The upcoming elections in Israel: demystifying the political map

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rival and Isaac Herzog are pictured together as billboards rotate. Baz Ratner/Reuters

Tuesday marks the elections for the twentieth Israeli Knesset (or parliament), an event which, as a result of electoral reform and the declining fortunes of the right-wing Likud, could be one of the most significant in the country’s recent history.

Israel has a proportional representation system with elections held approximately every four years (although rarely does a government last its whole term, as attested by the fact that this will be the country’s 34th). Thus, Israel is governed through coalitions, with traditionally the largest party selected by the President to form the government.

Because no party has ever won a majority of seats (or 61) in Knesset since the state was established in 1948, governments are always formed as a result of intense coalition bargaining, a less-than-transparent process which has tended to favor smaller parties, enabling them to sign deals with larger ones in return for cabinet positions and prioritizing their policies on the national agenda.

No fewer than 26 parties are running lists of candidates in this election. What’s more, polls show that between 10 and 11 parties will pass the election threshold of 3.25% (recently raised from 2%) to sit in parliament. Given a newly restructured Israeli political map, what are the most likely coalitions that could form after Tuesday? What would these coalitions offer for Israeli domestic policy and the long-stalled peace process with the Palestinians?

A rare opportunity? A Unity-Centrist Government

Although unity governments, composed of blocks of left-wing parties led by Labor and those led by right-wing Likud have occurred only four times in Israel’s history, the creation of two new centrist parties (which together poll around 20 seats) presents a unique opportunity for a new kind of unity government.

In such a government, Labor (in its current reformulation as the “Zionist Camp”) and Likud (which each poll puts at between 21-25 seats) would coalesce with “Yesh Atid” (“There is a Future”) and “Kulanu” (“All of Us”), both centrist parties.

Yesh Atid and Kulanu focus on domestic economic issues such as lowering the cost of living and redistribution, and appeal for support to the disgruntled Israeli middle class which turned out on mass to the 2011 summer protests. With Likud and Labor in the coalition, such a government could feasibly include 66 to 70 of the 120 Knesset members.

Such a government, composed of left and right with secular centrist parties, could advance major changes in Israeli domestic politics, including promoting a stronger separation of religion and state, providing economic benefits for families in which all adults are working, enticing ultra-orthodox and Arab-Israeli youths to take part in Israel’s military or national service, and possibly advancing the formation of a constitution (a process which has seen only incremental advances since Israel’s foundation.)

However, given that this coalition would be relatively evenly split between left and right (with Yesh Atid leaning more to the left and Kulanu more to the right), it is likely only to lead Israel further into a stalemate regarding possible resolutions of the Palestinian conflict. Deadlock has for too long been the status quo. Given the importance of security and international diplomacy in Israel, such a government, while stable in principle, may be very short lived.

The usual suspects: Another right-wing government

Since the start of the Second Intifada in 2000 and the departure of the last Labor government, the Israeli political map has shifted to the right of the Likud.

In response to Ariel Sharon’s Disengagement from Gaza and Netanyahu’s failure to deepen Israel’s hold of the West Bank fast enough, young leaders have left in frustration to form their own small parties. Accordingly, Likud could still remain the leader of the largest right-wing block in the Knesset, despite having lost both MKs and constituents, and possibly not even being the largest party to emerge from the elections.

To the immediate right of Likud is “Ha-Bait Ha-Yehudi” (“The Jewish Home”), a party polling between 11-14 seats led by Naftali Bennet (a Netanyahu protégé) which champions the development of West Bank settlements and the promotion of religiously oriented policies. With Moshe Kahalon’s Kulanu party (Kahalon is himself another former Likud minister), other smaller, extreme-right parties sure to support a ring-wing government are: (former Netanyahu confidant) Avigdor Lieberman’s “Yisrael Beyteynu” (“Israel Our Home”) party, and Eli Yishai’s “Yahad” (“Together”). Both espouse different forms of racial separation between Jews and Arabs. From the ultra-religious block, the “Shas” and “Yahadut ha-Torah” (“The Jewish Torah”) parties, which routinely swap allegiances for budgetary allocations for their constituents, could likely be persuaded to join such a union as well.

Such a right-wing coalition, with the Likud ironically as the most left-leaning party in the mix, could create a dangerous situation of rising extremism, with parties in the coalition challenging Likud to hold true to its original right-wing expansionist agenda in the Palestinian Territories.

If such a right-wing coalition wins a majority, it is likely that little would change on the security-diplomatic front.

Lip-service would be devoted to advancing a settlement with the Palestinians while simultaneously promoting a status-quo situation (with a slight deepening of Israeli control) in the West Bank, along with a continued hard-line offensive strategy vis-à-vis the Hamas-held Gaza Strip.

On the domestic front, a right-wing coalition with religiously-oriented parties as core partners would likely undo recent changes (ironically put in place by the outgoing Netanyahu government) requiring ultra-orthodox Jews to serve in the IDF, while economic policies would likely continue as they have in the previous years.

At the same time, however, the ongoing problem of explaining hawkish security policies to the international community would likely continue as well, compounding the escalating clashes between the Likud and other parties in Knesset and causing instability in the coalition.

What about a resurgence of the Israeli left?

While Labor has been in decline and has not led the government since 2001, the current elections may present the opportunity that the party has been waiting for.

Yair Lapid, the charismatic leader of the Yesh Atid party, has openly expressed his disappointment in the Netanyahu government (where he sat as Minister of Finance for the last two years), and his party would likely join with Labor, and the smaller left-wing Meretz party. Based on the “Zionist Camp’s” secular and socialist leanings, the Kulanu party could possibly be persuaded to join as well.

A question remains regarding where the remaining backing for the coalition would come from. Two options exist.

The first-ever joint list of Arab parties has been formed for this election (a response by individual Arab parties to fears of not passing the raised electoral threshold), and could provide the coalition with a critical block of 12 to 13 seats.

However, Arab participation in an official coalition would be unprecedented, and with demands from the Arab parties for collective rights and national minority status it is unclear if there is the political will on both sides for such a monumental shift towards accommodation with Israel’s Arab citizens.

Alternatively, were the coalition to emphasize its socialist agenda, it could attempt to court the ultra-orthodox parties Shas and Yahadut ha-Torah. Their entrance, however, would potentially alienate anti-religious parties such as Meretz and Yesh Atid.

While this balancing act is not new for left-leaning coalitions (dating back to the days of Oslo and Yitzhak Rabin in 1992), it does pose a serious challenge for Labor’s comeback.

As such a left-wing government would be weakened by its dependence on partners who are not “natural allies.” While all could likely agree on the security-diplomatic front of promoting a final settlement with the Palestinians, on the domestic level the parties would clash on issues of religion and state and economic as well as social policies.

Thus, while stability may be maintained if a diplomatic channel begins to form with the Palestinians, the failure of such a process would spell doom for the government.

The changing Israeli political map

The Israeli political map has seen much change in the country’s history -– from a Labor-dominated coalition system, to a bi-polar one, and gradually to one that is highly fractured.

In the current round of elections, the playing field is unusually wide open, and depending on which type of coalition forms after Tuesday, we could be seeing a new phase beginning in Israeli politics.