By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
In a fragmented political system in which no party comes close to winning a majority, election campaigns are a combination of vicious attempts to win every vote while also avoiding crossing certain lines with even sworn political rivals — who, by the very nature of the system, are also potential coalition partners. This is not easy to pull off, and not necessarily conducive to in-depth debate on the issues of the day.
Two months before elections on April 9, opinion polls in Israel suggest a familiar pattern; an election campaign of negativity and cheap shots by the candidates at one another, devoid of debate on the issues that will determine the future of the country, followed by a fragmented 21st Knesset.
Israeli elections and their accompanying opinion polls always supply more questions than answers. It is mind boggling how an electorate, almost half (47 percent) of which indicates that it does not want Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu re-elected, is nonetheless still expressing its intention to vote for the party he leads or those who would most likely form a coalition government with him.
It is very much a case of sticking with the devil they know. Netanyahu’s method of spreading fear and division has managed to convince enough voters that he is the only person capable of successfully handling Israel’s economic, foreign and security policies, and because of this they are willing to ignore the fact that his main focus is on staying in power at any cost to avoid facing trial for unprecedented corruption.
This situation might change rapidly if Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit indicts Netanyahu and his wife before the elections. This is looking increasingly likely, notwithstanding the extraordinary attacks on Mandelblit and on the legal system by Netanyahu and his close allies, whose behavior suggests that the prime minister has a lot to hide.
An indictment would throw a spanner in Netanyahu’s attempts to stay in power. It would shake the entire political system, especially the Likud, and empower Netanyahu’s rivals both inside and outside that party. It would also undoubtedly cause some of his supporters to think twice about voting for a suspected criminal who would be spending much of his time in court instead of running a complex country.
On the other hand, an indictment would probably consolidate his base, which claims that the allegations against the Netanyahus are a conspiracy by the left and its supporters in the media to undermine the right, and possibly the Jewish state itself.
These claims might hold water if there were any evidence of the left making headway in the polls, or at least consolidating its position. To the contrary, all the evidence points to the opposite. Come April, the parties on the left, including the Labor party, which founded the state and led it for much of its existence, may well be marginalized. As tragic as the constant decline of the left in Israel is, the inescapable conclusion is that it has written its own death warrant by abandoning its principles and failing to form a leadership with vision and direction, or even a shred of charisma.
In the confused and fragmented political discourse in Israel, the term “left” refers mainly to a dovish and conciliatory approach to the Palestinian issue, and international affairs generally, rather than to any wish to reform the country’s economic structures and social-welfare system. Both the Labor and Meretz parties now chiefly represent the middle class, after decades of neglecting what should be their natural support base among the working class and the underprivileged. Moreover, this is a time when the country needs, more than ever, real alternatives to the discourse of “there is no Palestinian partner for peace” or “Palestinians understand only force,” and to an economy that enshrines an approach based on naked capitalism and survival of the fittest.
If anyone had high hopes for the newly formed Hosen L’Israel (Israel Resilience Party), led by Benny Gantz, they were bound to be disappointed. His ideas for peace revolve around separation from the Palestinians, not co-existence. The suggestion of peace and reconciliation has become taboo, associated with what is seen as a very small constituency of the naive and unaware.
It looks almost certain that the elections will produce a fragmented Knesset, with up to 14 parties. This will mean difficult-to-impossible negotiations to form a coalition, which may well be ridden with disunity from the outset.
In the meantime, during the lead-up to the election we may see realignments and alliances among parties aiming to maximize their voter appeal, but since such moves are motivated more by the wish to gain seats than by any genuine common vision or ideology, they may not last long.
One of the notable splits, and a self-defeating one at that, took place in the Joint List that brought together a number of Israeli-Palestinian parties. That alliance did well in the 2015 elections but its split is predicted to result in less representation for Israeli-Palestinians in the Knesset. This comes at a time when the Arab minority in Israel needs to fend off dangerous trends of discrimination, especially in light of the wretched Nation-State Law and what it represents.
However, the biggest question remains; can Netanyahu wave his toxic magic wand once more and hang on to his premiership? He is clearly determined to do so, even if it means poisoning the political discourse and leaving a divided, fragmented and directionless society. He continues to put the country second to his own interests, and to treat it as his personal fiefdom.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg