March 2019
   Alas, Israeli election outlook bleak
                                     by Simon Rosenblum*

A recent poll by The Times of Israel on the overall political orientation of Israelis - both Jewish and Arab - is a significant indicator of what lies ahead in the April 9 general election. The survey, done end of February 2019, is based on the responses of over 700 Israelis who said they intended to vote.  It found Israelis characterized themselves as follows:


-30% right wing

-21% centre-right

-17% centrist

-10% centre-left

-9% left wing

-12% don't know


The above shows that, setting aside the "don't knows," almost 60 percent of those identify with a political orientation see themselves as either right wing or centre-right.  This must be kept in mind in any analysis of election prospects.


At the start of the race, the data indicated the new centrist party - Blue and White, named after the colours of Israel's flag and led by former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party - would receive a few more Knesset seats than Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party. However, it takes 61 Knesset seats (out of 120) to govern and each of the front runners could only hope for about half that number. To build a governing coalition, each main contender would have to join forces with other parties. Early polls showed Bibi's Likud was (and still is) at a distinct advantage in its ability to form a coalition of nationalist and religious parties with a total of at least 61 seats. The remaining Knesset seats would be divided between centre and centre-left parties, who would garner about 50 seats, while about another 10 would be taken by the Arab parties.


The above projections were made before the Israel's Attorney General announced the decision to indict the Prime Minister on a number of serious charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The most serious of these deal with Netanyahu trading favours for media companies who treat him kindly. After this announcement, the election race tightened up enough to make it questionable whether Likud and its allies would collectively gain 61 seats. That put the issue of the Arab parties front and centre. But all this seems to have been an immediate post-indictment blip. The polls have reverted to show the right trending once again, with strong gains in popularity in recent days. Yes, a few small right-wing parties barely hover above the 3.25 percent election threshold and one of them might not receive enough votes to enter the Knesset. Nevertheless, Bibi and company still seem poised to get their Knesset majority.


Also, of concern in this electoral race is the treatment of Arab parties. Currently these consist of two separate alliances. The main one, Hadash-Taal, is the more moderate of the two and is likely to win close to 10 Knesset seats. The other, Raam-Balad, is extremist and anti-Israel, but may not cross the 3.25% threshold. Historically, Israeli Arab parties have been shut out of governing coalitions, although in 1992 Yitzak Rabin did include them as part of a "blocking coalition" that prevented right-wing parties from toppling his delicate hold on the balance of power. Some commentators, staunch Zionists among them, question the automatic exclusion of Arab parties in government.  After all, Arabs make up 20 percent of Israeli citizens. Why should it be unthinkable for a mainstream Jewish bloc to ally with relative moderates such as Hadash-Taal? A reasonable question.  However, the barrier is not likely to be broken any time soon and certainly not by the main contender for Bibi's job. 


Benny Gantz, the centrist alternative to Netanyayu, has declared he is open to sitting in a coalition government with "anyone Jewish and Zionist." Such a charming way to put it! The statement provides Blue and White with lots of room to woo the right, while precluding a relatively moderate Arab party. The approach is consistent with Gantz's campaign of consistently pandering to the right wing: no talk of removing settlements and pursuing a two-state solution. Gantz may well be a centrist but he is waging a centre-right campaign. For sure, a Blue and White victory, while unlikely, would be improvement over Netanyahu's cynical tactics and dangerous policies. An example of tactics: Bibi recently brokered an electoral pact between two small right-wing parties - one of which (Jewish Power) is extremely racist - so as to better ensure that neither falls below the electoral threshold. Then there is the danger that a Netanyahu-led government might formally annex parts of the West Bank.


Other centre and left parties


"Peace has become a dirty word." With that remark former foreign minister Tzipi Livni resigned from her election campaign, as she would likely not have crossed the election threshold. It's a sad commentary on the state of Israeli politics today from a person worthy of respect. Meanwhile, the Labour party, which may win about 10 seats, has become a shadow of its former self and speaks largely in platitudes.  That leaves us with Meretz, the last Zionist party which speaks unequivocally of the need for a two-state solution and understands the concessions that Israel must make to get there. Unfortunately, Meretz has been reticent to call out the Palestinian Authority for its refusal to make reciprocal concessions - particularly giving up demands for the so-called "right of return" of Palestinian refugees. While almost 50 percent of Israelis still profess support of some version of a two-state solution, the P.A's intransigence on refugees prevents most Israelis from viewing the Palestinians as a peace partner. Meretz's support remains small - enough for only about half a dozen seats - in part because it is seen as too pollyannaish on the peace process.


This depressing election outlook underlines the need for progressive Israeli voices to continue their brave work and receive our support. I still take heart in the Commanders for Israel's Security, an organization composed of a clear majority of former senior Israeli military/security officials, who advocate sane policies, as does Peace Now. Sadly, the Commanders and Peace Now are not getting through to the Israeli electorate. But their message of the need to end settlement expansion and create the conditions for a two-state solution is more necessary than ever.

* Simon Rosenblum is a frequent commentator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was a founding member of CFPN and a former national chair.