ELECTIONS IN ISRAEL

11.06.12

The Left and Center Vs. Likud-Beitenu

New polls are being published every day in Israel joining Yachimovich, Lapid, Mofaz, Olmert, Livni, and Moshe Kahlon (until he backed off from plans to start his own party) in every possible combination, suggesting ever more unlikely alliances that might tie or best the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu merger. Although there is a mathematical glimmer of hope that Likud-Beitenu can be defeated, the final outcome of the January 2013 Israeli election is likely to be a right-wing coalition, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, or Biberman, as they are now being called. 

There will be no grand coalition to counter Likud-Beitenu for the simple reason that there is no leader to head such a coalition. Lieberman may be willing to defer to Netanyahu, but neither Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid—eager to stake out the centrist turf and prove himself—or Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz have any interest in letting Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich take over their electoral bids.

Two former failed leaders of Kadima, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, ponder entering the race, but they are also waiting to see if today’s results will give them the American card to play (“Bibi ruined our relationship with the U.S. and now Obama can take his revenge”) or if a Romney victory will signal Adelson-financed hegemony in both countries.

Returning to the less tantalizing arena of reality, it’s worth looking at what has changed since the last election.

Israel has had no opposition for the past four years. The left and center should unite to stymy the government and eventually topple it. Alongside the Likud-Beitenu, the rest of the field is now routinely being described as the center-left. This essentially new parlance glosses over some major differences between the parties but hints at a potential common cause beyond the “anyone but Netanyahu” of the last elections. Unlike four years ago, the “left” half of that hyphenate is not being castigated as traitors to the Jewish People or in league with Palestinians, perhaps because Palestinians are never mentioned. The bogeyman this time around is Iran.

The left has a face. Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich is showing surprising strength in the polls and is its undisputed leader. By championing the social protest agenda and absorbing some of its young stars, but ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as if it was radioactive, and largely avoiding attacks on Netanyahu prior to campaign time, Yachimovich appears to be resurrecting the party.

For now, the left and center must get out the vote, to keep that electoral victory glimmer alive, but also to form as large an opposition as possible. The right tends to show up at the polls, with a large settler turnout and ultra-Orthodox bloc voting in line with the dictates of their leaders. Many left and centrist and young voters have been sitting out recent elections, and it is possible that if enough of them show up, along with young first-time voters, the balance could shift. Higher Arab voter turnout could also impact the final tally.

Netanyahu and Lieberman will play their strongest cards, fear and insecurity, with the threats of Iran and post-Arab Spring Egypt and Syria, requiring a heavy-handed response.

The center and/or the left needs to articulate a defensible security position that distinguishes it from the strongman-bullying of the right. They will also need an answer for Netanyahu’s “we have no partner” mantra regarding negotiations with the Palestinians. Finally, while Yachimovich, Lapid, Mofaz, and possibly Olmert and Livni vie for votes, they will need to avoid undermining one another in a way that feeds the Biberman machine.