Case Analysis 06 November, 2012

The Upcoming Knesset Elections: Netanyahu to Remain in Power

Keyword

Policy Analysis Unit

The Policy Analysis Unit is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Policy Analysis Unit draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Assessment Report, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


Introduction

Israel is among the few countries in the world that have adopted a fully proportional electoral system whereby the entire electorate votes as a single electoral district. This type of electoral system, in addition to the low "electoral threshold" required to obtain Knesset representation (not exceeding 2% of the voters' total ballots), has led to a multitude of small and mid-sized parties that are capable of obtaining representation in the Knesset.

 Due to this electoral system, along with other factors relating to the background of the establishment of the Zionist project in Palestine, no single party in the history of the state has yet been able to hold a majority in the Knesset.  As a result, since the founding of the state, all cabinets in Israel have been coalition governments composed of several parties. Furthermore, the Israeli political map has long been split into two competing camps: the first calls itself the "Nationalist Camp," including the Likud Party and its right-wing and extreme religious allies, and the second is composed of leftist, Zionist parties and centrist parties. In addition to the importance of party competition over the number of seats won by each political party, the decisive question in the composition of the cabinet remains: which of the two camps will hold the majority in the Knesset? The largest party in the Knesset is not necessarily the one that will form the cabinet; rather, it is the party whose camp can obtain the vote of confidence of at least 61 out of the 120 Knesset members.

Here, the factors that led Netanyahu to call for early Knesset elections and the balance of forces between the different parties and the competing camps will be examined. Furthermore, this paper will also describe the agendas that will be put forth by the political parties during the electoral campaign.

Reasons for the Call for Early Elections

A number of factors prompted Netanyahu to hold early elections on January 22, 2013, prime among them:

1. Various opinion polls in Israel have shown that the Likud Party will make slight gains in the coming elections, reinforcing their majority in the Knesset and allowing Netanyahu to form the next cabinet with ease.

2. The Knesset has had difficulty approving the state budget given the large budget cuts that have been proposed, which would, if approved, damage the Likud Party and Netanyahu's popularity less than 10 months from the election time.

3. In addition to exploiting the weakness of the opposition and the divisions and quarrels that have riddled its ranks, early elections would prevent Netanyahu's enemies from re-organizing, specifically former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was forced to resign due to allegations of corruption. The bulk of the legal measures taken against Olmert are scheduled to be completed by mid-2013, allowing him a chance to lead the anti-Netanyahu camp during the elections.

4. Netanyahu fears that he the US would pressure him for the coming year, especially if Obama wins a second term. Moreover, Netanyahu fears that a second Obama administration may intervene in the coming Israeli elections in favor of the opposing camp, which might damage Netanyahu's chances in the Knesset elections.

The Electoral Agenda

Israeli specialists affirm that the Knesset elections agenda has a clear impact on the outcome. If, for example, the electoral agenda is centered on questions of security and conflict, the chances of Likud and its allies winning would increase. On the other hand, if social and economic issues take center-stage during the electoral contest, the chances of the leftist and centrist camp would improve. In the past, social and economic issues largely dominated elections that witnessed Likud's defeat, being won by the left and the center. Conversely, there is not a majority in Israel that supports the "moderate" position when it comes to questions of peace and conflict; this is the domain where the demagogic extremist nationalist narrative dominates-keeping in mind that the so-called "moderate" position on peace in Israel lies within the camp of the Labor and Kadima parties, which in practice deny the rights of the Palestinian people.

Netanyahu, the Likud Party, and the extremist right-wing parties are all attempting to focus on the security agenda and questions of conflict during the coming elections, with specific focus being placed on the Iranian nuclear program; the conflict with the Palestinians and the broader conflict with the Arabs; and the threats to Israel inherent in the Arab revolutions. Netanyahu presents himself as the leader most capable of facing these perils at this specific period in time. Opinion surveys in Israel demonstrate that Netanyahu surpasses all other party leaders, particularly when citizens are polled on questions of security and conflict.

 Moreover, since Netanyahu is the incumbent prime minister, he is capable of setting the pace for Israeli settlement activity as well as for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has propelled the question of the settlements to the forefront of the electoral agenda. On October 18, 2012, the Israeli government approved a plan to build 800 housing units in the Gilo settlement in occupied East Jerusalem. Netanyahu also announced that his government will soon adopt significant parts of the Edmund Levy report [1], especially those that would legitimize dozens of illegal settlement blocs in the West Bank, providing them with a legal status. They would also seek to implement parts of the report that facilitate building additional housing units within settlements, as well as the confiscation of Arab lands and their appropriation by Israeli settlers. Furthermore, Netanyahu may potentially escalate the confrontation with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and revert to the policy of assassinating the leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian factions, especially if he presumes that such acts would benefit him by bringing a security agenda to the Israeli elections.

The parties in the leftist and centrist camp stress the social and economic agenda. The Labor Party, for example, has placed social and economic issues at the forefront of its concerns since the election of Shelly Yachimovich as party leader, and seeks to place these issues at the top of the electoral agenda. In its demands for social justice, the party has stressed the rising costs of living, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and the mounting economic pressures on the Israeli middle class. They are attempting to capitalize on the protest movement that arose in Israel during the summer of 2011: the party has attracted the most prominent leaders of the movement to its ranks with the expectation that a number will be guaranteed slots within the Labor Party's parliamentary group. The Yesh Atid ("There is a Future") Party, which was founded by the journalist Yair Lapid, is stressing the need to change the electoral system, to draft a written constitution for Israel, and to make military service mandatory for all citizens as three main points on their electoral agenda.


