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Exciting Israeli Election – January 8, 2012

We are just two weeks away from national elections in Israel and it is, indeed, a unique election campaign.  Not so much because the parties have changed their strategies or because the campaign slogans are surprising, but because, for the first time in decades, the outcome of the elections is a foregone conclusion.  Everyone, even his most vocal critics, assumes that Binyamin Netanyahu will be the next prime minister.  There is a solid majority in support of the right-wing bloc of parties in all public opinion polls and this support has been consistent and stable throughout this past term.  In addition, an overwhelming majority of Israelis believe that Netanyahu is the man most suited for the position of prime minister among all the other political figures in Israel today.

Another interesting statistic from recent opinion polls shows that although a small majority of the nation remains in favor of a two-state solution, a larger majority are against any current withdrawals from territory because they don’t view Abbas as a credible peace partner.  This has also been a fairly consistent result in polls over the past few years.  Ever since the withdrawal from Gaza and the subsequent rise to power of Hamas with their ongoing attacks against Israel, the nation understands that further withdrawals will not bring peace, at least not at this point in time.

What remains of great interest, however, in this election campaign, is the new political figures that have emerged on the scene, the new smaller parties that have been formed,  and the dynamic that has been created by these new developments.

Zippy Livni had been the head of the Kadima party and in the last election she garnered the largest number of seats of any party in the Knesset.  But because she was unable to form a coalition, as a result of the larger number of seats in the right-wing and religious bloc of parties, she did not become prime minister.  As head of the opposition, she never failed to voice her criticism against Netanyahu but for the most part, she seemed driven by personal bitterness at having lost the election and was consistently unable to create an issue that would unite the opposition against the government. Finally, in primaries held in the Kadima party for party head over a year ago, Livni was defeated by rival Shaul Mofaz.  Rather than continue as a loyal party member, Livni resigned from the Knesset and for months, flirted with the idea of joining another party or starting her own.  When it became clear that no other party was interested in having her in a leadership position, she created her own party, just days before the final deadline for declaring for this election.  Although discredited by many for her self-serving political behavior, she is still commanding some 10 seats in recent polls.

Another new party in this election is Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (there is a future.)  Lapid is the son of the late Tommy Lapid, a provocative but popular television commentator turned politician and his son Yair has followed in his father’s footsteps.  He is an author and political commentator, was a popular television personality, and has now entered politics and has created his own party.  While his own political tendencies are left-leaning, he has included personalities in his party from a broad spectrum of opinions, such that it is difficult to evaluate exactly what positions this party holds.  But this party, too, is attracting votes and is showing about 10 seats in recent polls.

Given the presence of both Zippy Livni and Yair Lapid, the Kadima party has shrunk to almost nothing and it is highly unlikely that this party will get into the Knesset at all.

The Labor Party, traditionally the largest party on the left but having shrunk to single digit proportions in the last election, is again rising and will probably be the 2nd or third largest party in the Knesset.  Its new leader, Sheli Yechimowitz is decidedly left-wing, especially on economic issues, but in recognition of the right-ward move of the Israel population on security issues, she has refrained from making the issue of Judea and Samaria or other volatile security issues her main campaign issue, focusing instead on economic issues.

The Likud recently merged its Knesset list with Yisrael Beteinu, a right-wing party headed by Avigdor Lieberman and considered very close to Likud political and economic positions.  While this merger was expected to strengthen the party, in fact, recent polls show this party shrinking steadily, although still clearly the largest part in the Knesset.  Reasons for this decline focus on two issues.  Lieberman, under investigation for a series of corruption-related crimes was recently indicted and is expected to face trial shortly.  As a result, he resigned from his position as Israel’s foreign minister, but is still listed as number 2 on the Likud Beteinu combined list.  It is unclear whether Lieberman will, indeed, hold a ministerial position before his case is determined at trial but his very position in the party leadership has lost the party votes by those who are, justifiably, repulsed by the thought of an indicted man standing for elections.

The second reason for the decline in Likud Beteinu popularity brings us to the most exciting part of the current campaign:  Naftali Bennett and the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party, formerly the National Religious Party.  This party is older than the State of Israel and represents the interests of the Religious Zionist population in Israel.  Unlike their ultra-Orthodox counterparts, the Religious Zionists are full partners in the State, serving in the military, studying at universities and participating in the full gamut of professions and creative opportunities in Israel.  For years, the party was lead by drab bureaucrats who were unable to attract large numbers of voters.  But Naftali Bennett is something totally new and amazingly refreshing.  A major in the IDF reserves, Bennett served in the most elite of IDF commando units, then founded a start-up company which he sold for millions.  After having become a wealthy man at a very young age, he turned his attention to public service and for nearly a decade has served in volunteer or low- paying positions that contributed greatly to Israel.  He was chief of staff of Netanyahu’s office when Netanyahu was head of the opposition and then left to become the head of the Yesha Council, advocating for the communities in Judea and Samaria.  And he is only 42!

Since taking over the leadership of the Bayit Yehudi party, Bennett has skyrocketed in the polls.  Most pollsters predict that his will be the 3rd largest party in the Knesset.  Beyond the fresh face and the young approach that his party represents, though, what these polls indicate is that a large number of secular voters are voting for this party as well.  And, indeed, Bennett has been courting these votes in an approach that is unique even as it is critical to the future of our country.  Bennett is turning to secular voters who are increasingly interested in deepening the Jewish character of the state and in returning to traditional themes and values.  He is urging them to vote for his party so that all Jewish children in Israel will receive a Jewish education, an education rich in Bible and Jewish values.  He represents traditional Zionist values and a love for the Land of Israel. And for the first time in decades, the religious Zionist party may well be more powerful than Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party which opposes the draft for ultra-Orthodox young men.

So while this next election is in a sense a foregone conclusion as to who the prime minister will be, the election results may well create important changes in government policy regarding the issues that are closest to the religious Zionist public.  Increased building in Judea and Samaria, a richer Jewish education in the public schools and a return of religious Zionist influence in the religious institutions of the State are all issues that may be affected by this next election.

In just two weeks, we will go to the polls and in the days that follow, we will know more.  Whatever the result, it is going to be an interesting ride!


Sondra Baras