Israel faces an unidentified governing mandate, and more defined problems with fewer policy alternatives and solutions.
Over the past two decades, some of the most significant political debates in the run- up to Israel’s national elections have been characterized by stark policy differences between major political parties on overarching challenges facing the country. However, unlike in the past, the narrowing of political agendas and goals among Israel’s major factions have made the prospects of a large and stable coalition government all the more elusive for 2013 and beyond.
Whether considering Yitzhak Rabin’s attempt in 1992 to shift Israel’s national priorities towards a more sustained political engagement with the Palestinians; Ehud Barak’s promise to disengage the Israel Defense Forces from Southern Lebanon in 1999; Ariel Sharon’s push in 2001 for a more confrontational approach towards the Palestinians; or Ehud Olmert’s 2006 support for a push back on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the results of each of these elections left Israeli prime ministers and their respective coalitions with a palatable governing mandate to implement their preferences. The reason for this condition was based on the fact that when presented with an election over a clear policy issue and multiple positions on how to handle a specific security or economic threat, the Israeli electorate was able to send clear signals to the country’s political elites.
Despite this track record, a close examination of the campaign rhetoric and advertisements during this election cycle shows not one but many national conversations. On the left, under the leadership of Shelly Yachimovich, the Labor Party is betting its political fortunes on a social justice agenda ranging from the promotion of more affordable housing and anti-trust pressure to control prices on consumer goods, to more equitable societal welfare.
One could also witness the emergence of new parties. Former journalist Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party (There is a future) promotes universal conscription for all Israelis; Naftali Bennett, the new leader of the religious nationalist Jewish Home Party, proposed a plan to annex Area C of the West Bank which would integrate 60% of the territory into Israel; and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni founded the Hatnua (The Movement) party which seeks to restart negotiations with the Palestinians. All of these actors have entrenched themselves in positions that allow voters to flock to the party that champions the issue of utmost importance to them, rather than being given a real choice as to the means of addressing these issues. On each of these issues, Israelis are being offered one solution by one particular party for each of Israel’s societal problems, rather than a multiplicity of choice on policy.
A Clear Prime Minister, With an Unclear Mandate
The question over who will be asked to assemble Israel’s next coalition government is obvious. However, the maneuvering room in which Netanyahu will have to operate remains enticingly unknown. If the forecasts of Israel’s leading election polls are accurate, Netanyahu would likely be able to hold between 60-70 MK Seats within his camp. The question is whether or not the preconditions for joining his government would be sufficient for strange bed fellows of different political parties with opposing ideological bends to cooperate with one another.
Given the morphing of Israeli parties competing in this campaign into more single-issue and mutually exclusive ideological factions, it is quite probable that Netanyahu will remain unable to form a large coalition. Therefore, the emergence of a national unity government, a coalition that would include the parties with the largest number of seats in the Knesset following the election, is unlikely.
Ironically, the weaker each party’s sense of receiving an electoral mandate, the less viable a coalescence into a functioning government will be. Therefore, as the election remains void of an overarching issue that will define its results, why has Netanyahu, who has spent much of his last term stirring the national conversation over the existential threat of Iran and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, not shown a willingness to steer these issues through the campaign vetting process?
When considering Netanyahu’s campaign mantra this year, “A Strong Prime Minister, A Strong Israel”, perhaps the slogan has a ring of truth. A strong prime minister is a strong government in theory, but not necessarily the most desirable or representative.
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