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Reasons to be excited by the upcoming Israeli elections

Polls may indicate a comfortable win for Netanyahu in the upcoming Israeli elections but be ready for some surprises

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Will Netanyahu face an easy ride as expected?
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Richard Pater
On 18 October 2012 10:36

Though polls are widely predicting a comfortable win for incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there are many reasons to be excited about Israel’s upcoming election, the outcome of which is not quite as predictable as you might think. Here are some things to look forward to.

The Likud Primary

Scheduled for the end of November, Likud’s 27 members of the Knesset (MK) will be fighting over just 20 slots reserved for them in the party list (spaces after that are reserved for new candidates). Within the party is a tough battle between right wingers and centrists.

Furthest to the right is Moshe Feiglin’s Jewish Leadership faction. Last time round the Prime Minister used a legal loop hole to push him back to an unrealistic slot on the list and keep him out of the Knesset. It will be telling to see how prominently Feiglin and his allies feature. 

Similarly it will be worth noting where other prominent hawks like Danny Danon and Tzipi Hotoveli place on the list as opposed to the ‘Feinshmekers’ (the disparaging term Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman used to describe Dan Meridor, Micky Eitan, and Benny Begin for defending the parties more liberal tradition). If the more prominent the hawks finish high on the list it could be detrimental in appealing to middle Israel voters.

The Labour Primary

Due early December, this will be interesting for the opposite reasons. The current Labour faction is just eight seats, but they are polling in excess of double that figure, meaning there will be new names entering their list with every chance of entering the Knesset. 

Earlier this year party leader Shelly Yechimovich announced that Noam Shalit, father of the kidnapped soldier Gilad, will compete. Is this a risky gimmick? It remains to be seen if he is even an electoral asset. 

With Shelly as leader, the party has a strong social policy orientation and prominent voices of the campaign for social justice from last summer are also expected to join the list. But Labour has always historically included heavyweight security doves – men with impeachable security credentials that nevertheless endorse concessions for peace. 

To compete in the top league they will need more of those prominent voices on security and diplomatic issues. 

Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid (There is a future) party list

Amid great fanfare, the charismatic, photogenic former TV anchor Yair Lapid left prime time show earlier this year to establish a new political party.  He has an anti-politics agenda to change the system of government and promote investment in education and a more “equal distribution of the national burden” (read drafting the ultra-orthodox into the IDF). 

He is polling very well, but we do not yet know who is on his list. Part of his promise is not to include current politicians. If he succeeds in his aim to compile an impressive roster of high achievers from military, business, science, and education, then people will start to take his campaign seriously. 

Moshe Kaplinsky has been suggested by the media as the party’s number two.  As a General, a former IDF deputy Chief of Staff, and CEO of Better Place he seems to tick at least two of the boxes.  We expect Lapid to announce his top 25 names in the next week.          

The Olmert factor 

Will he or won’t he return? Olmert is considered by some as the great hope of the centre-left, and perhaps the only politician with the gravitas and connections to realistically rival Netanyahu as a contender for Prime Minister.  It appears current Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz would step aside if he Olmert decides to return. 

The problem for Olmert is his ongoing legal issues. He was recently found guilty of breach of trust and given a suspended prison sentence, and the state may yet appeal in other cases where he was found not guilty. He also faces a separate investigation into allegations of corruption in the Holyland property development.

Shas

The deeply religious Shas party was built to strengthen pride and honour among Sephadi, Mizrachi (Eastern) Jews. Intrigue has been surrounding the party whilst its spiritual leader, Rav Ovadia Yosef, a 92 year old scholar, has been deciding who will lead it into the elections. 

The party is currently led by Interior Minister Eli Yishai but former leader Aryeh Deri, who a decade ago served three years in prison for bribery, has been rehabilitated and wants his job back.

Deri is considered more dovish, is popular and charismatic, and has strong political connections across the spectrum. There are rumours that he will be the party’s leader but Yishai will have the more senior ministerial role in the next government.  It is ultimately up to the Rabbi and he needs to decide soon.

Netanyahu’s potential challenges

Sources in the Prime Minister’s office deny that the prospect of Olmert’s return was a factor in Netanyahu’s decision to go for early elections. But even if Bibi isn’t afraid of Olmert, there are three other scenarios that may concern the Prime Minister:

1. The re-emergence of the campaign for social justice, as seen in the summer of 2011.  This serves the political agenda of his rivals, notably Labour leader Shelly Yechimovich.  It could stir up political consciousness in the young and disengaged who would otherwise probably not vote. The news that the one socially orientated Likud Minister Moshe Kahlon will resign from politics, is a blow to the Prime Minister in this area.

2. President Obama emerging triumphant. If Obama wins he could seek payback against Netanyahu by involving himself in the campaign, as it is perceived Netanyahu has in support of Romney.

3. If drafting of the ultra-orthodox into the IDF emerges as a prominent campaign issue, this is another potential weakness, given that earlier this year the Prime Minister failed to endorse the new compromise legislation endorsed by the Kadima party.                             

All in all a three month election campaign that could yet spring some surprises.

Richard Pater is the Director of BICOM Israel

Read more on: Richard Pater, Eli Yishai, Moshe Kaplinsky, Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid, Israeli Labour Party, Shelly Yechimovich, Danny Danon, Moshe Feiglin, Israeli elections, Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud, Knesset, Avigdor Lieberman, Yair Lapid, Ehud Olmert, and BICOM
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