Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Israel Calls Elections, What Next?

Elections for the Israeli Knesset will be held September 4, 2012. The current Knesset is expected to dissolve itself next week, opening the door for the formation of a new government.  Both developments are omens of a long summer campaign ahead.


The elections will open the door for new key players in the Israeli political system.  Yair Lapid and his new centrist Yesh Atid party are expected to gain a number of seats as the former Israeli talk show host enters the political sphere for the first time.  Shelly Yachimovitch and the Labor Party which she now leads are also expected to make gains.  Yachimovitch may attain a cabinet position in the new government if she choses to join, or be Leader of the Opposition if she does not.  Finally, Shaul Mofaz, who recently replaced Tzipi Livni as head of the centrist Kadima party, also will have a spoiler role to play in the post-election bargaining.  Kadima is not expected to do well on its own, but may play a key role in determining the ideological character of the new coalition.


Israeli elections will also have important implications for the future of US-Israel relations.  They will be held two months and two days before the U.S. presidential elections November 6.  PM Netanyahu called the elections strategically to consolidate his mandate, and is thus expected to do well.  A newly emboldened Israeli Prime Minister may have important implications for relations with either a new Republican president, or a second Obama administration.   


In either scenario, drastic changes are unlikely.  A Republican president will support Israeli settlement building to the extent that years of State Department policy to the contrary permit.  


A second Obama term, however, is unlikely to bring the kind of sea changes some on the left may be hoping for with regards to Israel.  Obama has little incentive to pick a fight with a newly emboldened Prime Minister that he may not win.  Additionally, while President Obama may not be beholden to elections in a 2nd term, prominent members of his party will be.  Republicans could easily use an anti-Netanyahu stance Obama takes to wedge between progressive and moderate Democrats in the House and Senate.


At the same time, analysts should be also careful to take polls suggesting Netanyahu will win as a snapshot of attitudes now, not a projection of attitudes come September.  Between now and then, major developments on Iran, tension over the illegal Migron settlement, social protests, Egyptian elections, continued pro-Palestinian activism, and pressure from the international community all remain challenges facing the Prime Minister.  PM Netanyahu has chosen elections as the least risky strategy, but not necessarily as a risk-free strategy.  That a new round of elections are set to take place does not free the Prime Minister from the delicate balancing act he must play between the far right parties, mainstream Israelis, international community, and the United States.  


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