Looking Ahead at the Israeli 2015 Elections
By Sarah Ann Haves
Israelis go to the polls on March 17, 2015 to elect a new government. In the current Israeli political system, citizens vote for a specific political party, not directly for Prime Minister. Knowing who is heading up a particular political party, gives Israelis hope that the person they want to be Prime Minister will lead the country. But, it is not a guarantee. This is one of the flaws in Israel’s political system.
After election votes are in and counted, hopefully by March 18th, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will invite the various heads of the political parties to his office for consultations. This should include the head of every political party that made it over Israel’s 3.25% threshold, in terms of the amount of votes they received by the public.
Rivlin will ask each party leader who they think will be the best person to form the next government. Then, it is Rivlin who will decide who to invite to fulfill that task. Even if one political party receives more votes than another, it will be Rivlin’s decision, based on consultations, that will determine who will be the first leader he asks to form a new government. If that leader fails, then another leader will be appointed by Rivlin to try and form a government. In other words, the President of Israel yields a lot of power in Israeli elections.
What makes this whole process interesting is that Rivlin, who was recently elected to the office of President, is a dovish member of the Likud Party; but, not necessarily a friend of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is expected to win the Likud Party’s leadership title, again, in upcoming Likud internal elections.
This means Netanyahu keeps his reign as leader of his party, which gives him an advantage if Likud becomes the largest party to be voted in. But, Netanyahu has been known to disagree with Rivlin on major issues regarding democracy vs. Jewish sovereignty in Israel. For example, while Rivlin sees the importance of Israel being the Nation State of the Jewish People, he is a strong advocate for Israeli democracy. He embraces all faiths and all people living in the state with equal rights and equal opportunities. Rivlin considers democracy the most important element of the basic freedoms in Israeli society.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, has considered the strengthening of Israel’s Jewish character as the most important element of guaranteed Jewish sovereignty over the land. When Netanyahu wanted to pass a controversial bill through the Knesset that would have affirmed Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People, Rivlin opposed it, saying it was not necessary. The two men have disagreed on many issues in the past, resulting in a rivalry that could hurt Netanyahu’s standing in the March elections…. in terms of Rivlin’s decision on who to invite to try and form the next government.
Every week various Israeli media outlets and think tank centers poll citizens to see what the outcome might look like in the March election. And, each time there is a different conclusion. As of this writing, the two traditional major parties in Israel – Labor and Likud – do not seem to be doing any better among potential voters than other smaller political parties.
|[Herzog and Livni] have…
a common desire to sign
a peace agreement…
Recently, Labor Party Chairman Yitzhak Herzog joined forces with Hatnua Party Chairman Tzippi Livni. Livni’s party probably would not have crossed the 3.25% threshold in the next election had she not found someone she could partner with. Herzog was the natural political partner for her, as they have a common desire to sign a peace agreement with the Palestinians under the “land for peace” two-state formula. Despite her party’s political weakness, Livni has gained global diplomatic credibility for her statesmanship role in being Israel’s chief negotiator in past dealings with the Palestinians. As a result, she has the presumed power to gain the public’s confidence to vote for Labor. Herzog has willingly signed an agreement with Livni allowing her to take on the rotating position of Prime Minister if he forms the next government. Herzog would serve in the position during the first two years, and Livni would become Prime Minister during the remainder of the term.
The platform of the liberal left-leaning parties in Israel, such as Labor, Hatnua and Meretz, is considered misleading by some Israelis. While the party members claim to be Zionists, they believe that the only way for Israel to continue with a Jewish majority population in the land is to withdraw from disputed territories that Israel obtained in the 1967 Six Day War. They back up this claim stating that the future demographics show that Israel could lose its Jewish majority if Israel holds on to land in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), because of the thriving Arab population. However, statistics show that this claim is not accurate, especially if Israel chooses to loosen its laws of immigration and allow more Jews into the country under the Law of Return.
At the same time, left-leaning Israeli politicians cannot conceive of ruling over millions of Palestinian Arabs who live in the West Bank without giving them equal voting rights if they are to stay within the territory of the State of Israel. Israeli leaders fear that if Israel remains a bi-national state, and does not give the Palestinians their own state, the Arabs could eventually have enough voting power to take over the State of Israel. This fear has caused Israeli left-leaning parties to look for a solution; and, for them, the only solution is two-states – one Israeli and one Palestinian — commonly referred to as the “two-state solution”.
