Israelis Head to the Polls
On January 22, citizens of Israel, the only true democracy in the Middle East, will head to the polls to elect the 19th Knesset (Assembly). Much is at stake in this election, with the Middle East embroiled in unrest – worst of all, the slaughter in Syria (now spilling into Lebanon and perilously close to Israel’s Golan Heights) and the Iranian nuclear threat – and with the Palestinian Authority taking unilateral steps to gain international recognition of statehood.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – known affectionately as Bibi – called the elections eight months ahead of schedule, citing Israel’s need to elect the next government “as quickly as possible” so as to pass a 2013 budget and avoid “damage [to] Israel’s economy.” Yet, most observers believe the Prime Minister is hoping to take advantage of his soaring popularity in public opinion polls, with one recent poll finding that 80% of Israelis predict he will be reelected (though as President Shimon Peres once chirped, “opinion polls are like perfumes – you can smell them but you shouldn’t drink them.”)
The Knesset has been rather unstable since Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz left Netanyahu’s governing coalition on July 18 over disagreements with a proposed law to require ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis to complete national military service. This month’s resignation of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman over allegations of fraud and breach of trust also muddies the picture and suggests that while Netanyahu’s win is “in the bag,” the makeup of the next coalition government is less certain.
The Israeli elections will occur just two months after Operation Pillar of Defense, in which Israel launched surgical strikes against Hamas terrorist leaders operating out of the Gaza Strip in order to severely impair their ability to launch rockets into Israeli territory. The weeklong operation ended on November 21 with a ceasefire announced by Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Mohamed Kamel Amr and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
With tumult and change sweeping the Middle East in the post-Arab Spring era, Israelis have much to mull over as they stroll to the polls this coming January. In a region fraught with ambiguities and uncertainties, Netanyahu and his agenda of stability and security are dominating the polls, even as key opponents like Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich are restoring emphasis on domestic issues like social security and cost of living – issues underlying the social justice “tent protests” of the past few years. Still, Netanyahu’s re-election is just about guaranteed. As the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper put it last week, it’s “Game Over.”
Yet Bibi’s second term in office – which began in 2009, after he previously led the government from 1996-1999 – has not been an easy one for Israelis. He has distanced the Jewish state from its closest ally, the United States, through his spats with President Barack Obama over Israeli expansion in the West Bank and differing views on the how to handle the Iranian nuclear threat, and for meddling into the 2012 Israeli elections by – as many observers viewed it – backing Mitt Romney for the White House.
Closer to home, during Bibi’s premiership the gap between Israel’s rich and poor has increased dramatically, sparking waves of protests over the increasing cost of living and deteriorating public and social services. Not to mention an African refugee crisis that most Israelis say is being wholly mismanaged, leading to violence and disarray in parts of Tel Aviv. Of course, there’s also the matter of the lack of progress towards a Two State solution as a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, yet this does not seem to be an “election issue” for most Israelis.
So why is Netanyahu guaranteed his late Chanukah present of a third term in the Knesset? Why is it “Game Over”?
After the Operation
Netanyahu has already been elected to the top job twice, and both times he entered office following a wave of attacks against the Jewish state – first in 1996 and then in 2009, after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. This time, Israelis are still reeling from Operation Pillar of Defense. Although the operation advanced Israel’s strategic objectives in weakening Hamas and demonstrated the remarkable potential of Israel’s Iron Dome system to intercept rocket attacks, the week-long offensive saw the metropolis of Tel Aviv hit for the first time since the 1991 Gulf War. A bus was bombed by an Arab-Israeli in the bustling city, killing no one but injuring ten civilians. In addition, rockets were aimed at Jerusalem. My friends and colleagues in both cities were evidently shaken and surprised by the reach of the new generation of rockets.
Whereas the past decade of rocket attacks has mostly targeted southern Israel – indeed thousands of people have left the cities of Sderot, Ashdod and Ashkelon – Operation Pillar of Defense revealed that the entire country is vulnerable to attack by Iran-sponsored missiles launched from Hamas-led Gaza as well as Hezbollah-run Lebanon. Times like these call for nationalism and unity, as would be expected in any country – and Netanyahu’s security agenda now resonates with even more Israelis than before November’s Operation, including some secular citizens in Tel Aviv who have tended to lean left in recent years.
Spokesmen For the People
Netanyahu is the only contender Israelis know can represent – and advocate for – the Jewish state on an increasingly hostile international stage. Who but Bibi could stand before the United Nations General Assembly and present a giant, cartoonish diagram illustrating that Iran is approaching a “red line” in its nuclear enrichment program? Certainly neither Labor Party leader MK Shelly Yacimovich nor Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni have what it takes to be Israel’s chief voice on the Iran front. Furthermore, in a Middle East grappling with the broken promises of the Arab Spring – and with the crisis in Syria occurring just a stone’s throw away from Israel’s contested Golan Heights region – Israelis want a leader who will articulate the country’s security needs above all else. Nervous twitches over whether Assad will deploy chemical weapons, which may then fall into the unpredictable hands of radical Islamist elements, have upped the ante even further.
Peace and Economy Not Election Issues
To be sure, Prime Minister Netanyahu has failed to bring Israel closer to a peace agreement with the Palestinians, nor has he addressed the economic and social grievances of the protestors camped outside his official residence each day, demanding social justice, income equity, and lower cottage cheese prices. Moreover, this summer’s Netanyahu-Mofaz split shows Israel is far from resolving its fundamental disagreements over the duties of Israel’s growing ultra-Orthodox population. An impasse over the Tal Law, which would extend mandatory military service to Arab and Orthodox Jewish Israelis, shows no sign of ending.
Yet all these issues are taking a backseat in this election. Israeli adults – who grew up observing from within the fabled yet strangulated Israeli-Palestinian peace process – are deeply annoyed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ symbolic achievement of statehood recognition by the UN General Assembly last month. The Palestinian’s deliberate refusal to return to the negotiating table has brought out the worst in Israel, such as announcements of settlement expansion in the E-1 corridor between Ma’aleh Adumin and East Jerusalem, and the withholding of tax revenues from the Palestinian Authority. Israelis still believe – deep down – in a two-state solution, but the rhetoric of giving up “land for peace” is anything but resonant in this pre-election period.
The Israeli Left Vote Is Fragmented Beyond Coherence
Israel’s smattering of left-of-Netanyahu parties – including Labor, Kadima, and Meretz – is more fragmented than ever. Tzipi Livni, the former leader of Kadima who came close to beating Netanyahu in 2009 – founded the Hatnuah party earlier this year. By further splitting the vote, Haaretz described Livni as “enfeebling two of her sister parties on the center left to the point of oblivion” as they seek to draw on the same pool of voters.
Still Confused About the Israeli Elections?
So are many Israelis, to be sure. Here’s a chart to help you decide how you might cast your ballot on January 22.