Israel goes to the polls tomorrow to elect a parliament for a new four-year term, and in doing so pass judgement on the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, in office for the last ten years.
While Israel is a small country, for a variety of reasons it occupies a large place in western consciousness. Its politics, despite its geographical location, have always followed a broadly European model; for some decades, power alternated in a reasonably regular fashion between Labor (centre-left) and Likud (centre-right).
Since the early years of this century, however, Israel has gone down the same sort of track as Hungary, which Italy and perhaps Britain now also seem to be following: what was previously a centre-right party has shifted to the far right, and has dragged the rest of the political system with it.
Netanyahu (against whom indictments are pending for fraud and bribery) has abandoned any pretence at mainstream politics and now governs as a far-right populist in the style of Viktor Orbán or Donald Trump. And his main rivals would no longer be recognised as on the “left” anywhere else in the democratic world; at best they can be described as centrist or centre-right.
Voting is by d’Hondt proportional representation across the country as a whole, with a 3.25% threshold. Parties can also enter “surplus agreements”, by which their excess votes are transferred to another party (a bit like group ticket preferences in Australia), but only if both of them have passed the threshold in their own right.
At the last election, in 2015, Likud and other far-right parties – the parties now running as Shas, United Torah Judaism, United Right, Yisrael Beiteinu and New Right, although at the time some of the names were different – won 48.9% of the vote and 57 of the 120 seats between them: just short of a majority, but strong enough to prevail against a divided opposition.
At the other end of the spectrum were the centre-left Meretz and the Joint List of Arab or non-Zionist parties (this year running as two tickets, Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad), who together had 14.5% and 18 seats.
In the middle were three broadly centrist tickets: Labor (running as Zionist Union) with 18.7% and 24 seats; Yesh Atid with 8.8% and 11 seats; and Kulanu with 7.5% and ten seats.
So it would have been theoretically possible for the centrist parties to form a broad coalition and govern with the support of the left. In practice that was never a realistic possibility; instead, Netanyahu drew Kulanu into his coalition (although Yisrael Beiteinu stayed out), giving him a narrow but workable majority.
Since then, Labor’s steady decline into irrelevance has continued; once the dominant party, it is now tracking below 10% in the opinion polls. In its place, the main threat to Netanyahu comes from the centre-right Blue & White ticket, which unites Yesh Atid with “Resilience”, the vehicle of newcomer Benny Gantz, a former chief-of-staff of the Israeli military.
There is also another new party, Zehut (“Identity”), which is a sort of Zionist libertarian party, whose main policy is legalisation of marijuana. It should probably be grouped with the centrist parties, although it may take votes that last time went to the left-wing Green Leaf party (which with 1.1% was well short of the threshold).
Despite the shuffling around of tickets, voter behavior in Israel is very stable. As I put it last time, “Party names come and go, but the basic options on offer change very little. Relatively few voters shift between them, and the electoral system faithfully reflects the resulting mix of preferences in all its confused glory.”
Averaging the last week’s worth of opinion polls suggests a gain of maybe around four seats for the centrist parties, taken equally from left and far right. But several parties, including Yisrael Beiteinu, Ra’am-Balad and Kulanu, are dangerously close to the threshold, and in a close election one of them missing out could make a big difference. Variations in turnout between Jewish and Arab voters are another major unknown.
Gantz has promised not to go into coalition with the Arab parties, so there is no prospect of a majority coalition that will radically depart from Netanyahu’s policies. Instead, Gantz hopes to do well enough to undermine the prime minister’s moral authority and take his job by detaching one or more parties from his coalition.
How much difference that would really make depends on where you locate the blame for Israel’s current predicament. If Netanyahu is the primary villain of the piece, then there is hope that a change at the top, even if at first it is more cosmetic than substantive, will in time lead to more realistic policies that will draw the country back towards the mainstream.
But if you think Netanyahu is just a symptom, and that the causes of Israel’s problems – and particularly of its dramatic shift rightwards – run much deeper, then incremental change seems less likely. In that case, a candidate who promises “business as usual” will in all probability deliver exactly that.
At some point, however, Israel needs to realise that business as usual is leading it to disaster. Gantz, with his boasts about bombing Gaza back to the stone age, seems an unlikely agent for that realisation. But stranger things have happened.