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Elections in Israel: will anything change?

Israel will hold elections today, 22 January 2013, and the country has been preparing for it over the last weeks (some maliciously mutter the 8 day war with Gaza was just a campaign act for the incumbent Government), after an early vote was called, mainly because of an increased worrying budget deficit and the consequent inability to push through delicate budget cuts in the style of the ones that two years ago triggered what some called an "Israeli Spring".

Public opinion surveys indicate that PM Benyamin Netanyahu's center-right Likud Party, running in a join list (scarily dubbed "Biberman" or the right wing Big Bang) with a secularist ultra nationalist party called Yisrael Beitenu ("Israel, our home") headed by the controversial former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, are likely to win enough votes to form a new Government, but opinion polls have also shown recently that the creation of such an extremist block may however scare off voters in the center, thus entailing gains by center-left and far-right orthodox parties that could have quite an effect on the political landscape in the offing. Moreover, 15% approximately of voters remain undecided. Could a late shift affect the outcome of the elections? Therefore, the question is not who will win, but by how much and notably which partners will finally make up an almost for-sure far-right hawkish coalition government. No major party has been able to obtain an absolute majority in the history of Israel, and all have been thus forced to form broad coalitions. These elections will not be an exception, but the kingmakers will certainly be far-right extremist religious parties. Gone are the years of a Labor-dominated Government, gone are the optimist days that followed the Oslo accords and made the world believe peace was possible.

As many as 34 parties have fielded candidates for the 120 seats in Jerusalem-based the Knesset, although less than half are expected to receive the minimum percent of the total vote needed to qualify for a seat in the Israeli Parliament. All parties have focused primarily on social and economic issues, blatantly circumventing or even ignoring any kind of talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, undoubtedly THE hot potato in Israeli politics. The alternative to a Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu winning alliance would have been a centrist coalition that believes not in the creation/recognition of a Palestinian state, but in the separation of Jews and Palestinians, granting a certain extent of autonomy to the latter, in order to secure Jewish privilege in the majority of historic Palestine. Conversely, the opposition failed to unite behind a single candidate, or even agree on an agenda. The far-right block, however, believes it is possible to hold on to more territory, completely controlling Palestinian territory - or, in some cases, expelling its inhabitants outright. Nevertheless, it does not really matter: at the end of the day, all governments, including leftist ones, have built settlements.

Nonetheless, the election manifestos of all parties do not need to reflect their stances on the issue: it all depends on right-leaning or left-leaning tendency. As it happens with US politics, right and left cannot be assimilated with their equivalents in Europe: while right has to do mainly with the idea that peace with the Palestinians will never come true and that efforts should thus focus on protecting the population without altering the status quo, left has to do with defending a less hawkish stance towards peace talks, even condemning the building of settlements but not acknowledging, most of the time, the need for the granting of additional basic rights both to Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. And, also contrary to what usually happens in Europe, most Israeli voters, even if they cannot be really defined as religious, are still heavily influenced by religion. Broadly speaking, the Israeli electorate is divided into two main groups: the predominant group votes center right (partly because the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews voters continues to grow for demographic reasons), while the number of people who vote left decreases year after year. The Israeli society is a very fragmented one in which different blocks are entrenched in their positions and vote for leaders who tend to exclusively defend their interests and privileges.

Netanyahu, with the alleged intention of both depending less on the extremist right wing parties (obtaining a freer rein to set policy and define his legacy) and averting chronic instability of past coalition governments in the country during the next legislature, has broken links with a traditional ally of Likud (together with other extremist nationalist parties), a religious nationalist party called Jewish Home (led by the rising new star of Israeli politics, Naftali Bennett), which opposes the establishment of any kind of Palestinian state, has been gaining ground in recent polls. Two newcomers are also becoming more appealing to large swathes of population: the "Movement Party" and the "There is a future Party" are rumored to be courting Netanyahu's coalition with an eye to the next Government. The latter is however showing reluctant to entering into an alliance with parties that could somewhat favor the resumption of peace-talks, thus alienating settlers and extremists.

Sadly, the leftist Kadima Party, historically headed by former PM Ehud Olmert (who some believe may resurrect as a political figure after the vote, after being acquitted of several charges of corruption), hope of many in the West and in power just before Netanyahu's legislature, has splintered and will probably win only a handful of seats. In spite of this poor performance and according to various polls, a less rightist center bloc will maintain almost the exact same number of seats, thanks to Labor, Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah and TV star Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid. Last but not least, a much expected lower voter turnout amongst disheartened Israeli Arabs (as the Economist cleverly analyzes here) could push the votes for largely Palestinian Arab parties down.

Overall, the center is shifting a little leftwards and the right is lurching toward its radical extremes. No wonder why nearly nobody has been following the campaign and almost no one cares about the results. They should, for the problems Israel will face are not going anywhere. Nor are the Palestinians.


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