Israeli election campaigns are not for the faint hearted. They might not be to everyone’s likings and they hardly produce decisive results, but they are never dull and never fail to generate great excitement.
If public opinion polls are accurate, the current ruling part Likud led by Netanyahu will form the next government. In that case it will be the current prime minister’s fifth administration, and confirm the alarming phenomenon of the Israeli electorate continuing to swing to the right. Worse, if this happens some very ultra-right elements taking key positions in such a government. Moreover, this will provide further evidence of the public’s apathy in the face of the cancerous corruption that spreads at the heart of the Israeli government.
In line with the chaotic and fragmented nature of Israeli politics, few dozen parties and lists are running in these elections, around 10 of which have a decent chance of crossing the entry threshold into the next Knesset. This in turn promises the prospect of tough, and probably prolonged, negotiations to form a new coalition government, and there are a number of possibilities for the formation of such an alliance.
In Israel no party wins majority seats in the Knesset outright. Elections are traditionally followed by weeks no end of horse-trading like of forming a coalition. With the Likud predicted to gain around half of the seats required to form a majority government, a coalition government might require the support of most a number of small parties. Unless, somehow they manage to form a coalition with the second biggest party, newly formed Blue and White alliance, an option that shouldn’t be entirely ruled out, such a government could only see its days if it adheres to an agenda which promotes the fruther entrenching occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza, continues to wear away Israel’s democratic institutions and processes – in particular the Supreme Court – and carries on with economic policies that serves the few and not the many, while increasing social inequalities.
The 2019 elections have much in common with previous elections, though also there are some striking differences. Customarily, new parties or political alliances tend to emerge close to polling day. They claim to present alternatives to those parties that already reside in the deep and murky waters of Israeli politics. Habitually, the main appeal of these parties is in their novelty: they are more about new faces than new ideas and principles. The Kahol Lavan alliance has brought together Yesh Atid, a centrist party led by Yair Lapid, a former finance minister in the Netanyahu government, with two key figures: the new big hope, former chief of staff Benny Gantz, and Moshe Ya’alon, another former chief of staff and one-time defense minister with hawkish credentials. It is at best a centre-right formation, with an agenda that strongly emphasises security and resistance to religious coercion by government legislation. They are by any stretch of the imagination a Leftist party as Netanyahu, for his own opportunistic reasons, would like to portray them. The Labour Party and Meretz, together with the two Arab parties, the United Arab List–Balad and Hadash-Ta’al, are expected to win just over one fifth of the vote. Consequently, the more realistic scenario is that any government formed in the aftermath of these elections will be a rather hawkish one with a strong free-market outlook.
No doubt that one of the stars of this election, though not participating in it, the attorney general Avichai Mandelblit, with his decision to indict Netanyahu, who might still have some impact on the undecided voters either within the Right-Left blocs or between. However, the indictment has turned this election campaign even more vicious, and reduced the tone of debate to unprecedented lows. There was nothing unexpected about the decision by Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to indict, pending a hearing, Prime Minister Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust on three separate counts of corruption. Nevertheless, there is still a feeling of shock and a deep sense of being let down in this moment of realization that the person leading the country is seemingly corrupt to the core.
Israel has a prime minister who takes liberties with accusing all who disagree with him of being disloyal and unpatriotic, yet has allegedly abused his power by demanding expensive items to the tune of six-figure sums, and who is accused of compromising the integrity of the political system to prevent negative media coverage of himself and his family. Even if the elections would put him in a position to form the next government, facing court for a prolonged time might lead to the end of his political career by a challenge from within his own party, or outside it.
The current PM’s two battles — to retain power, and to avoid conviction in court of law — are blurring into one. Given the genuine divisions along the fault lines of relations with the Palestinians, socioeconomic inequalities and deep discord between religious and secular forces, combined with politicians’ egos and ambitions in competing for the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, taking the gloves off and hitting below the belt has become the norm. It is a norm represented better by no one but the Prime Minister himself.
Netanyahu, has in his unscrupulous way was ready to sow further divisions during this election campaign. From the outset he pandered to the ultra-Right by legitimising the disciples of one of the most reviled racists in Israel’s history, Rabbi Khana, who was banned from running for the Knesset in the 1980s, agreeing to seat with them in a government after the elections. Moreover, he has already branded any coalition that gains the support of the Arab parties, even from outside government, as collaborating in the destruction of Israel, attempting with such a claim to delegitimize the Arab minority in Israel and their representatives.
This time round the Israeli voter has plenty what to choose from in terms of parties, but not enough in terms of differentiating them as far as their policies are concerned. The choice remains to stick with a government and a prime minister that their faults are familiar, but in which the country feels relatively secure and with economy which is doing well at least on the macro level. Alternatively, they can search for a new beginning and for a government that might have some fresh ideas about peace, social inequalities and also reduce the influence of the religious parties in political life. The Israeli voters have the opportunity to usher in something different. Will they take it?