Monday, March 9, 2015

Three Things To Watch In Israel's Elections Next Week

Israel's election campaign is in its final stretch. The Zionist Union, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Bayit HaYehudi all held campaign events over the past few days, and political rhetoric in Israel has reached a fever pitch. While the outcome of the elections is uncertain, there are three important factors of which analysts of next Tuesday's election should be aware.

First, the election is a referendum on Prime Minister Netanyahu. An anti-Netanyahu rally this weekend in Tel Aviv only served to prove the point that the choice in this election is "to Bibi or not to Bibi." Netanyahu has taken criticism for slow changes to Israel's social welfare programs and last week's speech to Congress. Yet no other candidate has established him or herself as a candidate for Prime Minister of his or her own accord. If Netanyahu loses the election, it will be because the Israeli public voted against him, and not for someone else. Given the most recent polls and Netanyahu's political expertise, however, such a loss would be surprising.

Second, centrist parties are unpredictable but important. Knesset Jeremy's latest Poll of Polls has the technocratic Kulanu party polling around 2 seats in the Knesset, with Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party polling around 20. However, Yesh Atid's success in 2013 was a major surprise, and it's possible that one or both of these centrist parties could do well. It's also possible, however, that Kulanu and Yesh Atid could divide the centrist vote, leaving medium-size parties like HaBayit HaYehudi in an even stronger position. Either outcome has important implications for coalition formation. While the two parties have not driven the narrative during the campaign season, they could be significant and are worth tracking.

Finally, a unity government is possible and should be taken seriously. The Zionist Camp has been polling roughly evenly with Likud. It's unlikely to beat Likud at the polls, but even if it were chosen to form the government, it would be hard for Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog to find a coalition partner on the left. This difficulty would make a unity government potentially attractive. If Likud is chosen to form the government (the more likely scenario), negotiations might play out such that aligning with the Zionist Camp is a better deal than aligning with Yisrael Beiteinu, HaBayit HaYehudi, or the religious parties. It would cut Naftali Bennet, a challenger to Netanyahu in the long term, out of the coalition and could make it easier for the Prime Minister to balance the power of far right-wing members of his own Likud party. These scenarios aren't likely per se, but they are a possibility that analysts should evaluate once the results of elections are in.

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