What are the chances of a change?

Immediately after the Israeli coalition broken by Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Knesset called for new elections on March 17, 2015, initial reactions were restrained. People feared a repetition of the 2013 campaign, which had remarkably ignored the basic questions of Israel’s existence and had concentrated exclusively on topics such as rising rents and increasing costs of living.

Several days later, however, a change of mood became evident. The renowned leftist political scientist and former Member of Knesset Naomi Chazan was one of the first to express this change of moods. In her blog, she advanced the argument that these elections, for the first time in two decades, might give rise to a shift in Israeli politics. According to Chazan, the Netanyahu government is characterized by its leadership’s inability to avoid or overcome crises. As a result, the general population has increasingly come to mistrust politics and politicians. Economic insecurity, the Gaza war during the summer and its resultant increasing tensions between Jews and Arabs, outbreaks of violence in Jerusalem, and the systematic exclusion of and increasing prejudice toward minorities – all these are indicators, which can no longer be overlooked, of a profound crisis in Israeli society and politics. As Chazan sees it, the elections offer a chance for change, because it is no longer possible to ignore the fundamental questions on the identity of Israeli politics.

Gershon Baskin, an influential political advisor and activist, also considers the outcome of the elections as essential for the country’s future. In his article, he delivers an impassioned plea for a different national policy. For him, the outcome of these elections will decide whether Israel can achieve a solution for the Middle East conflict in the foreseeable future, or whether it will be overcome by a wave of sanctions and suffer international isolation. He views the two-state solution of the conflict as a central issue to Israel’s survival, which must be prioritized above all other problems. In his view, the upcoming elections will enable a clear choice in favor of – or against – a peace treaty.

Central question for Israel’s future

Even though this is what most international observers would wish, it unfortunately does not seem that peace is actually an issue in these elections. Rather, two completely different, critical issues are emerging.

Of primary and central importance is the question that caused Netanyahu’s last government to come to grief – a question that was reflected in the conflict over the so-called “Nation State Bill.” The bill, introduced by the governing Likud party and the Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett and intended to codify the Jewish nature of Israel in law had the effect of splitting Israel into two camps.

In practical terms, the central question for Israel’s future at this time is probably whether the country is to define itself in national-religious terms and to make a final choice in favor of a policy centered on the accelerated settlement of the West Bank as the official policy of the national government, or alternatively adhere to the original definition of Israel as a pluralistic Jewish and democratic state.

Another important issue is the increasing concern over further international isolation. This concern is clearly borne out by a number of recent surveys. One example is the poll conducted in December 2014 by Dahlia Scheindlin on behalf of +972 Magazine, that showed that three-quarters of all Jewish citizens (and rather fewer Arab citizens) in all political camps are concerned by the crisis in relations with the US and with the European Union, and fear Israel’s further international isolation. Most commentators also agree that voting Netanyahu out of office would seem to be a prerequisite for a policy change on these points.

Chances for a change

The first decisive step has been taken by two leading players from Israel’s center-left political spectrum: Isaac Herzog, the chair of the venerable Labor Party, and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. In a surprise move, Herzog united with Livni in a new electoral alliance by the name of the “Zionist Camp.” In choosing this appellation, they expressed their belief that these elections constitute a choice of direction for Israel’s future.

In the latest polls, this alliance has achieved significant increases and has shown a slight lead over the Likud – meaning that the Zionist Camp may have a chance of being asked by the president to form the next government. Following the declaration by Meretz that the party would be inclined to form a government with the Herzog-Livni alliance, the centrist-leftist spectrum, for the first time in years, has established a kind of common agenda for the coming elections, and thereby a realistic chance of voting out the rightist- bloc.

Ultimately, however, the success of the new alliance in the upcoming elections depends on whether Herzog and Livni can win over the necessary votes from the center of Israeli society, and not just compete with Meretz for the left.

The list of Labor Party candidates, with its high proportion of women and young faces, certainly appears attractive to leftists and young voters at first glance; for the central mainstream, however, its appeal is not at all certain. In this regard, the drafting of Manuel Trajtenberg, a professor of economics made famous by the Social Reform Commission to which he was appointed by Netanyahu in the autumn of 2011, is an interesting step. Nonetheless, the question of whether socio-political subjects will also be decisive in these elections is not yet clear.

In any event, the Zionist Camp and Meretz will have to forge alliances with other parties in order to gain the necessary majority for forming a government. In this context, it will be interesting to see how the Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beitenu parties – as well as the new Kulanu (“All of Us”) party, recently founded by former Likud party member Moshe Kahlon – position themselves. All three parties have made an apparently conscious choice to wait before deciding with whom they will eventually prefer to form a coalition – the right, or the center-left.

Netanyahu is now encountering some competition from the newcomer in this campaign – Moshe Kahlon, a former minister in the Likud government. His Kulanu party has established itself as a “bridge party” between the leftist and rightist camps. It has also clearly declared itself in favor of a two-state solution. Still, it is not certain whether Kahlon, in the end, would not be willing to help the rightists achieve a majority.

And what is happening with Liebermann, the “surprise number” of Israel politics? His Yisrael Beitenu party has gotten so bogged down in corruption scandals that it is not clear whether it can rescue itself from that morass.

More influence for the Arab Joint List

However, even before the campaign, Liebermann was a vocal proponent of a highly unconventional proposal for the solution of the conflict – one that recalls the old Soviet era: a population transfer aimed at resettling Israeli Arabs in Palestine and bringing the settlers back into Israel proper. What has especially evoked criticism on the part of Israeli Arab voters is the fact that this openly racist approach has not given rise to protests by any of Israel’s other parties.

During the Gaza war and certainly thereafter, rightists expressed increasing doubt as to the loyalty to Israel of Arab Knesset Members. In answer to this exclusionary and delegitimizing approach no less than as a reaction to the raising of the threshold for representation, the four Arab and Arab-Jewish parties represented in the Knesset – Balad, Hadash, United Arab List and Taal – now run as one common list.

They will have for the first time a chance to influence much more policies and the shaping of a center-leftist government – a role that, in past years (excluding the last government), was played normally by the ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas. Those parties, however, motivated by their own internal conflicts, sidelined themselves at the very beginning of the campaign – thus reducing even further Netanyahu’s chances of enlisting them as partners in a coalition.

Even though the outcome of the March elections remains entirely uncertain, and that rightists obviously still have quite a good chance of forming the next government again, this election is turning out decidedly different from those in recent memory: the center-left of Israel’s political spectrum, in its campaign against “Bibi” and for a Zionist-democratic Israel, has found a convincing common denominator. This gives Israel, for the first time in years, a chance for real political change.