Continuing our series of election reports, the following is a pre-election report on the January 22, 2013 Israeli parliamentary elections from political scientist Reuven Y. Hazan of Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, headed by the Likud party, was sworn in on 31 March 2009, following the 10 February elections. The 18th Knesset, Israel’s parliament, was comprised of a dozen parties (exactly the same as the previous Knesset). Surprisingly, Likud did not win the largest number of seats; it came in second closely after Kadima, which won one more seat. However, Likud was able to form a majority coalition government with five other parties: Likud (27); Israel Our Home (15); Labour (13); Shas (11), United Torah Judaism (5); and The Jewish Home (3), for a total of 74 of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament.
The numerous coalition partners were quite generously rewarded in the formation of the Netanyahu government, which was one of the largest cabinets in Israel’s history. Between ministers and deputy ministers, almost one-third of the legislature held executive positions. This is a main reason why the coalition government survived almost four full years.
There were only two changes in the coalition during its tenure. The first change involved the Labour party. Since the establishment of the government, there were internal conflicts within the Labour party between those who supported joining the coalition and those who opposed it. In January 2011, the Labour party officially split, when its leader (Ehud Barak, the Minister of Defense) left with four of the party’s 13 MPs to form the Independence Party. The remaining eight Labour MPs left the coalition, reducing the coalition’s majority from 74 to 66 of 120 MPs, and joined the opposition. Although the numerical majority was reduced, the coalition was stabile because it still had a comfortable majority, and it became more cohesive due to the departure of those who were at odds with it.
The second change came in May 2012. On 8 May the government decided to dissolve the parliament and hold early elections on 4 September. The vote passed its first reading with 109 of 120 votes. However, overnight, as the elections bill was making its way through the legislative process, Netanyahu negotiated Kadima’s entrance into the coalition and halted the vote on early elections. The next day Kadima joined the government, raising its majority to 94 of 120 seats. The main force behind this merger was the ability of Likud and Kadima, the two largest parties, to jointly propose a new law on the drafting of ultra-religious men into Israel’s compulsory military service (they had been exempt until then due to a law that had just recently been thrown out by the Supreme Court). A committee was established to draft the legislation, but due to opposition from the ultra-religious elements in the coalition Netanyahu withdrew his support from the committee. Kadima announced that if the committee’s findings were not adopted, it would withdraw from the coalition, which it did on 18 July, only 70 days after having joined. The coalition survived for several more months, until discussion on the budget began.
The political attention of Israelis, usually dominated by security concerns, has turned toward economic problems during the last few years, due to an increase in the price of everything from basic commodities to real estate. In the summer of 2011, protests began to pop up across the country, culminating in mass rallies with hundreds of thousands of protestors. This led pundits to argue that the dominance of security in Israeli elections might be challenged by socio-economic factors in the next campaign. By the same token, as the world slipped deeper into a global recession, the Israeli economy managed to remain quite stable. GDP increased slightly in 2009 and significantly in 2010 and 2011, inflation remained low and unemployment even decreased, but indicators of inequality continued to be among the highest in the Western world.
In September 2010, Israel became a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and was ranked the 24th largest economy in the world. However, by late 2012 it became clear that the government was facing a large and growing deficit that would force the 2013 budget to be cut dramatically. The composition of the coalition made this a difficult, if not impossible, task – which led Netanyahu to announce in early October that in order to avoid a brutal budget fight he was calling early elections. On 15 October the Knesset opened its winter session and passed a bill to dissolve and hold elections on 22 January 2013.
The campaign began almost immediately after the decision to dissolve the Knesset, with two important announcements of party mergers. In mid-October the Jewish Home and the National Union (the former a religious party and the latter the most hawkish party) decided to run together in the upcoming elections. One week later, Likud and Israel Our Home (an anti-clerical and rather hawkish party heavily supported by immigrants from the former Soviet Union), which are the second and third largest parties, announced that they would run together as Likud Our Home. Both mergers showed a movement toward the hawkish pole of the party spectrum.
The main political issue that distinguishes between Israeli parties is their position on the Arab-Israeli conflict in general and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in particular. This security issue, defined mainly in terms of the parties’ stands on negotiations based on a land-for-peace formula, defines Israeli ‘right-wing’ parties as more ‘hawkish’ and ‘left-wing’ parties as more ‘dovish’. Some of the right-wing parties are also more conservative on socio-economic affairs and other issues, especially religious affairs.
The merger between the Jewish Home and the National Union, which held 7 seats in the outgoing Knesset, appeared to be a success, with most polls showing their winning between 2 and 5 additional seats. The merger of Likud and Israel Our Home, which together held 42 seats, hardly ever reached this number in the polls, consistently sampling less.
Much attention was also given to the center, where Kadima had imploded and in some polls did not win even a single seat, and where new parties were created. Former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni established her own center party called The Movement. Popular talk show host and news anchor Yair Lapid formed another center party called There Is a Future. Together, both parties polled less than Kadima’s number of seats in the outgoing Knesset. The polls also showed a consistent increase for Labour, which went up approximately 50% from its 13 seats. No party, however, came close to the merged Likud Our Home, despite its lackluster showing.
The campaign came to an abrupt halt in mid-November 2012, when clashes erupted between Israel and Hamas, an internationally-recognized terrorist organization which refuses to accept Israel’s right to exist and took over control of the Gaza Strip in mid-2007. Operation Pillar of Strength lasted for a week, during which Israel bombed strategic targets in Gaza and Hamas shot rockets into Israel that forced warning sirens to be heard and people to seek shelter as far away as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (in Tel Aviv sirens had not been heard since the 1991 Gulf War, and in Jerusalem since the 1973 October War). The cease fire that ended the operation came exactly two months before the election, quickly kicking the campaign back into high gear.
In late November 2012, both Likud and Labour held party primaries to choose their lists of candidates. Kadima, due to its poor showing in the polls, cancelled its primaries and a delegate committee prepared the list. By early December all of the parties had to present their lists of candidates. Altogether, 34 lists of candidates were submitted, exactly the same number as in the 2009 elections.