and meet their demands, their numbers alone will not enable him to form a government and growing impatience with their lack of preparedness to share the national burden through military or national service and a shrinking budget will also be factors in his decision making.
Although we are only three days away from elections, no one really knows what Israel’s next government will look like.