It was a busy week in Israel - for me, for our family and for the country. Purim was on Wednesday night and Thursday. That always brings with it lots of festivities in Israel - parties, parades, carnivals, mishloach manot (gift baskets) and shul. Just preparing for Wednesday night was busy for our family, as we (three of us) read 4 of the 10 chapters of the Megillah at our shul. Add to that - a wonderful fundraising evening of Jazz on Tuesday night that we were invited to attend (to raise money to build a well in Sudan) and a bar mitzvah celebration on Thursday night of some close friends - and things were quite busy and tiring.
Today marked the start of another week here in Israel. Since Sunday is a normal work day, that meant back to the army for the oldest, back to school for our younger two. It also meant that there is just over a week until Israel's next national election.
So after watching "Matzav Ha-Umah" - the "State of the Nation" - Israel's equivalent of Saturday Night Live - which featured Naftali Bennett this episode - I thought I would try to put together a few comments about the upcoming elections in Israel.
Of course it seems that these elections have arrived so soon after the previous national elections which were held in 2013. If you would like a few refreshers, here is a link to my 2013 Israel Elections Preview. Here is my link to a summary of the results of the last election.
However, there have also been a few changes since 2013 in the various parties and the coalitions and possible coalitions between the various candidates. I thought I would highlight a few:
1. The Zionist Union
The Labour party and "Hatnuah," a party led by Tsipi Livni, joined forces in December 2014 to campaign together as the "Zionist Union." This centre-left coalition is now the main opposition to Prime Minister Netanyahu's Likud party. Some polls have put the two parties neck and neck at anywhere between 23 and 26 seats each out of the 120 seats in Israel's Knesset. As of today, it seems too close to call which party will wind up with a plurality of seats.
According to Israeli political convention, the party that wins the plurality of seats is supposed to be asked by the President of the country to form a coalition government by putting together a bloc of at least 61 Knesset members. It seems unclear to me at this point how the Zionist Union could cobble together enough support to get past 61, even if the party wins more seats than Likud in the election. But if they do come out ahead, they would most likely earn the right to try.
2. Likud/ Yisrael Beitenu
In the 2013 election, Likud campaigned jointly with Avigdor Lieberman's party, Yisrael Beitenu. The two parties obtained 31 seats, jointly. This time around, they are running separately. However, most polls I have seen have put Likud at between 23 and 26 seats. They have also put Lieberman at anywhere from 5 to 8. While Lieberman could surprise people and join a government led by the Zionist Union, it is probably more likely that he would put aside any personal differences he might have with Likud and join a Likud coalition once again. The overall impact is that the combination of Likud and Yisrael Beitenu is still likely to be in the range of 28-32 seats.
3. Yesh Atid/ Kulanu
The surprise winner of the 2013 election was certainly the Yesh Atid party which won 19 seats and claimed some key cabinet posts including ministries of finance and education. At this point, polls have put Lapid's party at anywhere from 11 to 14 seats. Where are these votes going? The most logical answer is that they going to another centrist party - the new "Kulanu" party, led by Moshe Kahlon, which has been focusing on economic and cost of living issues. There is probably still time for both parties to go up or down. The polling results are likely to fluctuate. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Lapid will lose a number of seats and that Kahlon will win at least 5 or 6. Either Lapid or Kahlon - or both them - could wind up in a government led by Likud or a government led by the Zionist Union. They may well be the power brokers in the next election, which could be a very good thing for the Israeli centre.
4. Bayit Hayehudi
This right wing national religious party, led by start up mogul Naftali Bennett is currently polling at approximately 11-12 seats. The party held 12 after the last elections. My sense is that there is some momentum for the party and that it could wind up with a few additional seats - perhaps 15 or 16 - which would be seats that would come at the expense of Likud or Yisrael Beitenu votes. On TV earlier this evening, Bennett reiterated that his party would not give up "one centimetre" of land in exchange for a peace deal and that its proposal to the Palestinians would be "peace for peace" rather than "land for peace." Bennett could not join a government with the Zionist Union so he would either bolster a Likud coalition or he would sit in opposition. Sounds to me like a recipe for an early war but maybe he figures that deterrence prevents war. Doesn't seem to me that Israel's history, to this point, supports that viewpoint completely.
