On Tuesday the 17th of March, Israelis will once again go the polls in another snap election called by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud Party, after a daze of political infighting within his tenuous coalition government. Bibi, as he is affectionately referred to, has variously served as Prime Minister of the Jewish State for nearly 10 years. But it seems his eventful period in office is about to meet its conclusion.
Recent polls estimate that the right-wing Likud will emerge with 20 to 22 seats in the Knesset. Worringly for Mr Netanyahu, however, the same polls put his rivals, the centre-left Zionist Union, at obtaining 24 to 26 seats. This would be enough to dethrone Bibi and put in place co-leaders Yitzkah Herzog and Tzipi Livni, the former Justice Minister.
There are two main factors explaining this result: Netanyahu’s neglect of issues at home, and faltering on issues away. There is widespread sentiment amongst Likud’s voter base that the party hasn’t done enough to empower the ordinary Israeli. This explains why many of their voters are switching over to the left. The Founding Father of the Likud Party, Menachim Begin, whilst also a very controversial figure, is seen as one of the heroes of the Israeli working class. His party and his platforms managed to enthused the lower-income Jews of Middle Eastern origin, many of whom were fed up with the dominance of the Eastern European Jewish elite within the political sphere. This legacy has sustained Likud through many elections. But conditions in Israel, as well as a disastrous electoral strategy, have resulted in this voting base slipping away. Living costs have increased by an astonishing 16% in the past two years, making it significantly harder for citizens to make ends meet. The party hasn’t exactly been helping itself out, either- Netanyahu recently had to issue a public apology for a controversial election video published last week, in which government workers were compared to Hamas terrorists. It is therefore unsurprising that the ZU, promising a fresh economic alternative, is gaining so much ground.
But then there’s the security issue, on which voters are both divided and somewhat indifferent. Many Israelis see Bibi as strong on security issues, in particular applauding his staunch stance on Iran’s nuclear programme. However, it is unlikely that this reputation will do enough to edge out his competitors. Firstly, opinion polls show that security just isn’t at the top of voters’ priorities. A recent poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 10 found that 53% of Israelis ranked the cost of living as the biggest issue in the elections, compared to only 24% who viewed security as most important. As ever, it’s the economy, stupid. Moreover, many are becoming fed up with the approach that Netanyahu has adopted towards the peace process, and seek an alternative. In this regard, the Zionist Union has a number of key advantages. Livni, as well as being the former Justice Minister, also previously served as Chief Negotiator with the Palestinians, and this experience could well bolster her position. Their policies also suggest a different direction. The policy platform includes engaging in bilateral negotiations with Palestine, ceasing settlement construction and working towards a diplomatic settlement. All of these policies promise a more meaningful attempt at the peace process. Contrast this with Bibi’s record, under which illegal settlement construction has massively increased and relations with the USA, Israel’s strongest ally, have soured. It’s understandable why many Israelis seek a change, and find it in the ZU.
But it’s not just these formidable rivals that could present a significant shake-up in Israeli politics. In particular, there are two players on the scene that are worth watching. First there’s the Jewish Home party, lead by the staunchly Zionist Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett. Jewish Home, that notably represents Orthodox Jews, opposes the existence of the Palestinian State and supports increased construction of West Bank settlements, is predicted to obtain 11 to 12 seats. Bennett’s supporters claim that his levying of pressure on Netanyahu is what prompted the ground invasion of the coastal strip.
Interestingly, the newly formed Joint Arab List is predicted to beat their ideological opposites Jewish Home by one or two seats. The alliance is made of a coalition of Arab nationalists, socialists, Islamists and feminists, in a diverse and colourful banding together. This election marks the first time the main Arab parties have joined up, due to new electoral rules stating that parties are required to win a minimum of 3.25% of the national vote to be represented in parliament. Well on course to become the third-largest party in the Knesset, the alliance has the potential to significantly shake up the Israeli political landscape. Their political campaign thusfar has focused on keeping Bibi out of office, and helping out the Zionist Union take it up instead. But given their own chances of success, it is certainly possible that the two parties could form a progressive new coalition, whereby social issues and the Israel-Palestine peace process feature prominently on the political agenda. Whether or not such a coalition could trump the combined force of Likud and Jewish Home is quite a separate matter.
It is as of yet uncertain what the result of Tuesday’s election will be. What is certain is that Israelis are craving change- both on a domestic or international level. And undoubtedly, this acts not just as a verdict on the work of “King Bibi”, but as an indicator of the Israel to come.