Most of the left-leaning parties in Israel have this ideology in mind, whether they lean all the way to the left, or are more centrist in their thinking. Their intent is to make a deal with the Palestinians and withdraw from most of the land Israel obtained in the 1967 Six Day War, for the establishment of the “State of Palestine.” These same politicians speak very little about Israel needing defensible borders and, instead, give diplomatic solutions greater priority over security issues. They fear that Israel is becoming more and more isolated within the international community and that a diplomatic solution must be found quickly before the Palestinians are successful at internationalizing their cause through the UN Security Council.
The right-leaning parties in Israel are currently compromised of Likud and Bayit Yehudi. The Bayit Yehudi Party Chairman is Naftali Bennett. Under his leadership, he has continued to proclaim that a two-state solution is dangerous for Israel. Generally, he is opposed to the current “land for peace” formula. He insists that Israel should annex parts of Judea and Samaria, which he believes is the biblical heartland of the Jewish State. He claims that Israeli military control over at least 60% of the territories guarantees that this area will remain safe and secure. Bennett wants a final deal with the Palestinians to be one that enables them to have autonomy over the territories currently under their jurisdiction, but not necessarily to achieve statehood. Most of the politicians associated with Bayit Yehudi hold this same philosophy. They have concerns about Israel becoming isolated among the nations; but they feel the strength of a secure Israel, that doesn’t compromise “land for peace” will inevitably be more successful than a weak Israel in terms of its capabilities to defend the homeland.
Two kinds of politicians are in the Likud political party – hawks and doves. Some of the politicians hold views that would be considered right-leaning. Others are pulling the party towards the center. Likud recently made an agreement with Bayit Yehudi regarding vote sharing. The parties will be able to add together the total votes they receive in the elections as part of one voting bloc. This will strengthen these two political parties. But, the infighting in Likud as to whether to lean right or center has caused friction, publicly. And, not all Likud ministers are content with a voting bloc that includes Bayit Yehudi.
Those Israeli citizens who want absolute assurance that their political party of choice will not agree to a “land for peace” formula will probably vote for Bayit Yehudi in the next election. They are the same voters who are not satisfied with Netanyahu’s current political position as Likud chairman. (He has agreed to the idea of a two-state solution — Israel and a de-militarized Palestinian State). Therefore, certain right-leaning Israeli citizens will hesitate to vote for Likud in the March election. This could result in a weakening of the power of Likud
In the next election, what could also weaken the ability of either Likud or Labor to fulfill their traditional roles as party winners has to do with a promising Israeli “center”. In the last election, the Yesh Atid centrist political party, headed up by Yair Lapid, came in second in the polls. In that election, Likud and the Yisrael Beitenu Party had joined ranks and ran in the election together. They were barely able to form a coalition government. After more than a year and a half in government, Yisrael Beitenu broke off from Likud. Following that, some Likud members resigned from the government for various personal and political reasons. As a result, Yesh Atid gained seats in the coalition to become the largest ruling party. Still, Netanyahu remained Prime Minister, and the friction between Netanyahu and Lapid, who was Finance Minister at the time, intensified. Their bickering spilled out to the general public. Eventually, the disagreements between the two men ended up being the major contributor to the downfall of the government.
Currently, Lapid is running a campaign based on blaming Netanyahu for all Lapid’s failures as Finance Minister. If Lapid changes his strategy, and runs a campaign based on a diplomatic and socio-economic vision for the future, his party has a chance of showing strength in the polls.
Right now, Lapid is trying to form a centrist bloc by entertaining the idea that he might join ranks with a new party leader, Moshe Kahlon, Chairman of the Kulanu Party.
Kahlon, a former Likud member, has taken a strong stand on resolving Israel’s domestic problems, especially in the socio-economic sectors. This is a similar stand to that of Lapid in the previous government.
Kahlon seems willing to work with either a Labor or Likud government; or, if his party gets the most votes, he would consider becoming Prime Minister. His lack of experience, diplomatically, will cost him on Election Day.
While Israelis continue to claim in polls that the most important thing to them is the economy and internal security, they still want a Prime Minister who they can trust to lead them in the diplomatic world, and to keep them safe and secure militarily. Kahlon does not have that kind of experience. But, if his Kulanu Party gains a large percentage of votes, he will have political power to decide which major party he will form an alliance with – Labor or Likud. His current centrist ideologies put him in either camp.