5. Arab Parties
In previous Knesset elections, there were three Arab parties. They are now all running together as a "United Arab List" which could claim 12 or 13 seats. It may well be that this party, ironically, would bolster a Zionist Union government as part of some type of express, official deal, or as part of some sort of unofficial deal. There may even be a chance that the joint party would come to terms with the Zionist Union to become part of the government though that seems unlikely at this point. In any case, this voting bloc is likely to hold a reasonable amount of power and may be able to generate some positive changes for its supporters.
6. Shas/ Yachad
Shas is the ultra-religious eastern (Mizrachi) religious party. In 2013, it won 11 seats. It has historically been part of Israeli governments and has usually been able to wrangle significant concessions for its voting bloc. It did not join the government for this past session, for which it blames Yesh Atid, the party viewed as public enemy #1 by Shas and its supporters. While in the political wilderness, Shas fractured. A splinter party, led by Eli Yishai was formed called, ironically enough, Yachad ("together"). Between Shas and Yachad, the two parties are polling at a total of 11 to 13 seats. They would be strong candidates to join a Likud led coalition. They would try to insist that Lapid remain outside of the government. They could probably live with Kahlon's party, Kulanu.
In reviewing the Likud math (the math that Netanyahu would hope for - or that he could live with) - that would mean - (all estimates), 25 likud, 7 Yisrael Beitenu, 12 Bayit Hayehudi, 12 Shas, 4 Yachad, 6 UTJ (Ultra-religious Ashkenazi party). That all adds up to 66 before Kahlon's votes. So Netanyahu would still have room to court offers from Yisrael Beitenu, Yachad and/or UTJ to form the government. Only Lieberman, Shas and Yachad would be real threats to leave and join the Zionist Union. With this math at a minimum, Netanyahu would be in the driver's seat and would have the upper hand in forming a government. He could well see higher numbers for his party or for some of the other parties listed above.
On the other hand, with enough of a monetary offer, both Shas and Yachad could also join a Zionist Union government. Let's look at that math (the math that Herzog would hope for - or could live with). Zionist Union (27), Meretz (6), Shas/Yachad (16), Kahlon (8)....I'm only getting to 57. Add in UTJ (6) and you have a razor thin government. If Lapid won 13 seats and replaced Shas/Yachad - I'm not sure that would get the coalition to 60. Even if this type of government was formed - which combined the Zionist Union with three different ultra-religious parties, it is likely this would be a very unpalatable government for quite a large number of Israelis. It could also add in 12-15 Arab seats but that might make it even more unpopular among the Israeli centre.
It seems to me that in order to form a government, the Zionist Union will either need a joint "national unity" government with Likud - or it will require some very surprising results (i.e. a big swing to the left by the Israeli electorate). Neither seem incredibly likely at this point. While there is certainly a move in some circles to create a change of leadership and elect a new Prime Minister in Israel, there is also significant support for some right wing parties including Habayit Hayehudi. There is also some level of lack of confidence in Isaac Herzog ("Boujee") who has been painted in the media as weak and indecisive.
All in all, it is difficult to predict what might occur. Although there is a possibility of some type of national unity government led by Likud and the Zionist Union, that seems to be the only real possibility of governmental improvement in Israel in my view. The alternatives of a right wing coalition (i.e. replacing yesh Atid with the ultra-religious parties) or an unholy alliance between the left and the ultra-religious parties (possibly with support from the Arab parties) both look like grim options to me.
But 8 days can be a long time in Israeli political life so we will stay tuned and wait to see what happens. Hopefully, a high percentage of Israelis will make it to the polls and will participate in this important election.