Dividing lines drawn as Israeli election campaign starts for real

Dividing lines drawn as Israeli election campaign starts for real

Dividing lines drawn as Israeli election campaign starts for real
Benny Gantz, Israeli Defense Minister and leader of the National Unity Party political alliance, on the campaign trail. (AFP)
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One of the landmarks in every election in Israel — and they happen to be rather frequent — is the parties finalizing their slates and submitting them to the Central Election Committee, a ritual that has become almost annual in recent years.

The period between a Knesset dissolution and submitting the slate is customarily very frantic. During this time, the political system shifts into overdrive in setting new political alignments, while candidates jockey for as high a place as possible on the list in order to maximize their chances of a seat in the next parliament and also to better position themselves to claim a ministerial post should their party become part of a coalition government.

Now that these preliminary dramas are over, energy is being diverted toward gaining support from the wider public. And whatever its outcome, this promises to be a vicious and malicious campaign, largely provoked by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters on the right.

In Israel’s unusual and perplexing political environment, it is the two major blocs, not necessarily the individual parties, that will determine the nature and shape of the next government. One grouping, which since the last election in March 2021 has been fashioning itself as the “change” bloc, consists of the outgoing coalition parties. However, instead of being united by any ideological commonality, they instead join forces due to their determination to stop Netanyahu from returning to power and harming the democratic system, especially through attacks on the justice system to further his aim of bringing his corruption trial to an end without a resolution.

Most parties in this bloc remain as they are. But one notable change is the decision of the centrist Blue and White alliance led by Defense Minister Benny Gantz and the center-right New Hope party led by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar to run together and add former Israel Defense Forces chief Gadi Eizenkot to their alignment. A second significant change sees the return of Zehava Galon to lead the progressive Meretz party.

Netanyahu is the main force in the other bloc. He not only has complete control of his Likud party, but also pulls the strings in most of the other parties and the factions within them that are supporting his bid to regain the prime minister’s job.

When it comes to forming the next coalition, it is worth remembering that, until the Knesset was dissolved, it was Naftali Bennett, whose party won a mere seven of 120 seats in the last election, who ended up as prime minister. But despite the relative success of the outgoing government, considering the near-impossible conditions under which it operated, Bennett has found himself with no political future. He has now announced his intention to take a break from politics — a break that might be longer than he would have wished for.

The Israeli political system, like Israeli society, is extremely fragmented and it will take a miracle for any of the parties to be able to form a government

Yossi Mekelberg

Considering both the final party lists and the opinion polls, one is bound to conclude that the Israeli political system, like Israeli society, is extremely fragmented and it will take a miracle for any of the parties to be able to form a government in the wake of November’s election. The reasons for this are deeply rooted in the country’s social makeup, but in the most immediate term it is down to Netanyahu, who not only continues to poison the political-social discourse but has also become the major bottleneck preventing the formation of a stable government. Should he vacate the political stage, a coalition of centrist and right-wing parties would almost be a foregone conclusion.

The deep ideological divisions indicated by the diversity of the parties asking for the public’s endorsement at the ballot box are a reflection of Israel’s social diversity, the magnitude of the issues the country is facing and the fact that it is still a new democracy without long-standing democratic traditions.

Profound disagreements such as over relations with the Palestinians and the challenge of building a coherent society from a diverse population with so many different backgrounds, including a substantial minority who are not Jewish, is bound to induce some fierce debates, but these issues could have been addressed creatively and constructively. Instead, the discourse has been diverted from what should be expected in a free and democratic society, with the result being that the different social groupings increasingly vote for sectarian parties entrenched in their views, making it harder and harder to find common ground.

For now, there seems to be no chance of breaking the deadlock between the blocs, but the right wing, under much pressure and persuasion from Netanyahu, is now better positioned to maximize its electoral potential. Netanyahu has made many promises, which — knowing his record on promises — no one expects him to keep, to ensure that all factions of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox and the messianic ultranationalists run together to avoid any loss of votes and, in the process, overcome their leaders’ somewhat fragile egos. He has also unscrupulously rewarded those who he lured to defect from the recent coalition and thus bring it down with a safe place on Likud’s slate — a move that might still, and rightly so, be challenged in the courts as political bribery.

On the other hand, efforts by current Prime Minister Yair Lapid to convince left-leaning parties Labor and Meretz to do the same have failed, which may mean that one of them will not cross the threshold. This would consequently hand victory to the right-wing bloc.

Should the right win, Netanyahu will be its choice for prime minister. In the other bloc, the situation is way more fluid, being more of a mishmash of soft-right, centrist and left-wing parties. It is not certain that the leader of the biggest party among them, expected to be Lapid, would be able to form a coalition. A last-minute spanner in the works for the change bloc was a split in the Joint List, the coalition of three Arab parties, that might end in one of them not crossing the electoral threshold and, as a result, tens of thousands votes, possibly even more, going to waste.

And now that we all know who has put their hat in the ring, we must brace ourselves for what will be one of the nastiest election campaigns ever — even by Israel’s (and Netanyahu’s) standards. Not that this will guarantee a more conclusive result than the previous four votes.

• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @Ymekelberg

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