Israel goes back to the polls

We noted a week ago that Spain seems to be heading towards a second general election for the year, with its parties failing to construct a government from the results of the first one. But at the other end of the Mediterranean, Israel is ahead of it: it returns to the polls tomorrow, five months after the last election, for a second attempt.

As I explained in my preview of the April election, Israeli politics has been distinctive in the last twenty years for the shift of its formerly centre-right party – Likud, led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu – to the far right, dragging the rest of the political system with it. (A similar thing has happened in Hungary, to the applause of Netanyahu and others such as our own Tony Abbott.)

So in April, parties that could be classified as far right, or at least co-operating with it, won 55.4% of the vote between them. The six of them that cleared the 3.25% threshold won a total of 65 seats – 35 of them to Likud – in the parliament, or Knesset, of 120.

Opposing them were five other parties: the centre-right alliance Blue & White, also with 35 seats (but marginally fewer votes than Likud); the centrist Labor Party with six seats; Meretz (centre-left) with four; and two non-Zionist tickets, Hadash–Ta’al with six and United Arab List–Balad with four.

Despite their overall majority, the various components of the far right (like the left in Spain) failed to work together. The main problem was the incompatibility between the secular Yisrael Beiteinu (five seats), which was intent on extending military conscription to the ultra-Orthodox, and the two religious parties (16 seats total), which were equally intent on not doing so.

Needing both for a majority, and determined not to let Blue & White have a try instead, Netanyahu opted for a fresh election. The far right were all able to agree on that, as did the non-Zionist parties, and it was approved by a parliamentary vote of 74-45.

In the intervening period, the parties have re-arranged themselves a little, as is normal in Israel. Kulanu, which won 3.5% and four seats in April, has merged itself into Likud. The two non-Zionist groups have united (as they did in 2015) in a single ticket, called the Joint List. Labor is running together with Gesher, a centrist party that managed just 1.7% last time, while Meretz’s ticket is now called Democratic Union. And the United Right (3.7% and five seats in April) is now called Yamina; it has absorbed the New Right, which just fell short of the threshold last time, but shed its most extreme component, Otzma Yehudit, which is running separately.

None of these changes alter the basic dynamic. Likud and Blue & White will fight out top spot, each with around a quarter of the vote. The rest will be a long way back, although exactly which of them manage to clear the threshold could be important.

The opinion polls have failed to detect any major shift in voter sentiment. The far right will again command a majority of the vote, but the division that plagued it earlier in the year has not gone away – Yisrael Beiteinu if anything seems to have benefited from its stance.

Netanyahu, not surprisingly, has doubled down on racism and Jewish nationalism. His leading new promise is the annexation of the occupied Jordan valley, which feeds the prejudices of both far-right voters and the Trump administration. But it is unlikely to actually happen; the status quo is working too well for the nationalists for it to be worth unnecessarily disturbing it.

Blue & White still awkwardly straddles the divide between a genuinely centrist position and a watered-down version of Likud’s extremism. And the three tickets to its left – Labor-Gesher, Democratic Union and the Joint List – are on track to record less than 20% of the vote between them: a slight improvement, but still a sad remnant of what used to be a vibrant (if confused) Israeli centre-left.

The primary division between Likud and Blue & White is not over policy but over the person of Netanyahu. If he were to leave the scene, it’s easy to imagine them forming a coalition that would lock out most of the smaller parties. Conversely, Netanyahu’s main priority is not any specific agenda but rather his survival in the face of pending corruption charges.

Under Netanyahu, a significant shift has taken place: the two-state solution as a path to Middle East peace, which previous governments paid lip service to, has become impossible. But that shift has failed, so far, to produce any electoral resonance – its consequences still lie in the indistinct future.

There’s no reason to change my verdict from April:

[Blue & White leader Benny] 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.

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