The Unlikely Winners of Israel’s Election

No one can confidently predict the outcome of tomorrow’s Israeli election. It will undoubtedly be a close contest between Likud and the Zionist Camp for the most seats in the Knesset. In any case, which of the two will lead the next government and who will be the next prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu or Yitzhak Herzog, will not be determined at the polls, but in the inevitable inter-party negotiations and deal-making that follows it.

Netanyahu, a seasoned expert in such coalition building, is still the most likely candidate to form the next government and become prime minister. Despite a lack of popular support and a widespread desire for change at the top, Netanyahu is a savvy politician who has often been able to outmaneuver his rivals. More importantly, it will probably be much easier for him to put together a governing coalition than it will be for Herzog. Not only is the right-wing bloc—composed of Likud, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party—likely to have more Knesset seats than the center-left bloc of the Zionist Camp and Meretz, but also the ultra-Orthodox parties (United Torah Judaism, Shas, and its new offshoot Yahad) are more inclined to sit in a rightwing government than a center-left one, partly because many of their voters hold rightwing, hawkish views on the Palestinian issue. A narrow coalition of rightwing and religious parties, probably joined by the new center-right Kulanu party led by the former Likud member Moshe Kahlon, is therefore a more likely outcome than a left-of-center government. Many analysts, however, believe that a broad national unity government, including both Likud and the Zionist Camp, is the most likely outcome of the election, even though most Israelis are decidedly unenthusiastic about this.

Sadly, this does not bode well for the already dim prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Those people, both inside and outside Israel, desperately hoping (with more desperation than hope) that the next Israeli government will be more serious and determined about pursuing a peace agreement with the Palestinians, are likely to be disappointed, yet again. Even if the Zionist Camp wins the most seats and Herzog is somehow able to cobble together a coalition, he will have to rely upon the support of parties whose leaders are much less willing to make major concessions to the Palestinians, particularly concerning the future of Jerusalem.

But although the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace is unlikely to be significantly advanced by the results of this election, another cause—no less important to Israel’s future—could well receive a major boost. This is the cause of Jewish-Arab coexistence and cooperation in Israel. Since the late 1990s, and especially since the notorious events of October 2000 when Israeli police killed 12 Arab citizens of Israel during large-scale, and sometimes violent, protests, Arab-Jewish relations in Israel have been dangerously deteriorating. The Palestinian-Arab minority, 20 percent of Israel’s citizens, has become increasingly alienated from the Israeli state and from Israeli Jews. After suffering from decades of discrimination and government neglect, and after having recently endured racist attacks (both verbal and physical), rightwing Zionist agitation against them (led by Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu colleagues), and parliamentary legislation targeting them, many, if not most, of Israel’s Arab citizens now firmly believe that they will always be ‘second-class’ citizens in a Jewish state.

This election could challenge that demoralizing and pernicious belief and help convince Arabs that they can in fact be fully equal citizens, and that Israel can really be a Jewish and democratic state. If the Joint List, a union of three Arab parties and the Arab-Jewish Hadash party, succeeds in winning thirteen or fourteen seats (as the polls suggest it might) it could be the third largest party in the next Knesset. While it is unlikely to join the government—there is an informal rule against including Arab parties in Israeli government coalitions—the Joint List could become Israel’s main opposition party, a status that confers many practical and symbolic benefits. For example, its leader, Ayman Odeh, would meet with visiting foreign dignitaries, receive official government briefings, and get to address the Knesset after every speech by the prime minister.

The potential electoral success of the Joint List, and the political influence and prestige it would enjoy as a result of this, could turn out to be a game changer in Israeli politics. It could emerge not only as the unified and representative voice of the Arab minority, one that Israeli and foreign leaders and the Israeli-Jewish public would have to pay attention to, but also as a future government coalition partner. Above all, its success would send a powerful and much–needed message to the Arab minority that voting in Israeli elections is not a sham or a waste of time, as many Arab citizens have come to believe it is (which is why Arab voter turnout has declined in previous elections). This would encourage future Arab political participation and strengthen Israeli democracy.

Whether the Zionist Camp or Likud lead the next Israeli government, therefore, perhaps the biggest winner of the election will be the Joint List, and its most significant outcome may be in the often ignored, but deeply troubled, relationship between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.

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About Dov Waxman

Dov Waxman is Professor of Political Science, International Affairs, and Israel Studies at Northeastern University and the co-director of its Middle East Center. He received his Ph.D. and M.A. from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, and his B.A. from Oxford University. He has previously taught at the City University of New York, Bowdoin College, and the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. He has been a visiting fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, the Avraham Harman Institute for Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and St. John’s College at Oxford University. He is the author of "The Pursuit of Peace and the Crisis of Israeli Identity: Defending / Defining the Nation" (2006), and the co-author of "Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within" (2011).

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