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Five things to watch for in Israeli election

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara address their supporters after the Iast elections on April 9. Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 photo)

Israel will be voting again on Sept. 17, barely six months after the last election. This new election was brought about by the failure of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a coalition government after the election in April. Will this election be any different, or will this election continue or exacerbate the political impasse that prevented a government from forming in the spring? Here are five things to watch for as the votes are counted for the next Knesset:

  • Will the parties on the right win a majority? The most important number in Israeli politics is not which party gets the most votes, or even if one party surprises pollsters with their success (or failure). The most important number is the  number of seats won by parties that explicitly support Netanyahu for re-election. These four parties, Netanyahu’s Likud, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism, collectively hope to win 61 or more seats. These right- and religious- parties fell one seat short in April, and failed to make a deal with another party that would give them a parliamentary majority. Polls indicate that these parties will come up even shorter, winning around 55 seats. A small shift on election day towards these four parties, though, could give them the majority they desire.
  • How many seats will Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, win? Yisrael Beiteinudraws much of its support from secular immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Their supporters tend to support issues like drafting ultra-Orthodox men into the Israeli army, public transit on the Sabbath, and liberal rules for businesses that would like to open on Saturdays. All of these issues are bitterly opposed by the parties that draw their support from the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, United Torah Judaism and Shas. The inability of Netanyahu to broker a compromise between secular Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-Orthox parties prevented Netanyahu from forming a government in the spring, when Yisrael Beiteinu won five seats. Now polls predict Yisrael Beiteinu will win 10 seats, emboldening Lieberman and increasing his demands in order for his support of a government. Lieberman has said that he desires a “national unity” coalition including the Likud and the centrist Blue & White, but not the religious parties. The fear of realizing that scenario, while unlikely as long as Netanyahu remains as leader of the Likud, may cause the religious parties to give in to some of Lieberman’s demands.
  • Would a coalition without the Likud even be possible? There are not many salient policy divisions between the Likud and their biggest rivals, Blue & White. The big differences between the two are that one party is led by Netanyahu and remains loyal to him, and the other party exists and draws support from voters motivated by an overarching desire to remove Netanyahu from office. Blue & White, along with two other parties on the left, Labor and the Democratic Union, hope to be able to form a left-centrist coalition government, perhaps with Yisrael Beiteinu. Polls consistently predict that a left-centrist government is only possible if the coalition also includes politicians from the Joint List of parties that draw their support primarily from Arab citizens of Israel. A coalition including the Arab parties has never formed in Israel’s history. Blue & White and Yisrael Beiteinu have publicly rejected the idea of going into a coalition with the Joint List. They could be bluffing, but we will not know until after the election. Election observers will also be adding together the votes of Blue & White, Labor, a smaller nationalist party, Yamina, and either the mandates of the two ultra-Orthodox parties or Yisrael Beitenu to see if a coalition could be formed without the Likud. Such a coalition may be unstable with too many policy differences, but leaders of Yamina and Labor have served together in governments before, and the desire to remove Netanyahu from power may motivate these disparate parties for at least a year or two. Current polls suggest that even this coalition scenario will fall a few seats short, but a small shift away from the Likud towards the other parties could at least elevate this scenario into the realm of the possible.
  • Will the far right win enough votes to win representation in the Knesset? A far right party, Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”), is running independently after running in an alliance with other right parties in April. To win a seat in the Knesset, parties must win at least 3.25 per cent of the vote (or about four seats). Almost all polls predict that Otzma Yehudit will not win enough votes, but if turnout is anemic, or the polls are slightly off, Otzma Yehudit could win four seats. This could give the right-religious parties allied with Netanyahu more than 61 mandates, but four seats for Otzma might also come at the expense of other right- and religious- parties, paradoxically making a centre- left government more likely.
  • How many Israelis will bother to vote? Which ones? This election campaign has been uneventful. Israelis appear to be fatigued by months of campaign posturing, and who can blame Israeli voters for being indifferent to election results that will leave their political divisions just as unresolved as they were six months ago. The appeal of a foreign trip or an uninterrupted visit to the beach may prove more enticing than voting obligations. However, with much of this list resting on the possibility of small shifts away from current polls for the likelihood of a right-religious coalition forming or an anti-Netanyahu coalition taking shape, turnout could be decisive. Will Netanyahu supporters be more motivated than Netanyahu opponents, knowing that if Netanyahu loses, he will face criminal charges for corruption and may never return to the prime minister’s residence? Have the hopes of Netanyahu’s leftist opponents faded? Many leftists who held their nose and voted for centrists in April may have lost their motivation when their efforts came up short, and the polls predict that this election will not bring about any better results. One possible exception to lethargy on the left, though, may be among Arab citizens of Israel. In April, turnout in the Arab sector was anemic after the Arab parties failed to coalesce and the Likud put cameras in Arab voting precincts ostensibly to deter voter fraud. Now the Arab parties are united, and the leader of the joint list, Ayman Odeh, is making noises about breaking tradition and joining the governing coalition, giving their voters an unprecedented voice in the policy-making process. A judge also banned the Likud and any other party from putting video cameras in voting precincts, ruling that such efforts would illegally intimidate voters. Odeh and his allies hope this will lead to more representation and more clout. The combination of these forces may lead to a Knesset with fewer centrist party votes, and more representation for extreme parties on the right and left.