A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Thoughts on Israel's Election Day

I haven't been writing about the Israeli elections, and in fact coverage in the Western media has been relatively light. The reason is that few can conjure up a scenario under which anyone other than Bibi Netanyahu will form the next government. But in fact the prospects are that these elections will be among the most transformative in the history of the state. The government formed four years ago was widely described at the time as the most right-wing in Israeli history. Unless the polls and prognosticators are dramatically wrong, dovish Israelis may look back on that government wistfully.

Four years ago I had just begun this blog, and my coverage of the elections was one of my first major themes. Given the tenor of the government which emerged, it is easy to forget that the party that won the most Knesset seats in 2009 was the centrist Kadima, led by Tzipi Livni. She could not form a  coalition so Likud did instead, joined by the hard-right Yisrael Beitenu of Avigdor Lieberman, and Labor under Ehud Barak as a moderating force.

Today, Kadima, now led by Shaul Mofaz, is polling in the single digits, while Livni now heads a rival party, Hatnuah, further splitting the left and center, also splintered due to Yair Lapid's new Yesh Atid Party. Labor, from which Barak split, is fighting the election from the left, but more on social than on peace issues. (Barak, who had split with Labor to start his own party, is now retiring from politics.) Likud, though it has combined with Yisrael Beitenu as Likud Beitenu, is running a bit behind previous performance, but much of the drainage seems to be to the right, to the Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) Party. A right-wing religious party that was in the current coalition, it has a new leader, Naftali Bennett, a hardliner ho rejects the peace process, favors annexing most of the West Bank, and does not even particular pay lip service to negotiating with Palestinians. (As this leftist commentator notes, at least you know where he really stands.)

Wh8le the traditional opposition Labor Party has been somewhat revived under the leadership of Shelly Yachimovich, she has also positioned it to run on economic and social issues, rather than peace. For genuine advocates of the peace process one must look to the leftist parties, the traditional Meretz and a new Arab-Jewish Party called Da'm, which is led by an Israeli Arab woman,  Asma Aghbarieh-Zahalka. Several of my dovish Israeli acquaintances are excited by her, but of course she has no chance in the present Israeli political environment. (But if the two-state solution really does collapse, one can imagine some scenarios down the line where such a party might play a real role.)

The fact is that even Likud's own leadership is to the right of where it was; the moderate wing of the party was mostly swept away in the primaries. So once (barring huge surprises) Netanyahu starts to form a government the issue will be whether he goes exclusively to the hard right and religious parties for a coalition, or whether he tries to include the centrists. His own party is likely to be pressuring him in the former direction.

The debate over whether there is still a future for a two-state solution may be riding on these elections, and the auguries are not good. More as the returns come in.

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