When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dissolved his coalition in December and called an early election, most Israelis did not expect it to end their country’s paralyzing leadership crisis. Polls had long indicated that a large majority of voters were unhappy with the status quo, but saw no alternative to Netanyahu — and Bibi hoped to capitalize on that sentiment in an election that seemed to promise little political change. Three months later, however, although it remains unlikely that Tuesday’s vote will cost Netanyahu his job, the election has weakened the prime minister and sparked a political awakening among Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Netanyahu called the poll just two years into his current four-year term expecting not only to be easily re-elected, but that the results would leave him with a larger and more stable governing coalition. Israel’s proportional-representation system requires that the election winner — whose share of the vote rarely translates to more than a quarter of the 120 seats in the Knesset —muster a stable parliamentary majority in order to govern. And the incumbent hoped the election would strengthen the hand of his own party and weaken potential challengers in his next coalition.
Instead, he has been forced to wage an epic political battle that included reneging on his 2009 rhetorical commitment to a two-state solution — a statement that Netanyahu’s father made clear to the Likud faithful at the time had no substantial meaning, but had been uttered to satisfy Western powers. Netanyahu also enraged the Obama administration with his controversial March 3 speech to Congress. Although widely viewed as a campaign stunt, the Capitol Hill speech did not deliver any significant bump in support. If anything, it elicited a backlash among voters who saw the event as reckless meddling in the politics of Israel’s most important ally.
Last Friday’s Knesset poll, the last allowed before the election, had Netanyahu’s Likud winning 20 seats, its lowest tally since the campaign began — and four seats fewer than the more centrist Zionist Union headed by Labor’s Isaac Herzog and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
But should that pattern hold, it doesn’t mean Netanyahu won’t return as prime minister. Once the ballots are counted, President Reuven Rivlin, the official but largely titular head of state, will ask the party leader he deems best-positioned by the election outcome to form a coalition representing 61 seats or more. And that need not be the party that has won the most seats; it could be a party whose own tally is smaller but which has more allies.
The problem for Herzog and Livni is that the same polls that put them ahead of Netanyahu also show the total number of seats likely to be won by their own center-center-left bloc at a combined 42 seats, while the combined haul of the right-wing parties is 56. The “kingmaker” could be Moshe Kahlon, a libertarian pro-business leader who split from Likud to form the centrist Kulanu party, currently polling at 9 seats. If Herzog and Livni could convince Kahlon and the ultra-Orthodox parties (who together poll around 13 seats) to join them, they might be able to form a government. But most analysts see that outcome as unlikely.
It’s important to remember, though, that polls can be wrong — often seriously wrong — and Israel has several times seen results that completely confounded pre-election polling.
Then there is the proverbial elephant in the room — the emergence for the first time of a powerful political voice from Israel’s Palestinian-Arab citizenry, which is currently on track to hand 13 or 14 seats to the Joint List, an alliance of parties traditionally representing the Palestinian Arab electorate. There’s an irony in the fact that the existing Arab parties were forced to combine their support into a single electoral list by legislation pushed by the far right Yisrael Beitenu party of Avigdor Liberman, that had raised the threshold required for representation in the Knesset from 2 percent of the vote to 3.25 percent, or four seats. Without an electoral pact, that would have eliminated parties representing Israel’s Palestinian citizens, since most had under four seats. Meanwhile, Liberman’s own party is barely polling at five seats and appears to be sliding, meaning he could be ousted by the very legislation he proposed. Meretz, the left-Zionist party, and the far-right Yachad are also polling perilously close to the threshold.
The Joint List comprises Hadash, the Arab-Jewish socialist party, along with the secular Palestinian nationalist party Balad and parties proclaiming an ideology of political Islam. It’s an odd combination that includes feminists, communists, Baathists, at least one polygamist, Jewish socialists and at least one open supporter of Hezbollah. But the Joint List’s charismatic leader, 40 year-old Haifa lawyer Ayman Oudeh, has captured the media’s attention with a message advocating democracy and equality for all of Israel’s citizens. On several occasions he has scolded journalists for referring to the “Arab List,” reminding them of the Joint List’s advocacy of pluralism rather than ethnic politics. If the results follow polling, the United List finishes third after the Zionist Union and Likud. Oudeh says his list will not join any coalition, nor would it likely be invited by either the nationalist right nor the Zionist center-left.
Oudeh expects Netanyahu and Herzog-Livni to form a national unity government, with the United List heading the official opposition. If that were to come to pass, it would be a historical precedent. For the first time since the founding of the state in 1948, Israel’s official opposition would be headed by a Palestinian-Arab citizen. That would surely mark the biggest change brought about by Tuesday’s election. For the rest, electoral arithmetic notwithstanding, the vote will have no effect on Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories. While the populist Netanyahu and the professorial Herzog are very different in style, the content of their messages is very much the same: No to the current deal being negotiated with Iran, and no to Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries. As for Gaza, focus of last summer's dramatic war, no one is talking about it at all.