Analysis: Israel At The Polls

Yair Lapid said his party, Yesh Atid, “will not sit as a fig leaf” in acenter-right government. Yossi Zeliger/Flash90/JTA
Yair Lapid said his party, Yesh Atid, “will not sit as a fig leaf” in acenter-right government.
Yossi Zeliger/Flash90/JTA

What will the next government of Israel look like?

In just a few days, Israelis —  and the rest of the world —  will know. On Jan. 22, Israelis will take to the polls and cast their ballots for a new Knesset, one that according to recent polls likely will be led by current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud party (in cooperation with Yisrael Beiteinu). But whether the final result will be a center-left or a center-right government is yet to be determined.

Roey Tshuva, Israeli emissary for the Baltimore Zionist District, said that when Israelis go to the polls they have to take into account not only if his or her candidate’s party can win the election, but also who he or she will partner with to form a coalition.

“We understand only one party can lead the government, but the government will never be only one party,” said Tshuva. “That makes the decision more complicated because you have to choose from many different issues.”

If the polls are correct, explained Geoff Levin, Schusterman Israel Scholar Award recipient and Bologna Fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Political Science, then it will be easy for Netanyahu to put together a center-right coalition with HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home), Shas and United Torah Judaism. But, cautioned Levin, Netanyahu has always been careful to keep a left-leaning party in his coalition, and he said recently he would like to have at least two in the 33rd government. The leftist parties aren’t making that easy for him.

“Netanyahu is hoping to bring in Yesh Atid and keep out Shas. But [Yesh Atid Chairman] Yair Lapid said, ‘Yesh Atid will not sit as a fig leaf’ in a center-right government,” Levin said, noting that Labor Party chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich announced that under no circumstance would she enter a coalition headed by Netanyahu.

But what chairpersons say now and what they say after the elections could easily change.

“Lapid is much more pragmatic than his father,” noted Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent and analyst for The Jerusalem Post, referring to former leftist Knesset member Yosef “Tommy” Lapid. “There could be compromises.”

And that’s not just on the side of the left. Hoffman noted that while most media has pegged Shas’ Aryeh Deri as a fanatic, he, too, might be more flexible than assumed. Like Lapid, Deri is running on a socioeconomic ticket. Thus, for example, Deri wants the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the army —  “he doesn’t want more people to be poor. If they don’t serve, they don’t work,” explained Hoffman.

Hoffman said he assumes Israel will see more moderation this time around.

“We are having an election after thousands of rockets, after a war in Gaza. One would expect Israelis to move to the right, to rally around the flag. … It’s not happening. The blocs have stayed the same —  the left and the right. The right has not gained. The next coalition will be more moderate,” he said.

One party that is making a surprising showing is Jewish Home, led by Naftali Bennett, 40, the son of American olim. The latest poll put Jewish Home at 14 or 15 seats, which would make it the Knesset’s third-largest party after Likud-Beiteinu and Labor. In the current Knesset, Jewish Home has just three seats.

Bennett is a charismatic former army officer and a high-tech entrepreneur. Jewish Home has staked out some progressive social positions on housing and budget reform.  Jewish Home traditionally has been the party of Israel’s religious nationalist sector. But Bennett, clean-shaven and with a barely noticeable yarmulke, has tried to appeal to all sectors of Israeli society. Fifth on his faction’s list is Ayelet Shaked, a secular woman from the traditionally leftist northern Tel Aviv.

“I want to make it possible for anyone to live in Israel, especially young people,” Bennett told a crowd of English speakers in Tel Aviv last month. “We’re opening the party for the religious, secular, for haredim, for everyone.”

On a conference call last week through the Jewish Federations of North America, a representative of Bennett’s party, Knesset candidate Uri Bank, described the party’s platform as based on “Jewish values,” a dedication to the State and land of Israel.

Bank and Bennett are Modern Orthodox. On the call, Bank contended that Modern Orthodox is best suited to “bridge the gap bet-ween secular Jews, Conservative, Reform and Orthodox. … When it comes to religious services, we have the best chance of wrestling those decisions away from the ultra-Orthodox,” said Bank. “We will make Judaism and religion more user-friendly to all Israelis and all Jews.”

On security issues, however, Bennett has taken a hard line. He favors annexing large swaths of the West Bank, firmly opposes Palestinian statehood and has tried to portray Netanyahu as inconsistent on security policy.

“We will not agree to any land for peace or further land for a peace deal,” said Bank. “It has been 20 years since Oslo was signed, and all it has brought is more bloodshed to both sides. … That [two-state] solution needs to be taken off the table, and we need to think outside the box to find the right road to peace.”

Bennett’s views come in sharp contrast to the center and the left. During that same call, a representative of the Labor Party, Knesset Member Nachman Shai, said Labor is running on the assumption that Israel needs to convince the world that it is “a peaceful country, working for a peaceful solution.” He said to do that there is only one solution: a two nation-state policy.

Meretz representative Nitzan Horowitz, also on the call, expressed similar sentiments — as do the maj-ority of Israelis (see “Critical Issues”).  Horowitz said, “If we abandon peace, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What is our alternative?’ … If we continue to control millions of Palestinians, Israel will not be Jewish or democratic; we will be a state of occupation and apartheid.”

A recent study by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University found that 58 percent of Jewish Israelis support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state given appropriate security arrangements. (Fifty-one percent of respondents, however, said that under no circumstances should settlements in Judea and Samaria be dismantled.)

The center-left has been plagued by in-fighting throughout the campaign. As early as last week, Labor, Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni’s centrist Hatenuah party tied to unite to form as Livni put it, a “blocking bloc,” in the Knesset to stop Netanyahu from leading the government. The three parties’ negotiations failed.

The Iranian threat is still top on people’s minds in Israel, but with people settled on the idea that Net-anyahu will be PM, said Levin, the issues have lessened with regards to the election. Instead, he purported, people will be voting more on social and economic issues and the candidates’ polices on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Levin’s statements were supported by a recent Times of Israel poll, which found the Iranian threat is viewed by only 12 percent of likely Israeli voters as an urgent issue, whereas 43 percent of likely voters viewed economic problems as the most pressing issue.

Who should Americans lean toward?

“We need to stand behind whoever is elected,” said Tshuva.

“I don’t feel it is appropriate for me as an America Jew living in Baltimore … to have an opinion. I don’t live there under the conditions the Israelis do,” said Ellen Lightman, co-chair of the Baltimore Israel Coalition. “Those people who live in Israel and day-to-day have to deal with the challenges, they are the ones to make those decisions.”

And on Jan. 22, that is exactly what Israelis will do.

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