Scott, my former debate partner and all-around ass clown who cost us God knows how many rounds good guy, kindly put together a primer for the blog on Israel’s upcoming elections. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his analysis, but he was the Mary Washington policy debate squad’s point man for Israel on last year’s Middle East topic and a pretty sharp dude in his own right:
Full disclosure: I’m not sure I would be considered an expert on Israel by any yardstick. I just happen to follow Israeli politics pretty closely.
For those that don’t know, the Israeli election is tomorrow. First, a quick rundown of the basics: Israel is a proportionally represented multi-party democracy. This means that their legislative body, the Kenneset, is composed of 120 seats divided among various parties based on the percentage of votes each party received. The parties then have to cooperate to form coalitions – the purpose of the coalition is to control at least half the seats in the legislature . This means that all coalition parties have a hand in running the government. If one decides to leave, the ruling coalition no longer has a majority and the government dissolves.
Major parties include: Labor (liberal) – headed by Ehud Barak, former prime minister and current defense minister; Likud (conservative) – headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, former prime minister; and Kadima (centrist, with a leftist lean) – currently headed by Tzipi Livni, who served as foreign minster under the previous head of the Kadima party (and former prime minister) Ehud Olmert. After a series of political scandals and an approval rating in the teens, Olmert stepped down. When Livni became prime minister, she had a certain amount of time to try and keep her coalition together. She was, however, unable to do this. One of the smaller parties, Shas, which had joined the previous coalition formed by Kadima and Labor, decided not to rejoin the coalition. The government promptly dissolved and new elections were scheduled. These new elections will in theory change the proportion of seats each party controls and thus strengthen or weaken each party’s bargaining position. The IHT has put together a decent Q&A on the mechanics of this transition. MSNBC also has some coverage on the campaign front – the ads and the personalities of the campaign, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Now that the crash course in comparative government is over, let’s talk implications. Polls are showing that Likud is likely to make big gains, with Kadima coming in close behind. Until recently, Likud was the smallest of the three major parties, as many of its members broke off to form the centrist Kadima party under Ariel Sharon. Likud is known for its hardline positions on issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict, Iranian nuclearization, and Syrian relations. Another group anticipating major gains is the (previously) small party Yisrael Beiteinu (whose support come mainly from the growing population of Russian immigrants). This party is also conservative, and if gains in both parties are big enough, they could easily find themselves paired with the aforementioned Shas party (usually conservative, the party of the ultra-orthodox) as part of a ruling coalition.
My read on the Israeli political climate is that the needle has been pushed toward the center-right, especially since the Second Lebanon War of 2006. The recent Gaza offensive has solidified the security issue as foremost in the public’s mind. Most polls in the run up to the election reflect this new political reality, showing Likud as the favorite. This has also provoked some interesting speculation. One op-ed seems to argue that the prospect of the far-right coalition will mobilize more votes for the centrist and/or leftist parties. Even if this is true, I’m skeptical that the impact will be electorally significant.
If Likud keeps its lead, it can either form a unity coalition with its rivals (unlikely) or form a right-wing coalition. And even if Kadima wins, prospects are still grim. Labor’s proportion is likely to have shrunk substantially. That means Kadima will have to try and get some of the hardliner parties on board. They tried and failed this approach last election cycle with Shas, and political conditions were more favorable then than they are now. If they do manage to form an alliance, that still leaves the fate of the coalition at the mercy of the smallest party, much like it was with Shas in the last coalition. Olmert knew he couldn’t put the city of Jerusalem on the table in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks because Shas would leave and sink his coalition. When rumors surfaced that Livni (then Foreign Minister) was doing just that, Shas threatened to jump ship. In my mind, that’s also why they decided not to rejoin the coalition when she took charge.
That said, it seems inevitable that Israeli politics is drifting right, in stark contrast with the political trajectory of its closest ally, the United States. The Obama Administration would doubtless prefer a more centrist Israel. They’re also hoping for a less turbulent Middle East, particularly if the Administration begins a troop drawdown in Iraq and a initiates more diplomatic approach to Iran. If Netanyahu takes the helm, he will likely pursue hardline positions towards the Palestinians, Iranians, and Syrians. One thing to hope for is that the souring economy takes precedence over some of the more aggressive foreign policy measures Mr. Netanyahu has in mind, as has happened in the U.S. But I’d wager that Israel is about to light a foreign policy signal fire – which may shake off the United States’ domestic focus in the coming months and perhaps be the first real international test of the new Obama Administration