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.
The government of the 18th Knesset was one of the most stable in the topsy-turvy world of Israeli politics: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now the second-longest serving premier in Israel’s history of squabbling, multi-party coalition governments. This represents a rare achievement in the fickle world of Israeli politics, where internal wrangling and ego-fuelled disputes are daily occurrences.
With the Israeli elections scheduled for 22nd January 2013, all of the Knesset’s 120 seats are up for grabs. Below, I attempt to navigate the obfuscated, irascible and often irrational nature of Israeli politics, by providing an outline of the ‘major’ parties vying for representation in the 19th Knesset.
‘Likud’- Hebrew for ‘Consolidation’, constitutes a merger of a disparate band of right-wing parliamentary parties. The 2013 elections have wrought the ‘consolidation of the consolidation’ in the ‘nationalist camp’: the merging of Likud with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. Shocked political commentators compensated for being caught off-guard by coining the new slur towards this government-in-waiting: ‘Bieberman’.
The ideological incongruity between these parties contextualises cross-party shock at the news. Yisrael Beitenu is a ‘special interest’ party of Israel’s Russian-born population. Branded ‘The Russians’, Lieberman supporters are unique for their espousing of both secularism (Yisrael Beitenu are often called ‘The Pork Party’) and right-wing ‘ultranationalism’.
By contrast, Likud rose to power in 1977 on the backs of ‘Mizrahim’: orthodox Jews from Arab countries alienated by the Europeanised, socialist secularism of the Labor-led administration. Whilst Lieberman’s pronouncements during his current tenure as Foreign Minister were crass and peppered with nationalist bombast, the American-educated Netanyahu represents the Western-media savvy, ‘silver tongue’ of the Israeli right, taking the Likud to its current 27 seats.
At a glance, one can discern the underlying fundamental precipitants of the merger. Representing but one section of Israeli society and holding only 15 Knesset seats, Lieberman’s lofty Prime Ministerial ambitions would indubitably be rendered unlikely. By co-opting the rising star of the right, Netanyahu neutralised a potential Prime Ministerial contender, positioning Lieberman as an heir, not an opponent. Both leaders have, naturally, denied that a power-sharing deal was cemented.
Though polls had previously been kind to both parties, snap post-merger polling has painted a less rosy picture. Likud may lose both Mizrahi voters put off by Lieberman’s secularism and centre-right voters who eschew Yisrael Beitenu’s apathy towards the international community. The merger has also engendered discomfort from Likudniks who considered themselves Prime Ministers in waiting. Whilst the happy couple are enjoying the honeymoon, inter-party acrimony is already fermenting.
Yalla (Bye?) Kadima
Kadima is a name rooted in Israeli slang: ‘Yalla Kadima’- ‘let’s go: forward’- is ubiquitous during rush-hour traffic jams. Thus, it is ironic that ‘Yalla Kadima’, a centrist party founded in 2005, is at risk of becoming ‘Yalla Bye’- a streetwise idiom denoting decampment.
Since Ariel Sharon, Kadima’s founder, suffered a stroke in 2006, the party was led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and then by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The loss of government to Likud in the 2009 elections led to Livni being displaced as leader by her rival, Shaul Mofaz. The latter’s bumbling has not endeared the party to skeptical Israeli voters: despite joining Netanyahu’s coalition in May 2012, Mofaz backtracked, returning Kadima to opposition in mid-July. Polling has consistently shown the party plummeting from its current position of 28 Knesset seats to single-digit figures.
Despite being mired in sleaze and corruption, rumours abound about Olmert’s return to politics as head of a centre-left ‘mega-party’. Livni is also the subject of speculation; will she found a centrist party, join Labor or ally with Olmert? Rather than stand as a testament to their survivability, the resurgence of previous washed-up leaders is demonstrative of a vacuum of electable talent on the centre-left.
The Redemption of Labor
Despite having led every Israeli government from 1948-1977, many pundits predicted the demise of the Labor Party throughout the 18th Knesset. The party enters the 2013 elections with its lowest-ever mandate of eight Knesset seats, having been decimated by former Labor leader Ehud Barak’s decision to split from the party in 2011.
Barak, the highest-decorated soldier in Israeli history, was replaced by Shelly Yachimovich, a political neophyte with no security experience, often a necessity for Israeli electoral success. Unlike its European namesakes, Labor has failed to connect with working-class Israelis, many of whom are Russian or Mizrahi, due to the predominance of hawkish positions in these demographic groups vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
Starting from a low point, Labor is oddly well-placed to spin a lacklustre result as a positive gain. Buoyed by widespread societal dissatisfaction at the high cost of living, Labor strategists hope to broaden the party’s appeal by focusing on socio-economic issues, rather than the flaccid peace process: Yachimovich has successfully recruited the leaders of the cross-party social protest movement. With Kadima faltering, opinion polls suggest Labor will supplant them as the official opposition.
Netanyahu’s government finally fell due to the unwillingness of his coalition to agree to a wide-ranging budget of austerity measures. When the cuts bite, Labor is banking upon the vindication of their social-democratic platform: if they under-perform electorally, expect them to play ‘the long game’ and sit out the next government in opposition.
This is the first of a two part series. You can read the second part here.
Photo credit: dmitrysumin