With the recent announcement from Benjamin Netanyahu that Israeli elections will be held approximately 8 months ahead of schedule (in early 2013), we thought an introduction to the domestic Israeli political landscape was in order.
This is the second of a two part series. You can read the first half here.
Yesh Atid: New Kids on the Block
Perhaps the most unpredictable ‘wild card’ in the 2013 Israeli elections is Yesh Atid, a new party chasing the oft-cherished chalice of Israel’s ‘secular middle-class’. Led by the charismatic journalist-turned-politician Yair Lapid, polls suggest the party will garner between 11 and 18 seats.
The party’s policy platform is deliberately vague, flitting from left to right with each of Lapid’s daily pronouncements. Yesh Atid is something of a populist ‘anti party’; Lapid frames his near-total lack of foreign policy, security or parliamentary experience as an asset, by labeling himself as ‘the outsider’.
Yesh Atid has successfully wooed pan-demographic, cross-party notables: Lapid made a national-religious rabbi his right hand man, whilst also co-opting popular mayors from as far afield as Meretz and Yisrael Beitenu.
Whilst ‘Yesh Atid’ translates from Hebrew to the optimistic assertion that ‘There is a Future’, questions persist as to the long-term survivability of the party, which is something of a one-man show. Does anyone remember Shinui, a secular, liberal middle-class party that disappeared from the electoral map just as quickly as it had risen? In case you were wondering (which you weren’t) it was headed by Yair’s father, Tommy Lapid. Thus, the barometer of Yesh Atid’s durability is not this election, but whether it still exists by the next one.
Wildcard #2: Shas
Shas are anything but newcomers: the party has maintained a near-constant presence in governments of both right and left since its appearance in 1984. Despite representing ‘traditional’ (orthodox, but not ultra-orthodox) Mizrahi voters, a cursory glance at Shas’ higher echelons betrays Charedi hegemony; its leaders are beholden to a ‘spiritual’ guide, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
The party is ‘flexible’ on the peace process, instead prioritising its domestic agenda: an unholy alliance of religious intolerance and welfare capitalism. Under leader Eli Yishai who recently claimed that ‘this country belongs to us, the white man’, the party has outshone even its own outstanding roll-call of bigotry.
Before the dawn of ‘Bieberman’, Shas’ continuation in government was almost a certainty, despite polls suggesting the party would continue to hover at around ten seats. However, Lieberman legitimised the merger through a call to limit the size of ‘small parties’, a thinly-veiled reference to the disproportionate power wielded by Shas, throwing the party’s future role into doubt.
Yishai’s authority now hangs in the balance due to the re-admittance of Aryeh Deri, a former party leader and convicted criminal. Deri is far more prone to working with the left and prioritising socio-economic concerns; expect an interesting and increasingly ugly power struggle to unfold.
The Zionist Fringe: The Far-Right and Meretz
Recent elections have not been kind to Meretz. The green/socialist/secular ingathering of the leftists has consistently staked its position as the most radical of all the Zionist parties and has languished in opposition since 2001, barely surviving the 2009 elections with just three seats.
However, thanks to Kadima’s downward spiral and Labor’s abandonment of the peace process, the party may double its representation to six seats. Whilst Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On is busy creating clear red water between the party and Labor, she has also ruled out sitting in government with Likud. Resultantly, Meretz is likely to remain in opposition, arguably its natural home as the party of the non-conformist left.
By contrast, the fate of the far-right is anyone’s guess. Exemplified by the fringe religious Habayit Hayehudi and the National Union parties, talk is afoot of a merger between the two groups.
Throwing a spanner in the works, the National Union’s Michael Ben-Ari has called for the formation of a new party– inspired by the deceased racist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Because Ben-Ari openly admires a leader who spawned a proscribed terrorist organisation, all signs point to a life sentence in opposition and a splintered radical right; the least explicitly racist elements of which may wrangle their way into government if Yesh Atid and Likud-Beitenu can’t cobble a coalition together that is spared the demands of fringe parties.
Left/right in the Cold? United Torah Judaism and the Arab Parties
Whilst Shas may stand to gain Likudnik Mizrahi voters who object to Yisrael Beitenu’s secularism, the same cannot be said for United Torah Judaism (UTJ). UTJ’s electorate is almost entirely Charedi; the party doesn’t try and ‘reach out’ to other demographics, instead relying on staking a place in multi-party coalition governments to retain its authority.
Followers of Israeli politics will remember party leader Yaakov Litzman attempted to make Swine Flu ‘Kosher’ (renaming it from to Mexican Flu, causing a diplomatic spat), and refused to shake the hand of the Belgian Health Minister, on account of her being a woman.
UTJ approach the election from their most disadvantageous position in years: if the newly-formed Likud-Beitenu alliance wins enough seats, narrow religious interest parties, traditional ‘king makers’ of coalition governments, may find themselves out in the cold.
Whilst the fate of the Jewish parties is anyone’s guess, the chances of the ‘Arab parties’ gaining a seat at the cabinet table are negligible. Of the four parties currently representing Israel’s Arab population in the Knesset, none have ever entered government. This is the result of a bizarre unspoken status-quo agreement: the Arab parties generally refuse to ‘prop up’ Zionist governments, whilst being perceived as reliant on the non-Zionist Arab parties would be the kiss of death for any Israeli administration.
Until the Arab parties learn to emulate Shas and UTJ and serve as kingmakers and powerful community representatives, voter turnout amongst Arab communities will remain low, whilst representatives’ influence will be negligible.
Photo credit: dmitrysumin