A major party contender is Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beitenu Party, who is currently Israel’s Foreign Minister. At one time, he was considered a bull dog, with a knack for insulting world leaders. There were diplomats who would not deal with him, including those in the United States. But, lately, Lieberman has become more statesmanlike. He is showing a willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians, and has looked to the Obama Administration for input in future peace negotiations. Leaving behind his hardliner positions, Liberman has hinted he would be willing to join a left-leaning or right-leaning government. His aspirations to become Prime Minister have caused him to become a centrist. His unwillingness, so far, to join with any voting bloc, may strengthen his position on voting day. Israeli Russians like him, but a lot of citizens do not trust him, and cannot perceive him becoming Prime Minister.
If the three centrist parties decide to come together as one voting bloc – Yesh Atid, Kulanu, and Yisrael Beitenu, they could conceivably get the most votes in the upcoming election. Israelis, however, may hesitate to vote for such a centrist bloc, knowing that to do so, they may not get who they want to hold the title of Prime Minister.
American leaders have claimed they will not interfere with the Israeli election. But, already, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly said that the U.S. decision not to vote at this time in support of a Palestinian State in the UN Security Council came after hearing the opinions of Tzippi Livni and former President Shimon Peres. Both Livni and Peres are considered left-leaning politicians. This heightened Livni’s credibility within Israeli society and revealed her powerful influence within the Obama Administration.
Obama recently credited the Netanyahu government with affirming the U.S. position on negotiations with Iran, claiming that Israel’s intelligence agencies felt that the interim agreement between P5+1 countries and Iran was a good effort in slowing down Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Whether that is true or not, the impression is that the U.S. and Israel remain close allies despite personal disagreements between Obama and Netanyahu.
Obama has recently signed into law a strategic U.S.-Israel Partnership Act, which American does not share with any other country. For whatever his political reasons are, Obama is wanting the world to believe that he and Netanyahu do agree on certain issues, especially defense cooperation. When it comes to making sure that Israel keeps it military edge over other nations in the Middle East. Obama has claimed that under his leadership the two allies have never been closer. As part of his overall foreign policy accomplishments, Obama wants to appeal to American citizens in the upcoming 2016 U.S. elections, hoping Democrats will win. Perhaps, his continued claim that his administration has kept Israel’s defense capabilities stronger than any previous U.S. government, is to win points with potential Democratic voters. He may also be looking to show this particular achievement as part of his overall legacy as he looks towards leaving his post at the White House after the 2016 elections.
Furthermore, Obama may have used leverage – implying that if Netanyahu softened his critical position on U.S.-Iranian negotiations, this might result in Obama keeping quiet on his personal political leanings regarding the upcoming Israeli elections.
has a big battle
ahead of him…
Whatever the case, Israelis and Americans can expect that the U.S. will, consciously or subconsciously, interfere in Israel’s political elections in the future. Israeli politicians will take advantage of every political inference made by a U.S. leader; and, will continue to strive to achieve recognition in media headlines for their influence, favor, and accomplishments in the diplomatic world.
Netanyahu, looking at a possible fourth time in office, has a big battle ahead of him. While he has a decided advantage of being Prime Minister until a new government is formed in March, he must look for ways of keeping relevant as a leader in the country’s highest political position. He needs to come up with a new diplomatic initiative, which has been suggested by Liberman and others, but which he has ignored to-date. He has shown some leaning towards helping Israelis with their domestic needs. But, in order for his Likud party to possibly form the next government, he will have to merge with other parties, and that could include the ultra-Orthodox “haredi”. They will be looking to add to their coffers for yeshiva education, as well as financial assistance for larger religious families. Netanyahu cannot hold on to them for his political success while also considering large sums of the Israeli budget going to socio-economic reforms.
There is much more to this complex election story. It is hard for outsiders to understand what is going on inside Israel. But, it is also difficult for Israeli citizens to figure out the puzzle of various political alliances and how it will come together on Election Day.
One thing for certain, the way the puzzle looks today will not determine the future outcome of the March elections. No one has been able to predict what will happen. That may have to wait until the votes are in, and the political battle for leadership begins. Even then, with Israel’s flawed political system, no one can be sure that the next government coalition will hold together any better than the previous one.
Isaiah 9:6-7 (NIV:
For to us a child is born,
to us a Son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders.
And He will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of His government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.
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Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright ©1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Ms. Haves is a news analyst, reporting on political, diplomatic, military and spiritual issues in Israel and the nations.