The Current Balance between the Two Camps

Israeli public opinion surveys conducted in recent months have shown a clear advance of the Netanyahu-led right-wing camp over the left and the center. Netanyahu's right-wing camp is composed of several right-wing, fascist, and extremist religious parties, including: the Likud Party, the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, the Shas Party, the Yahadut HaTorah Party, the Jewish Home Party (formerly the Mafdal Party), and the National Unity Party. The right-wing camp also appears to be more cohesive than their opponents, with all parties acknowledging the leadership of the Likud Party and Benjamin Netanyahu, the undisputed candidate to form a cabinet after the elections.

The surveys also predict that Likud will gain between 28 and 29 Knesset seats in the coming elections, compared to the 27 seats currently held, thereby making it the largest bloc in the Knesset. The extremist Yisrael Beiteinu Party, led by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman, is expected to garner 13 seats in the next Knesset, two less than their current status. Additionally, the Shas Party will increase its Knesset representation by two or three seats, increasing its total number of MPs to 13 or 14, primarily as a result of the return to the party's helm of its former leader, Aryeh Deri. The Yahadut HaTorah Party is anticipated to gain an additional Knesset representative, raising its number of Knesset seats to six while the fascist Jewish Home and National Unity parties are expected to secure a combined total of six seats. Thus, the Netanyahu-led right and extreme right camp in Israel are predicted to receive a clear majority in the Knesset, with up to 67 Knesset seats according to Israeli public opinion surveys.

Conversely, the left and the center appears divided and fraught with infighting among its groups, unlike the solid right-wing camp. The left and center includes the following parties: the Kadima Party, the Labor Party, the Yesh Atid Party (founded this year by journalist Yair Lapid), and the Meretz Party. The constituents of the left and center do not avow a leadership position to any party, nor do they agree on a common leader. At the time of writing, the final features of this camp are yet to be determined. It is unknown whether former Prime Minister Olmert will be participating in the elections. In the event of his participation, it is unclear if he will run, as leader of the Kadima Party or will instead form a new party. Despite the numerous reports in the Israeli media suggesting that Olmert may run in the next elections, it is more likely that he will not.

Observers also believe that Tzipi Livni, another former Kadima leader, will likely form a party of her own in the near future in order to run independently in the coming elections, or as part of an alliance with either Yesh Atid or the Labor Party. In past months, the Kadima Party has been suffering a decline in popularity at a rate unprecedented in Israel's history. After having won 28 seats in the last Knesset elections, making it the largest party in the Knesset, public opinion surveys predict that this number will shrink to between six and seven seats, with some polls doubting that the party will even surpass the electoral threshold to gain any representation at all if Tzipi Livni decides enter the elections with an independent listing that includes a number of the current leadership and cadres of Kadima.

According to opinion polls, the Labor Party is expected to gain 20 seats in the coming elections, as opposed to 13 seats in the last Knesset elections. Two years ago, five Knesset members (led by then Minister of Defense Ehud Barak) broke away from the Labor Party and founded the Independence Party, which the opinion polls show will face serious difficulties in surpassing the electoral threshold and obtaining Knesset representation. The polls also predict that the Yesh Atid Party will win 11 or 12 seats in the coming elections while the Meretz Party is expected to increase its Knesset representation by two seats to a total of five. Arab parties are predicted to maintain their presence and gain 11 seats in the next elections.


Formation of the Electoral List

In the coming weeks, Israeli parties will be preparing their electoral lists declaring who will participate in the next elections. Some parties will organize internal elections in order to determine these lists, such as the Likud and Labor parties, while in other parties-Yisrael Beiteinu, Kadima, Yesh Atid, Shas, and Yahadut HaTorah-the leaders nominate their electoral list. It remains unclear what electoral lists will be presented on behalf of the left and center parties, especially regarding Tzipi Livni.


Conclusion

Despite the fact that Israeli public opinion polls show a clear advantage for Likud and its camp over the leftist and centrist camp in Israel, it remains too early to judge whether the outcome of the Knesset's coming elections will reflect the current opinion polls. A number of factors, which are reflected in the following questions, will affect the behavior of the Israeli elites and the outcome of the elections.

1. The electoral agenda: will Netanyahu succeed in imposing the security and conflict agenda in the coming elections, especially since he controls the decision-making process, or will the left and center camp be able to impose the social-economic agenda on the electoral campaign?

2. Will the centrist and leftist camp (specifically the Labor Party, which appears to be the main competitor of the Likud Party) be able to raise the rate of participation among its traditional base, so that it can approach-even in relative terms-the extremely high voting rates among religious Israelis, settlers, and Russian Israelis (who predominantly vote in favor of the right-wing camp)?

3. Will the Labor Party be able to attract senior military leaders to head its electoral list? Doing so would make the party, in the eyes of the security-minded Israeli public, a suitable alternative to Likud, which would make a notable change since the current party leader is a Knesset member and a former journalist.

4. What will be the Likud Party's electoral list presented in the Knesset elections? Will the fascist Moshe Feiglin and his movement within the party be able to garner guaranteed spots on Likud's list, thus leading to the possible weakening of the party and the decrease of its popularity among the right-of-center public?

Despite all these factors, the right-wing camp remains the favorite to win a majority in the Knesset, one that would allow Netanyahu to remain in power and form the next cabinet. It is also likely in such a scenario that Netanyahu will seek to form a cabinet based on parties from his coalition as well as the Labor Party, especially since Netanyahu's political choices may force him to resort to seeking a national unity government (in order to avoid submitting to the pressures of extremist parties within his camp). In the eventuality that the Labor Party refuses Netanyahu's offer, the current prime minister would have a majority permitting him to form an extremist right-wing cabinet.

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[1] The report was published by a committee chaired by the former justice of the Israeli Supreme Court. Netanyahu asked the committee, formed in January of 2012, to examine ways to legitimize settlement blocs in the West Bank, which have been considered illegal.