By Joshua Shinbrot
A Close Race
On March 17, the Israeli people will choose their new government in an election with an outcome that is not yet predictable. After averaging polling data from 12 different sources, the Likud Party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slightly trails the Zionist Union Party led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni. Yet, which party will overtake the other is currently unclear.
Likud? Zionist Union? What’s the difference?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi) leads Israel’s Likud party. Along the political spectrum, Likud sits to the right of center. Throughout this campaign season, Netanyahu has sought to position himself as a man capable of securing Israel from threats as varied as Iran, Palestinian Terrorism, ISIL, and the international delegitimation effort. In one comical campaign ad, Netanyahu arrives at a family’s home in place of a babysitter and refers to himself as the “Bibisitter.” He proceeds to tell Israelis that this election is a choice about who will look after their children.
Regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace, the Netanyahu government does not currently see the Palestinian Authority as a capable partner. Moreover, Netanyahu believes that the current security situation significantly limits his ability to engage in unilateral withdrawals similar to those executed by Ariel Sharon. The disastrous result of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and its subsequent fall into the control of Hamas terrorists provides support for Netanyahu’s view. Certain members of Netanyahu’s coalition have supported settlement activity in recent years and they are likely to continue to back settlement activity if they remain in power.
The Netanyahu family is well known throughout Israel. During his military service, Benjamin Netanyahu served in an elite commando unit. His older brother, Yonatan was killed in action during Operation Entebbe, a famous rescue of Israeli hostages. This perception certainly does not harm the Netanyahu team’s desire to portray Bibi as a man truly capable of maintaining Israel’s security.
The Zionist Union is a joint ticket comprised of Israel’s Labor party (currently led by Herzog) and Tzipi Livni’s Hatenua party. Along the political spectrum, the Zionist Union sits to the left of center.
If elected, Herzog and Livni intend to rotate the post of Prime Minister, with Herzog serving the first two years and Livni serving the last two. One of the party’s more ambitious goals is to set the final borders of Israel. They hope to achieve this through a diplomatic solution reached in bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians, but they are willing to pursue other avenues if negotiations with the Palestinians do not bear fruit. According to the party platform:
“The arrangement shall be designed with the support of moderate Arab states and the international community, and based on the following principles: demilitarization of the Palestinian state; keeping the West Bank settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty; strengthening Jerusalem and its status as the eternal capital of Israel; and guaranteeing religious freedom and access to the holy places of all religions while maintaining Israeli sovereignty.”
Who will win?
While most polls show the Herzog and Livni’s center-left Zionist Union party narrowly beating Netanyahu’s center-right Likud, there is no guarantee that Herzog will assume the post of Prime Minister. In fact, even if Likud does not win the election, there is still a chance that Netanyahu and his party may remain at the helm of power. In Israel, the ability to form a government is often more important than the ability to win elections. Forming a government requires building a coalition of parties that consists of at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. As the world saw in 2009, Tzipi Livni’s party won the greatest number of seats in Knesset. Yet, Livni was unable to form a majority coalition. Netanyahu’s Likud technically lost the 2009 election: that year, Likud won the second greatest number of seats. However, unlike Livni, Netanyahu was able to form a majority coalition, enabling him to take power. Due to the number of small religious and right wing parties in Israel, many doubt Herzog and Livni’s ability to form a government even if they do win the election. Despite this challenge, new dynamics that are unique to this election have the potential to work in favor of the Zionist Union.
Israel’s Arabs Join Together
Traditionally, several Arab parties attain a small number of seats in Knesset each Israeli election cycle. This year, for the first time in Israel’s history, the various Arab parties have joined together with Hadash, Israel’s communist party, and will run on one ticket. Approximately twenty percent of Israeli citizens are Arab Muslims, Christians, Bedouins, and Druze. In the past, voter turnout has been lower among Israeli Arabs than among Jewish Israelis. The unity of Arab political parties with Hadash could have transformative implications in the Israeli political process that may inspire greater Israeli Arab participation in elections. My average of twelve polls predicts that the Joint List between the Arab parties and Hadash will win approximately 12 seats in Knesset. That is likely the same number of seats that will be won by centrist party Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett’s modern orthodox, nationalist party, The Jewish Home. Currently, The Jewish Home is in coalition with Likud and it is unlikely that the party would form a government with the Zionist Union. The Joint List is expected to win more seats in Knesset than the powerful, ultra-orthodox Shas party, which has been a part of every governing coalition since the party’s creation except for three (including the present government).
