Israel’s elections: A turning point

The forthcoming Israeli general elections on April 9th will be the most vied for, equivocating and possibly pivotal in the country’s republican history. Israel’s society has become increasingly polarised and political tensions are on the rise; the left-right dichotomy has grown beyond the Israeli – Palestinian conflict and now...

The forthcoming Israeli general elections on April 9th will be the most vied for, equivocating and possibly pivotal in the country’s republican history. Israel’s society has become increasingly polarised and political tensions are on the rise; the left-right dichotomy has grown beyond the Israeli – Palestinian conflict and now touches upon a series of questions regarding the fundamental values and institutions of the state. Indeed, despite a new round of clashes with Hamas, the Palestinian question was left out of the political discourse, while much of the public debate focussed instead on Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal issues. The road that brought Israelis to the ballots is fraught with scandals, fake news and harsh propaganda which has raised many concerns about the future of Israel itself. Is Israel’s democracy under strain? What is at stake at these elections?

Background

Israel’s ballot is based on a system of proportional representation, with the electoral threshold set at 3.25%; the number of Knesset (parliament) seats a party receives is directly proportional to the number of votes it receives. The Knesset is elected for a four-year term and is comprised of 120 seats, which makes securing 61 seat majority the central goal of political parties. As a multi-party state with fragmented demographic factors, Israel has never seen a single-party majority government, making coalition politics an important electoral consideration. Approximately 5.88 million people comprise the current electorate, with fourteen main political factions vying for their vote.

Key contenders

Benjamin Netanyahu is the only one who needs no introduction to foreign audiences: he is well-known to be a racist against Palestinians, and is a strong supporter of corporate Israel, and of apartheid in which Palestinians are legally discriminated-against and in which Jews have the right to take Palestinian land and use it for new settlements by Jews. “During the election campaign, he has warned that his challengers would allow the creation of a Palestinian state, calling it a mortal threat to Israel.”

Benny Gantz: “Mr. Gantz’s election ads have trumpeted his military record, featuring a body count of Palestinian militants and scenes of destruction from the war in Gaza that he oversaw in 2014. Seeking to draw right-leaning voters away from Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Gantz has talked tough on Iran and echoed the prime minister’s positions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

Yair Lapid: “Mr. Lapid has supported ‘separation’ from the Palestinians and in the past endorsed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though he has not repeated that call in the current campaign. He has also been outspoken in his opposition to political alliances with Israeli Arab parties.”

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked: “The education and justice ministers are presenting themselves as genuine right-wing alternatives to Mr. Netanyahu.”

Avi Gabbay: “A former cabinet minister who was previously CEO of Israel’s largest telecoms company, Mr. Gabbay appealed to right-wing voters after he was elected Labour’s leader in 2017. He dismissed the notion of evacuating Jewish settlements in the West Bank and declared that ‘the left has forgotten what it is to be Jewish’, echoing a phrase once used by Mr. Netanyahu.”

Moshe Feiglin: “A religious West Bank settler,” he is “a maverick politician with a mix of libertarian and ultra-nationalist views.”

Analysis

The main challenger of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Benny Gantz, has campaigned on the need to halt the polarisation, a social condition he primarily attributes to the right; he criticizes their attacks on the supreme court and charges them with undermining the rule of the law. He has focused especially on Mr. Netanyahu’s looming indictment for corruption that Mr. Gantz believes, makes him unfit to lead the country. Mr. Ganz believes that Mr. Netanyahu would run the country like a king standing above the law. On the contrary, Mr. Gantz promises a statist government (memshala mamlachtit) which would represent the interest of all citizens, uphold the rule of law, stop the attacks on democratic institutions and even alter the most disputed law of the last legislative period, the so-called Nation-State Law.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, focuses primarily on his foreign policy successes and security credentials. His close relationship with US President Donald Trump is highlighted frequently – the recognition of the Golan heights needs to be seen as a campaign gift by Trump. Netanyahu stresses that only he and a right-wing government will be able to defend the security and Jewish identity of the state while a left-wing government would lead to terror attacks and an endangerment to the Jewishness of the state.

What is more important is the development within the right-wing camp beyond Netanyahu, who is – his populism aside – by many accounts one of the more moderate political figures in the right. The right-wing camp sees a further shift to the right on two levels. The first is the strengthening of the far-right instead of one party “the Jewish Home “ representing this political segment. These elections see three parties with serious chances of passing the electoral threshold; the new right, the Union of the far-right wing parties (URWP ) and Zehut.  

Israel’s ethnic, social and religious fragmentation as deliberated earlier, is likely to play a monumental role in the upcoming elections. Israel’s ultra-religious, Orthodox population, the Haredi take electoral advice from their rabbis and often cast their ballot in support of dedicated parties. However, more and more Haredi are now willing to vote for mainstream parties, partly motivated by issues such as ultra-Orthodox military conscription which is likely to be a key talking point for the next Knesset. Israeli Arabs, who comprise a fifth of the population, are not expected to vote in similar numbers as in 2015 when Arab parties joined together under the Joint Arab List. However, the electoral committee in charge of the elections has banned the consolidated list for these elections.

Zehut, and it’s nationalist, libertarian leader, Moshe Feiglin could end up playing kingmaker. The Zehut party has garnered significant support among Israeli youth over its liberal position on the legalisation of cannabis. Despite his hard-line politics, Mr. Feiglin could garner enough seats to alter coalition politics through his currently unaligned Zehut party. Mr. Feiglin has stated he has no preference between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz.

Assessment

Our assessment is that Israel’s society perceives the split between left (Centre – Arab) and the right as a severe social tension. We believe the left-right dichotomy has grown beyond the Israeli – Palestinian conflict and embraces a plethora of aspects, especially over the nature of Israeli democracy. Israel’s electorate is divided over whether Israeli democracy is in danger or if it is on the right path, as well as, whether the right impedes principles of liberal democracy or if the left has established structures of a deep state. We feel that a similar divergence can be observed on whether Israel’s current policies towards the West Bank and Gaza will ensure the safety of the state. We also believe that a crucial aspect in this equation is a growing trend amongst right-wing parties to change the nature of Israeli democracy – the attempt to shift it from a liberal to a majoritarian democracy, where there are limited checks and balances to parliamentary authority. We would also say that the passing of the so-called “override clause“ (Piskat HaHitgabrut) which permits the Knesset to overrule Supreme Court decisions, would effectively mean the end of the Supreme Courts’ functioning as the apex constitutional court, granting every government through its parliamentary majority unrestrained legislative powers. Most importantly, we believe that Israel’s electorate is most concerned with the capability of their next leader to lead their country, ensure economic stability and growth, without cutting corners on issues of national security; simply put, Israel wants a strong, capable leader that can lead them through any trial and tribulation.

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