In the past week three distinct elements have emerged that might impact on the Israeli elections on January 22. I say “might” because there is still some uncertainty about who the eventual players in the campaign will be, and because of the possibility that external events (war with Iran, a Palestinian uprising, the Syrian civil war, collapse of the Palestinian Authority, and so on) could alter the calculations of Israeli voters in ways we haven’t seen yet.
The first element is really a continuation of existing trends: according to polls, the “right” is still coming out stronger than the “left” (though as I’ve argued these aren’t necessarily helpful groupings). That is, the rightwing bloc (composed of secular and religious parties) is still doing better than the leftwing bloc (composed of Jewish parties and Arab parties).
Within this framework, though, surveys indicate that if the leftist Jewish parties can work together—particularly the main figures still thinking about whether to join the campaign—then a “super” left party could actually get more seats than Likud. Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, and Yair Lapid would have to form a single party. Olmert and Livni have worked together before, so that is possible. But Lapid has already said he wants to run on his own. And it’s not clear yet whether Olmert is able to run, since the State Attorney has announced it will appeal the acquittal in Olmert’s corruption cases. If that happens, it is doubtful Livni could muster as much appeal and support on her own.
The second interesting development is the return of Aryeh Deri to Shas, the haredi party he helped found. Deri had been convicted of bribery, but he is still very popular and considered to be very, very smart; his return is a boon to Shas. The problem is that while he was gone, management of the party fell to Eli Yishai. An agreement seems to have been reached in which the two share power with Ariel Atias.
It’s good for Shas to present a united front—and polls show the party gaining seats now with Deri at its head. But because the final decision on who will lead the party has been put off until after the election, the party could well undermine its win by infighting.
The other interesting implication of Deri’s return is that he’s considered to be more dovish on policy toward the peace process, and more willing to consider withdrawal from the West Bank. Yishai is more hawkish, and closer to the nationalist right on the issue of settlements and the West Bank. Notwithstanding the question of ultimate authority in the party, Deri’s position there—he was given responsibility for coalition negotiations—puts Shas’ support for a left or right government in play. It is, of course, contingent on the leftwing parties getting their own act together, and it’s not clear Shas’ traditionalist and Sephardi constituencies would tolerate it, but new possibilities are now opened up.
Finally, it looks like that the smaller far right parties are consolidating—for now, anyway. National Union (more secular) and Jewish Home (more religious Zionist) have signed a deal to merge (again). A single party will allow the two to pool their resources and votes, and make it stronger in the Knesset, while fewer parties on the right will make it easier for Likud to construct a stable coalition government. Still, the history of far right parties in Israel has been one of fragmentation rather than unity, and this most recent deal is being challenged by members from both parties.
It remains to be seen whether these trends will hold or change. Stay tuned.