A curious thing happened in the past few days in the Israeli election race. Something I didn’t expect at all. Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud has lost momentum and fallen in a number of polls to 21 seats from a previous high of 24 seats or so. The Zionist Camp has advanced marginally to 24 (and in some polls, 25) seats.
None of this would matter except that several other developments have paralleled these results. The other rightist parties which would be Likud’s natural allies in a future governing coalition have also flagged. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu has fallen from 11 seats in the current Knesset, to four seats in polls (that would remove his party altogether from Knesset, as 5 seats is the minimum threshold). Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi has fallen as well from its current Knesset level of 12, to 11 in the latest polls.
Everyone from the center to the left has rallied in the latest poll. Along with the rise in the Zionist Camp numbers, the Joint List is polling 13 seats, making it the third largest grouping in Knesset. Its fortunes have rallied because of a predicted 5% uptick in Israeli Palestinian participation at the polls over the last election (and nearly 8% uptick over the one previous to that). The new center-right Kulanu has added seats and now polls at 11.
If you do the math, and if Zionist Camp maintains 24 seats, and the other results remain close to the current projections, there is one kosher way the center-left can form a governing coalition (and one treif way, more on that later). But it poses a thorny issue for two different parties and two different ethnic groups within Israeli society. By combining Zionist Camp, Kulanu, Yesh Atid, Joint List and Meretz you get 66 seats. There’s an outside chance if one of the smaller parties drops out that they could pick up Shas, though this is an unlikely fit.
The thorny issue is the Joint List, which is composed of Israeli Palestinian parties and Hadash, a joint Jewish-Palestinian Party. No Israeli ruling coalition has ever included a Palestinian Party. So either this new coalition could make a major break with tradition or it could use tacit support of the Joint List to bolster it, but rule as a minority coalition. For many reasons, this option could be quite problematic. It would require staunch Zionists to agree to include Palestinian nationalists like Haneen Zoabi, who is widely detested among Israeli Jews, in a common cabinet. Or it would require the same staunch Zionists to rule with the tacit support of Israeli Palestinians.
If Jewish MKs cared more about democracy than ethnic solidarity, they would acknowledge that 13 seats makes the Joint List the third largest in the Knesset. To refuse to include such a major constituency fully in the political process would be a travesty of democracy. But we all know how that goes when it comes to such matters in Israel.
Should the center-left try to form a majority entirely ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian segment, they might have to do something as strange as including both Shas (and/or Yachad, which is Eli Yishai’s party) and Yisrael Beitenu (Lieberman). That would get them to 62 seats, 69 if you include Yachad. Not only do Lieberman and Shas hate each other, ideologically they would make strange bedfellows with Labor. Not that such strange political groupings haven’t happened before. When they have, they were a recipe for political quagmire since no group within the coalition could move its own agenda. This majority would range from far-right secular nationalists like Lieberman to two Mizrahi rightist ultra-Orthodox parties. It would be a strange and ugly political animal.
It’s entirely possible that Yesh Atid and Kulanu, which are center-right parties, might refuse Labor’s offer and allow its chances to collapse. At which point, they can join with a rightist mono-racial coalition. Should this happen, there are many permutations which would permit a rightist coalition led by Likud.
In the event (even now, unlikely) a center-left government comes into existence, no one should start cheering. Don’t expect peace agreements, don’t even expect much-needed domestic reform revolving around social justice issues. This political formation, while slightly more ideologically homogeneous than recent ones, will still have awkward bedfellows. And it will have to relate in some way, even if awkwardly, to the fact that it needs at least tacit Palestinian support to survive.
A center-left government would offer the same hopes and suffer from the same disappointments America faced in 2008 after Obama’s election. The promise was so great and the results were so miserable. I suspect this is what will happen in Israel as well (the the major difference that in Israel there is no charismatic Great Israeli Hope, as Obama was in 2008).
Let’s also not forget that the Zionist Camp was formed by the merger of Labor with HaTehuah, itself an awkward alliance. Part of the agreement involved a rotation of prime ministers between Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni. This has happened only once in the past few decades in a 1984 Labor-Likud national unity government. There’s a good reason why it’s never happened since. There’s too much ego involved, too little willingness to share the “spoils” of power. I predict it won’t lead to a stable government.
Finally, unless the Joint List joins the government (again unlikely), there is little hope of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Even with a center-left ideological composition, there isn’t enough will to compromise. You may hear the liberal-Zionist-friendly world media paint rosy portraits of the future, in the event this outcome materializes. But don’t believe them till you see the color of the money and the cards on the table.
There is one delicious irony about this election. At the rate Lieberman’s Party is currently polling, his Party may disappear altogether from Knesset. Those with good memory will remember it was Lieberman himself who spearheaded the legislation raising the threshold from 2.5 to 3.25%. At the time, he expected it would destroy the chances the Israeli Palestinian parties would be represented, since as distinct parties they could not cross the threshold. But they outsmarted him, joined together as a single Joint List, and he may be stuck picking up the pieces of his own political career come election day. “I’m lovin’ it!”
If this happens, it will have dramatic repercussions for the political future. The Israeli right is jockeying for position come the day Bibi retires from political life. Until now, the two main contenders have been Naftali Bennett and Lieberman. If Lieberman is eliminated from Knesset along with his entire Party, it will leave Bennett as the only logical standard bearer for the future. In fact, barring any major catastrophes, arrests, scandals, etc. he may be the future inheritor of the right-wing throne. I should add an asterisk here, as Moshe Kahlon is a wildcard. The former Likud darling’s Party has rallied from earlier poll results and appears to be making a last-minute surge. If that continues, he could become the new political flavor of the month, replacing Yair Lapid, who served that role in the last election.
Meretz too has been on the brink of elimination. They currently poll at 6 seats (earlier they were polling at 5). If they fall under 5 they too will disappear. Given their rise in the current poll, they appear safe (just barely).
As an addendum, let’s not forget the undecided voters. From 15-20% have still not made up their minds. My guess is that many of them are former Likud voters disgusted with Netanyahu and unsure whether to return to Likud or switch to Bennett or Lieberman. If I’m right, there could be some uptick in the results for any of these three parties.
This article profiles the undecided voters and notes they are 16% of the total. They are 2/3 women, 63% secular and 56% consider social-economic issues to be primary. That would bode well for Kahlon’s Kulanu Party, since he’s made this an important part of his platform. You’ll recall in the last election no one predicted Yesh Atid’s come-from-nowhere showing of 19 seats. It’s entirely possible this time many of the undecided will move from being former Likud to Kulanu voters. That could sweep the latter past the Joint List as third largest Party, and make it a kingmaker between a left or right-wing coalition. Keep in mind that Kahlon is a former Likud minister. As such his heart will be more in a coalition with his former political colleagues on the right.