While the Arab parties have joined together to run on one ticket, questions still remain about the extent to which these groups have put aside their differences. One of the Joint List members is Hadash, Israel’s communist party. Hadash has a different social agenda from the United Arab List, a party that has strong support among Arab nationalist and Bedouin citizens of Israel. Ta’al, a party that normally runs jointly with United Arab List, is Islamist. It will likely find it difficult to advocate its strong religious views in a coalition that involves a communist party, given the communist tendency to suppress all religion. As a result of these internal differences, it is possible that these parties may be running together not out of ideological unity, but merely as a result of the practical consideration that Israel’s increased electoral threshold would likely lead to significant vote wastage if the parties were to run independently.
Moreover, the power of an Arab party with twelve seats would be largely linked to its ability to join a governing coalition. By helping to form a governing coalition, the Joint List would be able to negotiate key posts in the government for several of its ministers. However, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on March 3, Joint List spokesman Raja Zaatry said, “there was no chance it would join even a left-wing government at this time.”
Arab Party Will Not Join Government
Refusal to join any Israeli government has consequences that are twofold. First, it will limit the influence of the Joint List, as none of the party’s ministers will be appointed to the cabinet. Second, if Joint List chooses not to join a government, it will be practically impossible for the Zionist Union to form a form a majority coalition even if it wins more seats than Likud. Given its support of a settlement freeze and recent criticism of Israeli construction in Jerusalem, it is unlikely that the Zionist Union would form a coalition with Israel’s smaller, right wing parties. Consequently, without Joint List support, it may not be possible for the Zionist Union to capture the minimum 61 seats needed in Knesset to form a government.
Who will decide the election?
Another new party running in this election is Kulanu and it is projected to win approximately 9 seats. The party’s leader, Moshe Kahlon, used to be a member of Likud, but has formed a new party and is committed to reducing housing costs. Recently, Kahlon, working with Netanyahu, lowered cell phone costs in Israel. He has not yet determined which party he will align with and it appears that Kahlon’s party will determine whether it is the Zionist Union or Likud that can form a government. However, if the Arab Joint List truly decides not to join any government then it will be numerically impossible for the Zionist Union to form a majority coalition.
The chart above depicts my categorization of the listed parties into blocks. Likud’s block is projected to control about 50 seats and the Zionist Union block has 42. Parties that have not yet committed to supporting the Likud or the Zionist Union will control approximately 28 seats. The Arab Joint List controls twelve of those seats. If the Arab Joint list does decide to enter into a coalition with the Zionist Union, Herzog’s chances for forming a coalition are greatly improved. A chart depicting that outcome would look like this:
It would still be possible for Netanyahu to form a government in this scenario. Yet, the requirement that Netanyahu attain the support of both Kulanu and the religious United Torah Judaism party would be a difficult threshold to cross. However, if Likud is able to win enough votes to secure at least 22-23 seats, they will likely be able to form a government even if the Joint List aligns with the Zionist Union. In that scenario, the support of Kulanu alone will probably be enough to bring Likud to the 61-seat threshold.
A National Unity Government?
Together, both Likud and the Zionist Union will receive considerably less than half of the seats in Knesset. It is at least theoretically possible that Likud and the Zionist Union may choose to come together and form a National Unity government. This move would not be unprecedented. Shimon Peres (Labor) and Yitzhak Shamir (Likud) rotated the post of Prime Minister in a unity government they formed in the 1980s. It is worth mentioning that the transition from Peres to Shamir in 1986 is often blamed for a significant deterioration in the peace process.
Today is certainly not 1986. Since 1986 Israel has signed a Peace Treaty with Jordan and the Oslo process began transforming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an existential conflict to a political conflict. However, the Zionist Union and Likud have different attitudes towards an Israeli-Palestinian peace. While both parties are skeptical of the capabilities of their Palestinian counterparts, Netanyahu believes that the security situation prevents the Israelis from significant withdrawals at this time. He also does not believe that a diplomatic solution is currently possible.
The Zionist Union believes in imposing a settlement freeze, except in the major blocks, and pursuing a peace plan that uses the 1967 Green Line as its basis. A Zionist Union led government is also likely to be more amicable towards Israeli unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank. If there were to be a national unity government, Herzog and Netanyahu would likely divide their time as Prime Minister. A major ideological difference on unilateral action such as those regarding settlement building and unilateral action in the West Bank could easily make for a highly problematic transition.